Sports Opinion & Analysis

The Illusion of Safety

In Media, NFL on December 4, 2012 at 1:01 pm

By Chris Carosi

Another week. Another critique on the NFL’s “toughness” by a veteran player. It can be difficult to prescribe the actions taken by players during the intensity of an NFL game, often confusing the common brutality of the sport for “fair play” and then judging something banal as especially brutal or (my favorite adjective) “unsportsmanlike”. And, not to be overshadowed, tragic deaths making the whole system itself seem banal.

The game is fast. Really fast. Dudes coached from birth wearing suits of armor come crashing into each other at full speed every forty seconds for one hour. Full-grown men leap high into the air for a leather elliptoid. From the comfort of our living room or standing on the sticky floors of bars across America (and the world), it’s easy (and really fun) to holler at the television and gamble and so on. That’s what sport is all about: entertainment.

This ‘Co-Eds Watching Football’ Ad is sponsored by Europe.

But in the NFL, the purity of that entertaining component is often undercut by the personalities of the players themselves. Hell, over half of ESPN’s “news” coverage is hearsay and commentary on the perceived personalities of players. And this is basically true for all the major sports. (Side note: my favorite players are usually ones that screw with this and still excel at their position: Bryant, Kobe)

So when a respected veteran like Ed Reed, future Hall-of-Fame safety for the Baltimore Ravens, says the league has double-standards or is making the game “powder puff” to heighten the offensive prowess, the points, and (presumably) the $$$$, one pays attention to it.  This isn’t the first time a respected defensive player has critiqued the league’s “double-standard”. Troy Polamalu said a few years back the NFL is a “pansy sport”, citing the changes to how defenders can hit the quarterback. Reed echoes that, and goes on to say:

“It’s become an offensive league. They want more points. They want the physical play out of it, kind of. They want [it] like powder puff to where you can just run around and score points ’cause that’s going to attract the fans. I understand you want to make money, but bending the rules and making the game different, you know, it’s only going to make the game worse.”

This is a fine and interesting line here. Reed contends that the NFL wants to make more money and “bend” the rules. And yes, it seems to be working i.e. if you touch the quarterback’s head or come down at the quarterback’s knee, your team is penalized and your opponent is awarded 15 yards and a new set of downs. New set of downs = another chance to score. Does this “worsen” the game though?

Cheater.

The league says this addresses the safety of the players, and have fined Reed accordingly for “repeat offenses” which apparently include hits to the head of defenseless players. As the physicality and sheer athleticism of defenders reaches it’s peak, the league is trying to pare down the violence of a violent sport while trying to increase the pop and pizzazz of dude’s scoring touchdowns and dancing around in the end zone. To illustrate the growth of the player itself, Ed Reed as a safety is 5’11” and 205 lbs. Jack Lambert, one of the best and hardest-hitting linebackers playing in the 1970’s, was 6′ 4” and 220 lbs. So yeah.

It’s strange that the NFL chooses to pander to douche bags and fantasy football “experts” who think that more points equals better football. I’m not saying a good game can’t be high-scoring, but to me (a football fan) it’s like trying to make cake that much better by increments. It’s cake! It’s good! No one hates cake!

A football cake?! My brain just exploded.

Desserts and dessert similes aside, what’s also interesting is that the point of criticism here is coming from Ed Reed. I mean, the dude is one of the most respected players in the league, hell one of the most respected ever. And his name is on a very short list of all-pro safeties that changed the position (along with names like Ronnie Lott and his contemporary Troy Polamalu). So, if there’s a fellow that knows what he’s talking about, who eats, sleeps, drinks, and poops the game of football, it’s Ed f****** Reed. But it’s largely a criticism that falls on deaf ears in a league so far beyond the control of the players that it’s blockbuster collective bargaining agreement does not give the players 50% of revenue. They even had to claw and scratch their way to eliminate two-a-day practices!

To echo what Jonathan was saying yesterday: when violence happens in this sport (in this country), it can be overshadowed or glossed over in an attempt to sell you something. Like Bob Costas ignoring the larger WAY more important thesis of the victims of a murder-suicide and preaching gun control. Like opening the door for quarterbacks to pad their stats while attempting to limit other great players like Ed Reed by reaching into his wallet when he hits a dude. It’s wild and weird that to improve the safety of the players for the greater good, one has to unionize and pay fines. In any other job, that would cause you great stress. In order for you to continue playing, you have to limit the way you play if you play defense like a bad-ass. This certainly changes the shape of the defensive game.

Will defenders get smaller? Will quarterbacks take more chances as a result? Already more and more quarterbacks like RG3 and Cam Newton are playing ball at the professional level. Even Andrew Luck can be seen as a new archetype of the pocket passer, one that runs frequently. Will defenders compensate and get longer, faster, and more agile? This is all long-term, but worth thinking about as a long-term fan in a constantly evolving sport.

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