Just Let Them Play

In the sixth week of the current National Football League (NFL) season, the NFL fined three defensive players for making what the league determined to be illegal hits to the head and neck area. However, starting in the seventh week of the season, the league has given itself the power to suspend any offender in the future. This hasn’t happened before in the history of the NFL. Therefore, a common question professional players and avid fans like me asked following the announcement was simply, “Why now?” Dangerous and violent hits, including helmet-to-helmet ones, have always been a part of the NFL since its inception. This is partly what makes football exciting to watch. The league is stripping away the integrity of the sport by taking away the physical part of a physical sport.

Many players argued that stronger discipline for blatant dangerous hits should be addressed in the offseason with the NFL Players Association rather than unilaterally implemented by league officials mid-season (especially if that discipline includes suspending players). NFL commissioner Roger Goodell claimed that, “Further action is required to emphasize the importance of teaching safe and controlled techniques and of playing within the rules. It is incumbent on all of us to support the rules we have in place to protect players.”

Commissioner Goodell is correct in placing an emphasis on player safety. I would like to add that we should also be concerned about the long-term effects of mistreated concussions for the players later in their lives — but how are the defensive players supposed to play the game in a restricted manner when it goes against what they have been taught ever since they first learned the game? There is no room for blatant intentional helmet-to-helmet shots in football, and those offenders should be disciplined accordingly, but the league’s discipline expansion may fundamentally change the way the game is played.

My biggest worry for football is that when we turn on our television to watch football on Sunday, there will be defensive players who are scared away from making the right aggressive play because they are worried about a huge fine or a potential suspension.

I believe that many defensive players will be slowed down while their offensive counterparts will be given a noticeable advantage in light of the expanded discipline for illegal hits. If defenders believe that their best efforts to break up a play on the opposing team can, through matters beyond their control, have financial and competitive consequences, they will inevitably become more tentative – and the game itself will take a hit.

For example, when we watch football now, we should expect to see safeties and cornerbacks shy away from big-hit opportunities because they are worried about getting fined and suspended. In addition, we should expect to see more instances of defenders going low when they might have had a cleaner shot higher up. As a result, it would not be surprising for us to see more players whose ankles are going to be taken out and knees getting blown up. Most importantly, we shouldn’t be surprised if we see more missed tackles from defensive players.
We like to think that defensive players can be taught to avoid hits to the head and neck. But, realistically speaking, is that possible? The $1 million question has always been how much violence to allow in football. However, it shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to know that football is an intensely violent game played at high speeds with several moving parts and split-second instincts which make precision impossible under certain circumstances. Physical, tough football is what people are attracted to and like star Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis said, “[Players should] play the game like the game is supposed to be played, and whatever happens, happens.”

Kevin Phan is a fourth-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at phankt@uci.edu.