Monday, November 25, 2013

Earth to NFL: Time To Get Serious

Let's not kid ourselves here: football is dangerous, and the NFL brand is very dangerous.

But if the NFL really and truly wanted to make it less dangerous, it would get more serious about the rules surrounding headhunting.

Sure, the "targeting" rule gets enforced and 15-yard penalties and fines get handed out.

But all too often, the headhunter gets rewarded even though he's penalized. How's that?

Let's look at the second-quarter play in Oakland yesterday. Raiders tight end Mychal Rivera made a diving catch over the middle and as he went down, Titans safety Michael Griffin roared in and delivered the kind of hit that should be used to illustrate the textbook "targeting" foul: he led with the top of his helmet and drilled a defenseless Rivera in the head.

The blow knocked two things loose: River'a helmet and the ball.

The officials flagged Griffin for the foul, but ruled the pass incomplete. In other words, a 30-yard gain for the Raiders became a 15-yard gain on the penalty. Griffin stayed in the game, the Raiders stayed out of the end zone, and Tennessee went on to win. Not a bad deal, right?

The NCAA is taking some heat for its new anti-headhunting rule, which would have seen Griffin ejected on the spot. "Too harsh," some complain. Indeed, there have been some ejections that didn't hold up well when seen through the lens of replay.

But let me suggest that even the NCAA rule isn't enough. Here's my modest suggestion: when a defensive player commits this kind of foul, give the offense the yardage AND the penalty. It's ridiculous to allow a player to perform an act of mayhem and have his team benefit from it.

You might ask, "But how would the refs know if the player would have held onto the ball?" My answer: doesn't matter. Assume that he would have, give him the yardage, and march off the penalty from there. This would have turned that Raiders pass play into a 45-yard gain instead of the 15 they ended up with.

Same thing on turnovers. In the Broncos-Patriots game, Denver safety Duke Ihenacho earholed Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount. Blount fumbled and Denver recovered. In this case, the refs blew the call: Ihenacho should have been flagged but wasn't.  Again, because his team got to keep the ball, the bad guy wins. Under my new rule, the ball stays with the Patriots and the 15-yarder gets tacked on.  And Ihenacho watches the rest of the game from the locker room.

This head-injury thing isn't a joke.  Until the NFL stops treating it like one, things won't change.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Hits Keep Coming

America's two biggest professional sports are facing the same problem: they've become too violent.

It's a real quandary for the NFL, which has marketed its brand of sanctioned mayhem for many a year. Now, the league is trying to ease away from the madness a bit, imposing heavier fines on players who deliver blows to the head. The unintended consequence may be more injuries to the knees of players as tacklers aim lower.

Baseball's danger zone has been around home plate, where baserunners have been more and more willing to mow down catchers. The Buster Posey incident in 2011 forced a conversation about the practice of blasting into a defenseless catcher. Former catchers like Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny fueled that conversation, which gained volume when Tigers catcher Alex Avila was mowed down by Red Sox runner David Ross during this year's ALCS.

Baseball is moving forward with a rule that should drastically reduce these crashes at the plate. It's pretty simple, really. College and high school rules already tell the umpire to call a runner "out" if he smashes into the catcher, unless the catcher is holding the ball and blocking the plate--and even then, the runner must make an effort to touch the plate.

But catchers will still face an elevated risk of concussions from foul balls. Matheny retired young because of the repeated head injuries, and nobody has truly solved this problem.

Both the NFL and MLB (and, to be honest, the NHL as well) are reaping a bitter harvest of seeds planted long ago. In glorifying "action", these sports created an environment in which high-speed collisions and contact became ever-more-important parts of the game. Unfortunately, as players have gotten bigger, stronger and faster, the results of those collisions have become uglier, both in the short term and over the long haul.

The dilemma is this: can high-speed action sports be played more safely? Is it even possible to play football and hockey without accepting a frightening risk of head injuries? And as fans, would we accept changes to the sport that might increase the margin of safety for its players?

Would we still love football if defensive backs simply tackled receivers, rather than trying to "blow them up" and knock the ball loose? Would a hockey game without body checks be as satisfying?  And what will baseball fans and pundits think the first time a play at the plate results in a slide-and-tag, rather than a collision?

How we answer these questions may well decide the future of our pro sports scene--or at least the lives of those who play those sports.