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.