Tim Benz: NFL’s new helmet rule about owner safety, not player safety
When the NFL tells you that it is making rules changes in the name of player safety, don’t believe that message.
League executives aren’t changing rules to protect players. They are changing rules to protect the owners.
If the league really was trying to act in the best interest of the players, before making rules changes to allegedly protect them, don’t you think they’d consult … you know … those same players?
Apparently, that’s not happening.
By now you have probably heard that the NFL is strengthening rules against players who lower the head to initiate contact.
This week, as posted on NFL.com, the NFL passed Playing Rule Article 8.
“It is a foul if a player lowers his head to initiate and make contact with his helmet against an opponent. The player may be disqualified. Applies to any player anywhere on the field.”
One problem here. According to ProFootballTalk.com, the league never told the players this was happening.
“If you were surprised by the news that the NFL had broadly banned the lowering of the helmet to initiate contact, you’re not alone. The NFL Players Association didn’t know it was coming, either.
“Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the NFL’s Competition Committee told representatives from the NFLPA during meetings held in connection with the Scouting Combine only that the league ultimately wants to eject players for certain ‘egregious’ hits.”
Oh, it gets better. On Thursday morning, PFT also posted this doozy.
“PFT reached out to the NFL to see if we could get a look at some examples of plays that were legal before, but are now illegal under the new rule,” wrote Michael David Smith. “We were told that the league could not provide any video to give specific examples.
“The league needs to produce such a video. Until we see specific examples, we have no idea what this rule really means.”
Yeah. No kidding.
So, to be clear, the NFL is passing legislation to keep “players safe” without consulting the players on the nature of the safety needed or explanation of what illegal hits will look like.
But more galling is the utter lack of transparency by the league here. Ryan Shazier’s spine injury, among other scary instances this season, obviously heightened concerns on behalf of league owners and executives.
The NFL is still trying to surf through payout claims in the wake of its $1 billion concussion settlement. Based on numerous stories this week, instead of “surf through,” I should probably write “stall.”
The last thing the NFL needs is a future lawsuit from players claiming the league didn’t do enough to protect their necks and spines.
I know what you’re thinking: “Shouldn’t the players know what risks they’ve signed up for by playing football?”
Yeah. They should. But the courts seem to think the NFL has a bad track record of making those risks clear, so that’s why Roger Goodell and other league rulemakers are overcompensating by taking the vast measures that they are taking.
Make it look like they are taking extreme and public steps to best protect the players from significant injury.
Or, better said, to protect themselves from future litigation.
So why not talk to the players about how the rules should be written, then?
Let me hazard a guess. Perhaps it’s because some of the feedback they’d get from defensive players would sound something like this: “We’re already so paranoid about hitting players in the helmet, we are lowering our heads to avoid that. So now we are going to get penalized or ejected for lowering our heads, too? What are we supposed to do? Maybe we’d lower our heads less if minimal helmet-to-helmet contact was allowed so long as we weren’t launching or targeting.”
It’d be a fair response. If they were asked.
But never let logic get in the way of a good lawyer.
I’m going to paraphrase an off-the-record talk I had with a former Steelers tight end a few years ago. He had previously suffered both concussions and knee injuries: “They keep saying ‘player safety, player safety.’ But my head isn’t the only part of me that needs to stay safe.”
The player then went on to express the following fear: “These defensive guys are eventually going to figure it out and just take us out by the legs every week. A concussion, I can get over that in a week, maybe two. Another knee is going to cost me another year. ”
More valuable feedback, no?
But I guess no one sues over ACLs.
Maybe they should. At that point the league may finally acknowledge that it can’t take contact out of football.
If we want to keep playing football at all.
Tim Benz hosts the Steelers pregame show on WDVE and ESPN Pittsburgh. He is a regular host/contributor on KDKA-TV and 105.9 FM.