During the quest to limit the brutality and violence of football, two warring sides have emerged as the league continues to introduce new rules designed to protect players and prevent major injuries. There are those who still live in the dark ages, a far off era when it was acceptable to see a player with his head buried in the turf. On the opposite end there are the liberal, overprotective league guardians who call for commercials showing violent hits to be edited.
The key word in that last sentence isn’t “violent.” It’s “liberal,” because the outcry over the NFL’s new rules regulating head hits is indeed politically based, with the methodology behind an individual’s thinking regarding their favourite sport governed by their beliefs about reform and progress. The NFL isn’t alone in this polarization, and since last fall we’ve seen another major North American sport (alright, “major” might be a stretch) fighting that same good fight.
Which leads us to something we never, ever rarely do on this blog. Let’s talk about hockey.
I become warm and fuzzy somewhere deep down inside whenever my two blogging homes intersect. The other piece of blogging real estate that I call home is theScore.com’s hockey blog Houses of the Hockey, which is where I unleash my inner hoser. There’s a little known fact that up here in Canada if you can’t skate by the age of four, you’re automatically banished to Denmark.
Anywho, earlier this week during Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final, Aaron Rome of the Vancouver Canucks delivered a late hit that ended with Boston’s Nathan Horton leaving the ice on a stretcher. Immediately, the hockey blogging community assumed their positions behind keyboards, spewing the same napalm that people who drink Budweiser and attend NASCAR races fired off after football’s debate following the James Harrison and Dunta Robinson hits last October.
Rome’s crime was his timing, not his delivery. He was nearly a full second late, which resulted in a four-game suspension, and Rome potentially missing out on every hockey players’ dream of doing a few laps around the rink with the Stanley Cup. Here’s Rome’s hit:
And here’s the debate: can the NFL now say that it’s becoming the second most violent North American sport?
At first, that notion seems ludicrous. Including the preseason there were 44 concussions in just the first six weeks of the NFL’s 2010 regular season, all with varying degrees of severity. The Week 6 hits by Harrison and Robinson were the pinnacle of the league’s mini-epidemic (can an epidemic be mini?), and that eventually led to definitive action. New rules were passed last month that provide maximum protection for defenseless receivers.
The key element in those new rules is a regulation preventing players from launching themselves to make a tackle and leading with their helmets. Players who have “not clearly become a runner” will also be protected and treated as defenseless players, which includes wide receivers in the process of making a catch, quarterbacks following a change in possession, and kickers or punters during a return.
While we clearly won’t be able to gauge the effectiveness of these rules until they’re implemented during live game action, the proactive measures by the NFL are a positive step, especially with concern for educating future generations mounting, and an increased concussion awareness that’s spread to other areas of football.
But despite all the alarming tales of impending pigskin doom we’ve seen percolating over the last year, and the scary images of Dave Duerson and his life that was shattered by head trauma, the NFL has actually put itself in a far better position than the NHL going forward.
Sure, there will always be those who don’t understand the concept of harnessed violence, a sort of oxymoron that does indeed exist. These poor blood-thirsty souls feel justified in their aim to rebel against the NFL destroying the sacred game they grew up with, a game where real men wore leather helmets, and played with broken bones. In reality, they’re rebelling against progress and evolution in its purest form.
The NFL won’t go the way of the NHL, a wayward league where despite the most genuine efforts by rulemakers over the past year to introduce measures like Rule 48, evolution hasn’t happened. It’s been stalled largely because of a resistance by players to modify their approach to hockey’s violent elements. Players like Horton and Marc Savard have been carted off the ice over the past two seasons, while the near nightly debate about the latest head shot rages on all winter.
This isn’t a matter of erasing violence, as the goal of both leagues has been to regain control that was lost. Whenever football is played again we’ll quickly see how well NFL players adjust to the league’s new rules. But they can’t do much worse than their stick-wielding counterparts. Although in fairness, the framework laid out by the NHL is flawed.
The NFL had the gumption to eliminate all hits on a defenseless player. Meanwhile, the wording of the NHL’s head shot legislation is vague at best, and misleading at worst. The ultimate solution is to entirely remove head shots, which requires eliminating the caveman element and blocking out those who idiotically scream “KEEP YOUR HEAD UP!”
Judge it for yourself. Here’s the wording of the aforementioned Rule 48, which was officially put into the NHL’s rulebook in October of 2010:
A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.
Seems simple enough, right?
Well, Rome was punished for the hit above, but it didn’t fall under the umbrella of Rule 48. Thankfully, the NHL’s disciplinarians had enough common sense to issue a punishment. But definitive language with a minimal gray area is still in its infancy. And while a whiff on the Rome hit would have been infuriating, it certainly wouldn’t have been shocking. Given how many other times the league has struck out in its attempts at punishment, glaring inconsistencies have developed, spawning the infamous Wheel of Justice, and leading to little confidence in future decisions.
There’s hope on the horizon for hockey, with changes possibly coming to Rule 48. For now though, there’s greater faith in player safety for a sport in which a physical confrontation on every play is mandated.