The events of May 2, 2012, won’t be forgotten in the NFL. A one-two punch of shocking developments — unrelated on the surface but perhaps with connective tissue beneath — highlighted the ongoing wrestling match in our love-hate relationship with NFL violence.
Commissioner Roger Goodell clearly is concerned with the perception of the league at the very least. He has been on a safety crusade for three years, since the NFL conceded publicly for the first time that concussions can have lasting consequences. That’s why he slapped Jonathan Vilma with a one-year suspension Wednesday for his role in “Bounty-gate,” even though there’s no evidence that the New Orleans Saints’ program resulted in injuries.
As we’ve all seen in the cases of many former players, Goodell is aware that damage can take years to surface. Wednesday’s suicide of former San Diego linebacker Junior Seau reminded us of Dave Duerson, a retired Chicago Bears star who took his life in similar fashion with a gunshot to the chest in February last year.
We don’t know why Seau shot himself there, but Duerson did so to leave his brain to science. Researchers discovered the same trauma-induced disease — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — found in more than 20 deceased players. Duerson’s family has filed one of the numerous concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL. Former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling was part of another case before he committed suicide in April.
Three suicides and a slew of lawsuits in the past 15 months can’t be ignored. Yet, that’s what many NFL players and fans want to do. They decry Goodell’s attempts to change the game through a series of rules and penalties aimed at enhanced safety. They complain that the NFL is en route to becoming flag football or touch football, with everyone in skirts and dresses.
Granted, contradictions are everywhere. The most violent blows often are “good, clean hits,” causing spectators to cringe involuntarily. Some fans respond with loud cheers, though one or more players possibly suffered a traumatic brain injury on the play.
I’m convinced that some penalty flags last season were a reflection on how bad a hit looked, as opposed to whether the hit was legal. Being blasted while running across the middle is a job requirement for receivers, though the visual can be disturbing. But players are conditioned to hit as hard as they can; “unnecessary roughness” can’t mean hitting harder than required.
At least the rules make wideouts a protected species at times, when they’re “defenseless.” I don’t understand why players racing downfield on kick or punt coverage aren’t offered similar consideration when they’re blindsided by crackback blocks.
A segment of players and fans advocate a laissez faire approach: Participants play the game willingly, fully aware and accepting of the inherent dangers. The same attitude exists in boxing, where the intent to inflict damage is more direct. Other endeavors such as auto racing and downhill skiing are full of risk, too, but only through accidents, not design.
So-called bounties might not affect a defensive player’s mindset at all. But the NFL can’t take the chance, which is why Goodell issued such harsh penalties. It’s all part of his effort to change the culture and Seau agreed.
“It has to happen,” he told Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter in March. “Those who are saying the game is changing for the worse, well, they don’t have a father who can’t remember his name because of the game. I’m pretty sure if everybody had to wake with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids’ name, not being able to function at a normal rate after football, they would understand that the game needs to change. If it doesn’t there are going to be more players, more great players, being affected by the things that we know of and aren’t changing. That’s not right.”
The problem for most of us is we want what’s right and we want our football, too.
Achieving both is increasingly difficult, especially after the events of May 2, 2012.