It’s a sports cliche that older athletes, no matter their era, love to tell younger players that their sport has gone soft. But with modern leagues scrambling to take collisions, crashes and hits out of games, today’s athletes increasingly find themselves agreeing with the old-timers.
From widespread criticism of the NFL’s uptick in roughing-the-passer calls to an NHL star’s surprisingly long suspension to MLB’s criticism of the so-called unwritten rules of baseball, leagues are struggling to strike the right balance between safety and competition.
Critics of the toughness of today’s sports see a clear generation gap.
“Guys coming out of college aren’t as callused up as they used to be,” Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters in July after two of his rookies missed time with soft-tissue injuries. “We used to practice twice a day in full pads.”
But it’s not just coaches frustrated with the kinder, gentler NFL — especially when it comes to the new rules that increasingly limit what defensive players can and can’t do while tackling a quarterback in 2018.
“The game wasn’t designed to play tag. The game was designed to hit people,” Redskins safety D.J. Swearinger said. “We put on pads to hit people. That’s how the game was made. You disrespect the game of football when you bring all these bull rules. You sign up for this game to be physical, not to play two-hand touch.”
And Swearinger was actually complaining about a roughing-the-passer call that benefitted his team.
Two weeks ago, Green Bay Packers linebacker Clay Matthews sacked Alex Smith on what seemed like a routine play. But instead, Matthews was given a 15-yard penalty for putting “all or part of” his body weight on the quarterback.
Matthews blasted the NFL for “getting soft.” Even Smith didn’t understand the penalty, saying he thought the linebacker was just playing football.
NFL defenders have to tow a careful line, but the quarterbacks themselves are often insisting the hits are OK.
“There’s a lot of them,” Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger told reporters last week. “I don’t want to criticize the officiating, especially when you’re talking about a penalty that helps the quarterback out. … I can’t imagine the fans at home are enjoying it too much.”
Roethlisberger touched on an interesting point. Could these types of calls lead to fans turning away from the NFL on Sundays? The league, after all, has had its ratings decline over the last two seasons, which experts say is for a variety of reasons.
So far, however, ratings are actually up one percent in total viewers and two percent from where the NFL was a year ago through the first month of the season, according to AdAge.
But the issue of the league’s direction remains a debate. NFL officials insist these rules are best for the safety of its players. The league, of course, has also faced lawsuits over concussions — agreeing to pay $1 billion to former players suffering from head trauma.
The NBA doesn’t have the same concerns about blows to the head as the NFL, but former and current players say the game, like football, is going in the wrong direction, with too many whistles and too little muscle in the paint.
“It’s a man’s sport. You got to be able to touch another player. That’s how the game goes,” said the Wizards’ Markieff Morris, lamenting the combined 83 fouls and 90 free throws in Monday’s preseason contest with the New York Knicks — a game in which the Wizards’ power forward was ejected.
“Just like football. They want to let the quarterbacks down, put a pillow under their head and call roughing the passer. It’s the same thing,” Morris said.
It’s normal for officials to call a tighter game before the season starts to emphasize new rules. This year, the NBA has made a point to emphasize an existing rule that prohibits the defender from using his hands to impede opposing players. This, in theory, will make it easier for players to run around screens and cut to the lane.
Hockey, a sport in which fistfights between players are considered routine, is not immune to safety debates either.
Tom Wilson, the Washington Capitals forward known for laying brutal, sometimes questionable hits on opponents, was slapped with a 20-game suspension by the NHL Department of Player Safety this week for a check to the head on an opponent in the preseason. It was the longest safety-related suspension in the league in four years.
The league said he made the opponent’s head the main point of contact, but Wilson’s Capitals teammates disagreed, saying the force of the hit went through Oskar Sundqvist’s shoulder.
“I think it is garbage, if I’m going to be honest,” Devante Smith-Pelly said. “We watched a video from the league saying what hits are good and what aren’t. They showed some hits way worse than that, maybe not in force, but in regards to the head that were so-called allowed, and I guess he just had a different rule book.”
Capitals players often have to answer for Wilson’s actions, and Smith-Pelly’s response echoed something T.J. Oshie said in May, when Washington lost Wilson for three playoff games for a similarly rough hit.
“The hits that are unnecessary are directly targeted, and you can tell they’re targeted, but I’m completely against taking away physicality from the game,” Oshie said. “Everyone talks about the game getting faster and stronger. Well, the hits are going to get faster and stronger.”
Major League Baseball has been trying for years to weed out some of the game’s most dangerous “unwritten rules” — like the one that says pitchers have to retaliate when teammates are hit by a pitch. Or the one that says hitters who admire their own home runs a little too much need to get drilled by a fastball the next time they come to the plate.
There are nuances to consider, said Atlanta Braves pitcher Brandon McCarthy, but throwing near — or even at — opposing batters, he told ESPN in 2016, is part of the game. If a teammate kept getting pitches inside, he said, “then I’m coming after you.”
“It’s like little carrier pigeons taking notes back and forth on who is going to get hit next,” McCarthy said. “But the line is blurred there, also, when it comes to retaliation. Is it instant retaliation? Do you do it now, or do you do it later?”
MLB has its regular, written rules, too, but even a sport as tradition-bound as baseball is changing with the times.
In Game 2 of the 2015 NLDS, a legal slide into second base by Chase Utley of the Los Angeles Dodgers that sent New York Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada head-over-heels into the air became the last straw for those who wanted to make the game safer.
Rule changes aimed at protecting middle infielders on slides were handed down the next year to effectively outlaw collisions at second base.
Baseball is becoming more cautious “likely due to the huge amounts of money involved,” baseball historian and Mid-Atlantic Sports Network host Phil Wood told The Washington Times.
“Fewer big insurance companies are willing to underwrite coverage for eight or nine figure deals, having been burned in the past,” Mr. Wood said. “Injuries, occasionally season- or career-ending, to star players exacerbate the situation. No one in the 21st century is going to spit tobacco juice into a spike wound, a la Honus Wagner” from the early 20th century.
• David Driver contributed to this report.