We’re still waiting for someone (anyone) to make a persuasive, passionate argument in support of the decision to move the kickoff point from the 30 to the 35. Meanwhile, a free agent who made his living covering kickoffs has made a persuasive, passionate argument against the change — and generally against the league’s efforts to make an inherently risky sport less so.
Former Titans safety Donnie Nickey, who currently is unemployed, thinks he’s unemployed in part because of the new kickoff rule. And he thinks other men will lose their jobs because of it.
“In today’s economy industries need to be creating jobs,” Nickey told Jim Wyatt of the Tennessean via e-mail. “In the NFL, the new kickoff rule is eliminating jobs. The kickoff may as well be eliminated all together. For eight years I made my living covering kickoffs and I took pride in it. The kickoff may be the most violent play in all of sports but is one of the most exciting and game changing plays as well.”
Nickey acknowledges that he has a vested interest in the new rule, but his points are still valid, despite the fact that roster spots are a zero-sum game, and that the change in the rule will actually create other jobs. “The first sign of the kickoff’s extinction was the elimination of the four man wedge,” Nickey said. “That eliminated the need for a wedgebuster, which is how I earned my job. I think the NFL is destroying the true game of football and the physicality that America has grown to love. For someone who has never played the game to make so many changes unchecked is criminal. Paul Brown is rolling over in his grave because of all the changes made in the name of ‘player safety.’”
The core of Nickey’s concern relates to the ongoing effort to protect men who don’t want to be protected. “People go to NASCAR races to see wrecks,” Nickey said. “People go to football games to see long touchdowns and devastating hits. It’s an injustice to the game and the men who have made their living covering kickoffs and sacrificing their bodies to have their jobs made obsolete.”
That’s really the heart of the debate, as it relates to helmet-to-helmet hits or the kickoff return or any other longstanding aspect of the game that the league currently is (or eventually will be) trying to minimize or eliminate. We’ve yet to see an NFL player retire due to fear of the possible long-term consequences of concussions or other injuries. Now that the risks are fully known by everyone, why not let the men who play the game assume those risks, if they want?
Humans take risks all the time, for far less money than what pro (and some college) athletes earn. Whether it’s because of that aspect of human nature that allows young men to assume nothing bad will ever happen to them or that permits them to not care, they want to play the game. We don’t stop them from driving motorcycles or riding bulls or jumping out of planes or signing up for the military or climbing large rocks or taking a small boat down a raging river or hiking in places where large bears and other predators hang out or doing countless other things that could get them injured or worse. Why has the NFL decided to try to force changes in the name of long-term health and safety onto men who now understand the risks, who have compared the relatively small number of historical bad outcomes to the many more former players who live productive, healthy lives for decades after retiring, and who simply want to play football?
We’d have far less concern about the issue if the changes were better engineered to ensure that the game will become safer. Changing the spot of the kickoff simply removes bullets from the gun, and potentially makes the gun more dangerous when it’s used. As to the broader issue of hits to and with the helmet, we’d simply like to see rules changes that are tied more clearly to intentional behavior and less to chance.
Either way, the league has glossed over the real issue. The players now know the risks, so none of them can sue later and claim that the risks were concealed. The players are willing to accept the risks. So why is the league changing the game to protect grown men from a risk they’re willing to embrace?