Consistently lost in the ongoing efforts of the NFL to discipline players who engage in unsafe actions is the role of their coaches and teams on such behavior. Now, with the NFL implementing out of the blue a rule that prohibits players from using their helmets to initiate contact, fixing the situation can’t be something that falls only on players.
NFL Players Association president Eric Winston made this point in reaction to the new rule, saying on Twitter: “The league will continue to pass rules and fine players more with the hope that things will change, but meaningful change will happen only when everyone — players, coaches, owners — share responsibility in making the game as safe as possible.”
After the NFL first decided, nearly eight years ago, to emphasize the prohibition against hits on defenseless players, coaches periodically praised (privately) hits that the NFL deemed to be illegal. With the players, and only the players, paying the price for these hits, the coaches face no consequence (other than not having the player available to play, if ejected or suspended).
Safety rules need to compel teams and coaches to insist on safe practices of every type. This new rule, which is sufficiently vague to potentially result in a broad application aimed at further getting the head out of the game, won’t be as successful as it could be if the coaches who aren’t successfully coaching these unsafe tactics out of the game suffer no consequences for failure to comply.
So Winston is right. Making the game safer requires a much more comprehensive approach than issuing a list of “thou shalt nots” to players. Teams, coaches, and ultimately owners need to be given a real incentive to comply — and/or a real disincentive for not complying. Without that, players who know where and how their bread gets buttered could end up getting mixed signals from their coaches and from the league, and ultimately choosing to do what will win the approval of their coaches.