The more I hear about the new helmet rule, the more concerned I am that NFL football will be changing so dramatically that it may become unrecognizable. Bit by bit, tweak by tweak, rule change by rule change, the game could — in the name of player safety, an admirable goal — become so safe that it fundamentally changes.
It’s an evolution that, when looking back over 20 years, feels more like a revolution. The NFL, after decades of denial regarding the risks of head trauma, apparently believes that the game must become safer in order to sustain its supply of players. At some point, however, fans of football the way it used to be played will feel alienated. And the risk isn’t that they’ll shun football; it’s that they’ll clamor for old-school football, and that a billionaire entrepreneur eventually will give it to them.
The latest step toward the far side of the Rubicon comes not from the changes to the kickoff rule (the kickoff is already dead, even if no one realizes it) but from the latest disclosure regarding the true extent of the new helmet rule. After two months of uncertainty, we now know that it applies not only in the open field but also in the trenches, where the task of sifting through bodies and spotting blows inflicted with a helmet on a consistent and fair basis becomes virtually impossible. Depending on how the rule ultimately is enforced, the between-the-tackles running game could wither, skewing the game even more toward glorified seven-on-seven drills.
Again, the goal is admirable. But football isn’t the only violent or risky endeavor. If the players willingly participate in the unsanitized version of the game (and at this point there’s no way any player can claim he doesn’t know the risks) and if fans willingly consume football as it historically has been played, is that a problem?
Apparently it is. Apparently the NFL thinks that parents will determine whether football is something that their children should play based not on the rules and realities of the youth version of the sport but on the images that emerge from the flat screen on Thursdays, Sundays, and Mondays.
For more on the helmet rule and my concerns regarding how it emerged and where it may be taking the game, check out the opening segment of Wednesday’s PFT Live.