Safety first? Why don't I believe you, NFL?


By Rich Levine

So let me get a few things straight:

1. The NFL players and owners currently despise each other.

Right? Theyve spent the last month sniping back and forth, both privately and publicly, as each one believes there are billions of dollars on the table that belongs in their respective pockets. At the same time, neither side feels that theyre being treated fairly. Each thinks the other doesnt appreciate all they do for the league, or the burdens brought on by their great responsibility. In some cases, the battle has clearly gone beyond business and into the personal realm. Brady vs. Kraft. Manning vs. Irsay. Brees vs. Benson. Randy Moss vs. Woody in Nashville. Jerry Richardson vs. the World. People are pissed.

2. One of the bigger and broader issues is the 18-game schedule. Whether or not its still in the mix for the current negotiations is unclear, but whats not is the fact that the owners definitely want 18 games. Thats their ideal. And to the players, thats a clear sign that the owners dont actually care about their safety. Basically, the two ideals cant co-exist. You cant want the 18-game schedule, and also want what's best for the players. Its one or the other, yet the owners continue to sit on the fence. Its like going on a date with a girl who says she's in PETA but shows up wearing rabbit fur boots, or walking into a bar and seeing a guy in a Teixiera jersey rooting for the Sox. They cant have it both ways. But even if they wont choose publicly, the owners have made their 18-game priority clear.

And that leads to . . .

3. Tuesday in New Orleans, the owners voted on a series of rule changes that directly, and in some cases drastically, affected the players theyre currently fighting with. The major change is a decision to move the kick-off up five yards to the 35-yard line, while at the same time prohibiting guys on coverage to get more than a five-yard running start.

It will create more touchbacks, and thus (along with the slower start) decrease the chance of an injury. But it will also cheapen the importance of kickoff specialists around the league. It will affect careers. It will change the game.

The owners' reasoning?

Its safer. Its in the players best interests.

And were just supposed to believe them.

If thats life in this dysfunctional NFL, then Im having a hard time grasping it.

To me, right now, the players and owners are a couple who has an explosive, blowout fight in front of all their friends. It gets ugly. Real ugly. Theres yelling, swearing, throwing of heels. They air all their dirty laundry, for everyone to hear. They bring up old fights. Ex-boyfriends. Ex-girlfriends. Weird sex stuff. Everything. And then leave in separate cabs.

Then, one week later, you bump into the guy and he suddenly starts talking about their relationship like nothing ever happened. Hes talking about the trip they just planned for the summer, and how theyre maybe even thinking about moving in, and youre just sitting their blown out of your mind. Were just going to forget about that? Pretend it never happened?

It did happen. Its still happening.

The owners and players are still at each others throats, and its only about to get worsewhich brings the motivation behind the new crusade to save the NFL one touchback at a time into question.

First of all, because, in the long run, Im not sure how much its actually going to protect the players. Its not like guys wont still be running and crashing into each other on every kick. Theyre never going to assume its a touchback. Every kick will be a fight, with collisions and hard hits. These will still be the hungriest guys on the field; the ones who have the most to lose. Yeah, maybe theyll go a little slower with the lack of a running start. Maybe the touchbacks prevent some solid hits. But is that really worth ruining one of the most exciting and game-breaking aspects of your game?

I dont think so. And thats not my style. Im usually on the other side of the NFL safety argument.

For instance, back in Octoberwhen Brandon Meriweather was in the news for a different kind of head hunting, when the league was rallying against helmet-to-helmet hits and players turned talking heads like Mark Schlereth spent days screaming out panicked obituaries for the sanctity of the NFLI was entirely on board.

"You can't take the NFL and what we do and eliminate contact!" yelled Schlereth, repeatedly. "The game of football is about going out there and separating the man from the ball!

His points were difficult to argue, mostly because they made no sense. The league wasnt eliminating contact; it was eliminating illegal contact. The game of football was still about going out there and separating the man from the ball . . . just not going out and separating the man from any semblance of a normal post-football life.

Schlereth, and players like him, whined about how tough the league was back in their day, but reality was that those guys werent actually tougher; the world was just more ignorant. By no fault of their own, players of that generation, and those around them (family, coaches) didnt understand the long-term damage being levied on their minds and bodies, so they just went about their bone-headed business, soaking up the glory and then suffering through retirement. Were they tough for doing so? Of course. But they also just didnt know any better. Schlereth's rants were the equivalent of a 30-year, pack-a-day smoker hopping on TV and saying: What? Stop smoking? Just because it might kill you?! But look at me, Im alive!

Anyway, that was a problem, and last year was an important step in fixing it.

That problem was real, and so was the impact of the new legislation. Players started paying attention, and those types of hits will decrease.

But this new rule just doesnt seem worth the mess. Youre taking a way a huge part of the game where you didnt have to. An illegal hit on the special teams is still an illegal hit; theyre still under the same jurisdiction. There are other ways to police the dangerous hits. Sure, the NFL is a slightly safer place, but at what cost? Whats it really worth?

Shortly after the decision was announced I was on Twitter and came across this Tweet by Cleveland kick returner Josh Cribbs, one of the guys most affected by the ruling:

@JoshCribbs16: NFL rule changes are BS... U not making the game safer u messing a great sport, trynna hide behind safety just to add 2 games...smh

It makes you wonder if this all really does come back to the NFL dream of an 18-game schedule. If, in the end, the owners will ever be satisfied without it.

Or if they'll just keep finding ways to make the game a little safer until they can justify making it a lot more dangerous.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on Rich can be reached at Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

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