Pro football is a grown man’s game. I mean that in the sense that, while they are coached and instructed, ultimately everything good and bad carried out on the field is done by grown men. They are free to choose any profession they want to seek out, and they choose to play football in the NFL willingly.
The NFLPA, as the players’ union, would obviously like there to be a unified front on player sentiments regarding the hot-button issues facing the league. In the most recent era, it has been lasting head injuries and the things that cause them, and in the most recent weeks, it has been incentives to injure opponents. Neither create a “safe working environment” by OSHA standards, but players seem to be much more comfortable with their own demise than someone profiting from it.
And that is the problem with the NFL today. There is not a unified front on the head trauma issue because the player pool is in a period of transition. What the league is transitioning to is a mystery, but there is a division between those willing to absorb the implied risk of a pro football career and those who claim to have been (metaphorically) blindsided. Current players bristle at a quick 15-yard flag or a fine for helmet-to-helmet contact. They feel the rules have been changed on them mid-flight. The liked the old way better. The way where the assumed risk was still the same, but the only ones suffering or profiting from a dangerous tackle was the tackler and tacklee themselves. Now, the NFL takes a bite out of the tackler’s paycheck, and the guys in the other jerseys get 15 precious yards. The players who are upset at the recent allegations of bounty systems among teams aren’t mad at the actions, they’re mad at the outcomes. Many are not calling for the game to be played differently. They simply want to absorb the good and the bad of their decision to play pro football like grown men.
The issue with the Saints’ alleged bounty system, or one suggested by Terrell Suggs, for example, is about institutionalizing something that exists invisibly and without compensation anyway. In an odd way, Gregg Williams is a bit of a pro-labor visionary. He wanted his players on the Saints to play physically, ruthless, and on the brink of reckless. Is there a defensive coach in the NFL who does not want the same out of his players? The implication of such guidance is of course, the higher potential for doing harm to your opponent. Perfectly clean tackles can injure players. Borderline legal hits, like what the Saints were dishing out to Brett Favre in his waning hours in the league, will almost certainly lead to injury on a long enough timeline. Without having a pay-for-injury structure in place, any defensive coordinator would look at the film of Williams’ Saints and be happy with the team’s physical effort.
But of course, the problem is in incentivizing the outcome, not the action. A bounty system rewards the outcome, an injured player, that nobody roots for. The backlash against Roger Goodell’s new, more draconian approach to player safety tells the same story. Players who publicly and privately rail against the perceived nanny state of the NFL do so because they want to control their actions and accept whatever outcomes come along for such play. In a way, James Harrison is sort of a libertarian icon.
The NFL, however, isn’t in a position to acquiesce to the free-sack-market whims of the James Harrisons of the league. Whether one caused the other is up for debate, but the wave of lawsuits from former players surrounding health is only going to continue to mount. Any relaxing on the enforcement of rules that connects even vaguely to player safety and head trauma is fuel for future potential legal action from the current roster of players. Many of whom, if you asked them now, want less intervention from the league. “Let things be decided on the field.” They’re grown men, after all.
But soon they will be old men. 15 yards will seem like a bargain if it meant one less health issue in their 40s. The couple grand they may have in the bank thanks to a few games they caused an opponent to miss will feel like blood money. The NFL’s problem is that there are two NFLs. There is a present, and a past. The present demands violence, money, and success. The past is just trying to survive. The present, at least now, isn’t helping.