NFL's safety talk a giant PR ploy

March 18, 2013

This week is the NFL at its very finest, this ability to schedule what basically amounts to a board meeting and revel in insane amounts of free publicity.

Actual deals have been announced, possible deals dissected. And talk — oh, has there been talk. Patriots owner Robert Kraft talked heartache after his Wes Welker breakup. Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones talked poverty with having approximately $1.87 remaining in cap room. And NFL commissioner Roger Goodell talked about everything — a franchise in LA, a possible Thursday baseball-football doubleheader in Baltimore, his Redskins cap feud, whether asking players if they are gay is company policy and, of course, player safety.

The league that gave us hit highlights is all about safety nowadays. It is pushing this safety angle on all platforms, too, most recently with regards to a proposed rule change penalizing a ball carrier or tackler from initiating contact with the crown of his head.

"Basically, the best way to phrase this is we are bringing the shoulder back in the game," Rams coach Jeff Fisher said.

The message was the helmet is for protection, not inflicting punishment.

And the league also is very insistent that this is only in space, outside the tackle box, and that it’s not going to eliminate helmet-to-helmet contact in the run game. The unspoken hope is this helps prevent the head and neck injuries and concussions with all of their nasty side effects like CTE, depression and suicides that have plagued this league.

"This is the last thing," Fisher said. "As a runner in this league, you don’t last very long if you run tall. You have to be able to protect yourself. We think there is a difference between protecting yourself and using the crown of your head."

The whirr of activity is so loud, so continuous, so all-encompassing around the NFL that there is neither the time nor inclination to ask what seems to me a very fair question:

Is the league any safer than it was a couple of years ago?

Because I am wondering if this saves anybody, especially after talking to legendary running back Jim Brown.

"I didn’t use my head," he said. "I used my forearm and the palm of my hand and my shoulders and my shoulder pads. I was not putting my head in too much of anything. I do not think that is a good idea; at least, it does not sound like too good of an idea to me. I am not guaranteed my head is going to be strong enough to hurt someone else and not hurt myself."

So one of the most physically punishing running backs to ever play the game sees no real value in this? Why then would the league be proposing this?

Call me a cynic, but here’s why: PR points.

A federal judge will hear oral arguments April 9 on the league’s request to throw out lawsuits by thousands of former players regarding concussions sustained while playing in the NFL. The NFL has argued it didn’t intentionally mislead players and has taken steps to protect their health.

This is not another rant against Goodell, whom I have been critical of in the past for what felt like a very lipstick-on-a-pig solution to a deadly problem. He very much wants to keep his players safe and he’s not afraid to take a stand, as evidenced by his strongly worded rebuke of teams who were asking players if they were gay at the NFL Scouting Combine.

And I tend to agree with Brown when he says: “The league is genuinely trying to address safety issues. That is the truth. The commissioner is dead serious about that. Now how to do that …”

Herein lies the real discussion: Is there any safe amount of football? Or is football, by its very nature, inherently dangerous?

This is the fine line the league is trying to straddle — between doing the right thing by its players and their brains while not wearing down the very violent aspects of the game we love. A complicating factor is how nonchalant players seem to be about this.

While Brown talked about how he has never broken bread with a running back who lowers his head, former Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith raged against the dying of what he called an integral part of playing the position.

"I’m a running back and I’m running into a linebacker, you’re telling me I have to keep my head up so he can take my chin off,” Smith said in a radio interview. “You’ve absolutely lost your mind. As a running back, it’s almost impossible (not to lower your head)."

If two of best running backs ever to play game have trouble agreeing on if this rules keeps them safe, how will the league sell this? Certainly how do they sell this to running backs who already feel the run game is being marginalized in a pass-happy league? Already, we had Bears running back Matt Forte tweeting this is the “most absurd suggestion of a rule change ever”. He also got at the big, big problem.

"U can't change the instinctive nature of running the football," he said in a tweet.

Nor can you can change the instinctive nature of the game. So what do you do? You whirr and talk and hope nobody notices the talk of safety is really a bunch of fluff.