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A Stamp Of Approval For NFL Rules Changes Regarding Player Safety

Other than rumors about potential player transactions, there is little to tell you about in the NFL. Sure there are mini-stories about the lockout, but there is actually something happening in the NFL now. The owners are having their spring meetings and have done a couple of things. They already cancelled the rookie symposium because of the lockout and then they approved (unanimously) some changes to rules regarding illegal tackles. 

Despite some of the criticism out there, particularly by players like James Harrison, let me tell you that there is not a single rules change I disagree with.

The biggest rules change that has players and other up in arms is the language that states that teams can be punished if their players are penalized/fined/punished too frequently for illegal hits, much like the NFL has in place for player conduct.

One might say that it is unfair to punish the team. I say it is the perfect place to start. You may know that no team has been penalized under the player conduct rules. You will likely never see it happen for the hits. However, the way to cut down on the players making the dangerous hits is to ensure that there is proper coaching. By threatening the franchise, it will make it more likely that a team will ensure that the coaching staff is not reinforcing plays that could be illegal.

That was not the only change in the rules. Among the others were these:

  • The league redefined what is considered a "defenseless player," allowing more than just receivers to be under the umbrella of the rules. It will now basically protect any player who is not in a position to be able to brace for contact.
  • Illegal hits to "defenseless players" include "forcibly hitting the neck or head area with the helmet, facemask, forearm or shoulder regardless of whether the defensive player also uses his arms to tackle the defenseless player by encircling or grasping him." Also illegal is to use he helmet to contact any defenseless player. 
  • Incidental contact with the quarterback's helmet will no longer be considered a penalty unless the contact is "forcible." No more 15-yard flags for brushing or grazing the helmet when trying to grab the quarterback.
I like all of these changes. The helmet was never intended to be a tool in a tackle. It was always meant to be a protection from head injury. I like that accidental contact with the QB's helmet will not be a devastating penalty. I love that the league is taking player safety seriously. The basic idea is to lower the area that defenders aim for, avoiding hits around the shoulders, neck and head. 

Some players will talk about the risk they know going in to the sport, but it is really short-sighted to say that. Knee or leg or arm injuries are one thing. Head and brain injuries are quite another. These are men whose post-NFL retirement last longer than almost anyone's entire working career. Men in their 20s and 30s do not do anyone any good with brain injuries. 

No, the league does not need to go to touch football or have the players wear skirts. That is absurd. It is not absurd, though, to make the game safer and the rules more pointed and defined.