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COLUMN: NFL's New Rule Changes Are Geared Towards Player Safety, Despite Fan Resistance

Harvard receiver Justice Sheldon-Mosley brings in a pass in front of a defender that must think twice before using his head.
 In March, the NFL approved a change to its policy on hits to the head. Under the revised rule, “players who lead with the crown of their helmets to initiate contact against an opponent on any play” will incur automatic 15-yard penalties for their respective teams and may be ejected from the game “depending on the severity of the hit” according to an NFL.com article from March 27.

There is still no targeting rule in place, which in the college game results in an automatic ejection for any player who is deemed to have led with his helmet in making a hit. However, it appears as though the NFL is trending in that direction.

In a week one game featuring the Cincinnati Bengals and the Indianapolis Colts, we witnessed the first ejection under these new guidelines. The pocket collapsed around Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, and he darted up the middle to escape pressure from the Bengals’ defense. Just as Luck gained a first down, he was brought down from behind by defensive end Michael Johnson. At the same time, safety Shawn Williams entered the frame and dove headlong, making contact with Luck’s helmet as he was dragged down to the turf. Williams was disqualified from the contest.

When the footage is replayed, it is clear that Johnson also had to dive to tackle Luck and the play was not a guarantee to be made. Williams, then, appears somewhat justified when he stated post-game that the helmet-to-helmet contact was incidental. If Johnson had not made the play and Luck were still running, Williams’ dive would have positioned him around Luck’s midsection for a textbook tackle. However, the helmet-to-helmet contact appeared to be exactly what the competition committee had in mind back in March — incidental contact is still punishable, and leading with the head will get you penalized or ejected more often than not.

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The American Professional Football Alliance, which would eventually become the National Football League, was born in 1920. In 1932, the NFL established its own rules committee, which differentiated it slightly from the version of the sport being played at the collegiate level. In 1966, the NFL began its merger with the American Football League and hosted the first Super Bowl.

Due to time and rules changes like the one above, the sport that captivates fans every fall and winter is wildly different than the one that evolved in the early 20th century. It is generally accepted that many of the alterations have made football safer for players, but recently player safety has become a deep concern due to studies that have linked playing the sport to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

NFL fans and even players themselves appear to be split on this issue. On one hand, is it wrong to reject changes to the sport that could protect players’ lives and minds years in the future? On the other hand, at what point is football not football anymore?

The first question appears to have more merit. The wellbeing of those who play football should be one of the top priorities, if not the top priority, of any league. However, to remain viable at all, a league needs to sell tickets and merchandise and attract television viewers. Will football become unrecognizable and fall by the wayside if it continues to adopt too many new rules?

My opinion is that it will not. A look at the college game shows that increasing penalties for dangerous contact does not detract from the quality of the product on the field. Every fall, there are targeting penalties called in Harvard games, and they never seem to cause much of a stir either in the broadcast booth or down in the stands.

Violence is inherent, and even celebrated, in some sports. It is not an essential requirement, but fans are often attracted to brutal hits and physical clashes between opposing teams. However, football still has plenty of contact to go around even if hits to the head — or hits using the head — are penalized. These hits will always happen, either accidentally or intentionally, but updating the rules to reflect our current understanding of player safety is a must: it will cut down on dangerous plays, and it most likely will not cause the collapse of football as we know it.

—Staff writer Jack Stockless can be reached at jack.stockless@thecrimson.com.

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