October 21, 2010

I Second That Motion By The Bears Fan (UPDATED)

The NFL isn't supposed to be broadcasting games of grown men playing tag.  NFL football is about tackling. It is a contact sport, at its root a contest of strength and power. To be sure, there is much enjoyment to be had in watching the competing strategies play out, the speed and skill of elite players, and the rhythm of high-speed offenses clashing against the manipulation of the game clock and the effects of fatigue as a game wears on. All of this makes America's favorite sporting event a unique event that can be enjoyed at many levels simultaneously; if you've no appetite for the cerebral stuff, you can at least enjoy the hard hits and the circus-stunt catches.

It is, of course, entertainment -- ultimately, it is meaningless; it matters little to the day-to-day lives of nearly everyone whether the Chicago Bears or the Green Bay Packers win the NFC North division and thereby gain an automatic bid to the playoffs. But that means that if this endeavor called professional football is going to succeed, it's supposed to be fun to watch. It was bad enough when the NFL began fining and penalizing players for "orchestrated touchdown celebrations." Those goofy touchdown dances are fun. Come to think of it, it's fun (in a different way) to get mad at the players on other teams for partying against your guys. The fun stuff is what draws fans into the stands, what draws them to tune in on TV and make the advertisers willing to pay premium prices to hawk their products during time-outs and breaks in the action, and therefore that's what makes NFL football so profitable.

Instead, it's wimping out and threatening to penalize -- including fining and suspending -- players who hit each other hard and risk injuring their opponent. There is an inherent risk of injury in this sport, and all sports. People agree to do it anyway -- they compete and dedicate their entire lives to giving themselves even an opportunity to do it, because there is a tremendous audience for it -- and it's fun. I don't mean to suggest that the NFL should go back to the days of leather helmets, no pads, and adopt an eye-gouging rule. There should be reasonable ways to protect players from unnecessary and avoidable kinds of harm. I like that the players wear well-designed helmets, armor, and that there are particular kinds of maneuvers and stunts that are not permitted. It's a fine line to draw as to what kinds of methods of forcing your opponent to the ground should be permitted and what should not be. The guys who run the show need to do what is reasonable and appropriate to prevent injuries -- but they also need to bear in mind that we're talking about tackle football. There are going to be injuries and I thought everyone knew that.

Now, this year, the injuries seem to be taking a particularly hard toll on my beloved Green Bay Packers. Fans from Sheboygan are coming to the game suited up, just in case they're needed in an emergency. But this Packers fan is sanguine about that, because dealing with injuries is part of the game, too. The luck of the draw is that Green Bay has to deal with that problem this year and the organization, as a whole, has to adapt to losing their top running back, their top tight end, a good safety, and a strong offensive lineman, within the course of just over a month of play. It sucks, but you have to deal. (Therein lies a life lesson, by the way.)

Part of the frustration is that I enjoy consuming this entertainment product, and the manufacturer of the product insists on continually taking out the very things in the product that I enjoy the most. Part of it is the frustration of watching a very successful business self-destruct because it just plain doesn't think things through. Football is about tackling, so you have to give the players enough latitude in the rules to actually tackle each other. That's what they came to the stadium to do, that's what the fans paid money at the stadium gate to see, that's the product the NFL is in the business of selling, as surely as Hershey's is in the business of selling sweetened chocolate.

Not letting football players tackle is kind of like banning curve balls in baseball because batters sometimes get hit when pitchers throw curves. This "don't hit the other guys too hard" rule is bound to be the New Coke of Professional Sports.

UPDATE 10/24:  This was apparently tweeted out of the Minnesota Vikings' Saturday practice:

...And that pretty much explains it all.


bobvis said...

TL, I'm not really sure where this is coming from. Certainly the excessive celebration rule was...excessive. However, handing out stiffer penalties for things that were already illegal in the game seems to be a minor change.

Players should be able to tackle each other when appropriate, but I don't think they are talking about stopping that. I don't like watching the game just to see helment-to-helmet hits followed by 4 minutes of waiting for a guy to wiggle his toes.

Also, the point isn't to simply maximize physicality. For example, pass interference rules are meant to minimize physicality, but they add to fun by allowing more passing plays and more scoring, both of which fans like. Similarly, offensive holding and chop-block rules encourage sacks, which are also fun to watch (at least for me). Maximizing physicality would actually produce a perpetual scrum rather than something fun.

I don't really know whether an increase in suspensions for illegal hits is appropriate. Certainly, the average face-mask probably doesn't deserve a suspension. The 15 yard penalty is probably enough.

Transplanted Lawyer said...

The proposed rule change would make any non-incidental contact of a tackling player's helmet to the opposing player a fifteen-yard penalty. That's going to seriously affect the way tackling gets done, and it's already the case that tackling isn't done enough or done properly because full-tackle practices are rare -- players train in practice to "just miss."

The offensive holding rules are also things that bug me. Tackling is holding; it it likely that something definable as "holding" takes place on both sides on nearly every play if a ref wants to call it. The real rule is something different and variable from game to game based on what any particular team of zebras will tolerate or will not.

Maybe my post over-glamorized the strength side of the game; but the strength side is important. Especially if you like seeing (preferably the other team's) quarterback getting sacked a lot, that happens as often when the offensive line gets overpowered by the defensive line as when a smart, fast LB is able to find a hole and get in the pocket.

And when did you re-start using the "bobvis" identity again instead of... that other one you used for a while? Are you going to start blogging again in some forum somewhere? That would be a most welcome development.

bobvis said...

Hmm. Ok, I'll reserve judgment on the rule.

Regarding holding, I can often tell whether considerable holding has occurred, and usually that results in a flag. So, at least I seem to be able to predict it. I understand that a bit occurs on both sides' part on each play, but I'm in favor of the current standard. Otherwise it's just too hard to get to the QB, which would frankly make the game boring to me even if it increased scoring.

Regarding my id, I messed up! If I'm doing my job, I won't be blogging anytime soon....