This past offseason, the NFL implemented a new roughing-the-passer penalty. This rule aims at preventing players from landing on the quarterback with all, or most of, their body weight.
Last season, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers broke his collarbone after a hit from Minnesota linebacker Anthony Barr. The roughing-the-passer penalty prevents this type of hit from happening.
This new penalty is another attempt by the NFL to reconcile an ongoing problem facing the league: the idea that football is inherently unsafe.
The danger of football first came to light in 2002 when Dr. Bennet Omalu, co-founder of the Brain Injury Research Institute, identified chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in former Pittsburgh Steelers’ center Mike Webster’s brain.
CTE occurs in the brain of those who suffer repeated concussions or head trauma. CTE causes the brain to lose mass and deteriorate over time.
The effects of CTE include depression, cognitive impairment, suicidal thoughts, aggression and dementia. CTE has been found in the brain of numerous NFL players who have committed suicide.
Football players are prone to CTE because it is likely caused not by the intensity of the hit, but by repeated hits to the head. Additionally there is no way to definitively test for CTE until an examination of the brain after death.
In 2016, after attempting to deemphasize the issue, the NFL publicly acknowledged that there is a link between brain disorders like CTE and football.
The NFL has now found itself trying to mitigate the conflict between maintaining the spirit of football while still making it safe. New rules, such as roughing the passer, are an attempt to try and make football “safer.”
The problem is that the NFL cannot change the essential elements of the game, mainly, repeated hitting. Rules to protect players might make the game slightly safer, but the NFL can never eliminate the repeated hitting that will inevitably occur.
Many players have actually spoken out against these changes.
“Listen, this is football, man. We all sign up to get hit. We all sign up [knowing] you might get hurt. It’s a violent sport. It’s meant to be that way,” said Joe Flacco, Ravens quarterback.
Even Aaron Rodgers, who this rule was made in response to, said that the rules might be going too far.
“I’m a traditionalist, I’ve watched the game and loved the game for a long time and some of the rules I think help, but some of the rules, maybe are going in the wrong direction. They’re trying to think about the progress of the game and the safety and stuff, but it’s still a collision sport,” Rodgers said.
If players know the risks associated with football and voluntarily choose to still play, then they should be allowed to make that choice. This moves the problem to the NFL to make players aware and informed of the risks of brain damage like CTE.
However, the NFL will not be able to ever make the game fully safe due to the inherent nature of football.
Cover photo courtesy of SB Nation.