TELANDER: NFL pushing safety, madness at the same time
BY RICK TELANDER firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes the NFL seems crazier than Alice’s rabbit hole.
Just as the average, sports-ignorant school mom has been made aware that head trauma — football’s divine province — is dangerous even in small doses to people like her son, Johnny, the league is talking about expanding the playoffs from 14 to 16 teams.
Right now 12 teams play — out of 32 — and that seems plenty. Indeed, with the NFL having moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35 — so as to have fewer kicks returned and thus, theoretically, fewer insane crashes at about the returner’s 20-yard line — you have to wonder about adding more games, with collisions all through them.
Isn’t that like taking away a few bullets but adding more guns?
And that’s not even mentioning that the extra games, played by average teams, are not needed. The day when a couple of sub-.500 teams would play in the postseason would arrive soon. Aren’t the playoffs supposed to be something to be achieved, not handed?
The next step, clearly, would be to let every team in. Which would make the regular season basically irrelevant, as even expanding to 14 teams somewhat does.
Tanking, saving players, experimenting for the hell of it, gliding for weeks — all of that would occur once teams knew the playoffs were assured.
League management recently tried to expand the regular season to 18 games but got shot down — for now — since sane people recognized that by Game 21 of the playoffs, the locker rooms mostly would be used to hang crutches and perform cranial blood-letting as well as leeching, trepanning and small animal sacrifice.
No, we don’t truly care about the players’ welfare. Be honest. At moments like these, I like to return to my gospel, Nirvana’s ‘‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’’ for guidance. ‘‘Here we are now/entertain us’’ pretty much says it all.
Yet even highly paid, thought-free, suicidal musclemen are humans. And as such, they are part of our flock. We should care about them.
But NFL commissioner Roger Goodell knows we care more about Barcaloungers and flatulent Sunday afternoons than pro athletes’ health. He knows we will watch these new games. And, above all, he knows this is a new revenue stream for a league that already makes about $9 billion a year.
At the Special League Meeting in Dallas on Wednesday, Goodell talked about how the NFL Competition Committee will discuss new safety rules, such as the elimination of low blocks and mandatory use of certain pads.
Again, that rabbit-hole zaniness. As we know, players would strip to nothing but track shoes, thongs and — maybe — helmets if allowed to, for speed, agility and the ability to better destroy a foe. But management nobly steps in to save the gladiators from themselves. Likewise, nothing but high blocking means knees and ankles and hips should have more of a chance to flourish. Even if heads and chests take a greater beating.
And then . . . more games.
The NFL is a machine that is roaring at red-line revolutions per minute. That means it is racing up the success track at the same time it is in danger of blowing itself to bits.
The thousands of former players who have sued the league over past head trauma have the legal ability to change the game for all time. At an extreme level, they have the ability to set precedents and determine damage liabilities that could push the game to extinction.
Because you can take one thing to the bank: Even if the NFL, the players, the fans, the networks and advertisers don’t care a fig about safety, somebody desperately does: insurance companies. They’re the ones that make football go. It’s possible the NFL can afford gigantic premiums. But small colleges, high school, youth leagues can’t. Kill the game at the roots and someday the flower will die.
Goodell seems blithely unconcerned. Or halfway, sort of, financially concerned. He cracked down on the Saints’ bounty scheme, for instance, but refused to apologize to the players he harshly suspended, even after special investigator and former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said Goodell had gone a little too far.
It seems Goodell wants a gentlemanly game, cheerful and brutal, smiling and bloody, hypocritical to the max. In short: mind-boggling, like the Mad Hatter and his pals.