Sunday, November 21, 2010

Weighing In On All The Hitting

Roger Goodell is in a tough spot.  

I feel for The Commish, really, I do.    

Although I don't feel too bad, because really, how bad can you feel for someone who takes a 20% paycut "because of the economy" and still makes $8.8 million a year?  Not too terribly bad, in my humble opinion.

I mean, you have to admit that the guy currently finds himself in a bit of a pickle.  

In recent years, the healthcare and scientific communities have been accumulating compelling evidence linking recurrent concussions and other traumatic brain injuries to the development of devastating neurodegenerative disorders like Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (aka Lou Gehrig's Disease).  Other studies have shown alarmingly higher rates of depression and dementias in retired NFL players than in the general population.  In 2009, partly due to this evidence, House Representative John Conyers Jr. (D-MI) moved to hold Congressional hearings about the impact of head injuries on NFL players.  A somewhat embarrassing debacle subsequently played out before Congress and the American public (or at least all three people in the United States who actually watch CSPAN), culminating with the Co-Chairmen of the NFL's Committee on Head Injuries (Dr. Ira Casson and Dr. David Viano) resigning from their positions.   

The heat is on Mr. Goodell ... the heat is ... on.  

Due to the increasing pressure from Capitol Hill, the media, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and other sources, the NFL has begun to place a big emphasis on the importance of clean hits on the field.  More specifically, they're working to decrease the amount of helmet-to-helmet contact that players receive and penalize players for any and all malicious hits.  

After the slate of games in Week 6 of NFL play, it became clear that this year the NFL was taking this concept of "unnecessary roughness" to the next level.  Dozens of fines have been handed out this season to a myriad of players deemed to have acted inappropriately on the field.  These fines have ranged from $5,000 to $75,000 for a "repeat offender".  Ouch

Sounds good ... right?

In the words of the ever-wise Lee Corso: not so fast, my friend! 

Don't get me wrong, players absolutely deserve to be protected from intentional, malevolent hits on the field.  But, it's no secret that this has been a controversial issue over the last several weeks ... and for good reason.  I take issue with these fines and attempted paradigm shift for two big reasons.  

Number one: the evolution of the game of football.  

This may sound like a pretty daunting and esoteric subject for this argument, but bear with me.  

Sometime between 1968 and 1975 the game of football would be changed forever by a man still not known by many today.  The Cincinnati Bengals were created as an expansion team in 1968, and Assistant Coach Bill Walsh noted that the team had considerable struggles establishing a strong running game in their first few seasons.  Walsh outlined a game plan to include multiple short, horizontal pass plays, typically within 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage to ho help open up the running game.  Defenses commented that these plays "nickled and dimed" them, but it evolved into an extremely effective way of working the pass to help set up the run.  Walsh eventually became the Head Coach of the San Fransisco 49ers, and continued to implement the same offensive strategies that he had developed in Cincinnati while in California.  After defeating the 49ers in a 1985 playoff game, Giants coach Bill Parcels famously commented to a reporter "what do you think of the West Coast offense now?", giving the offense its name today.

Over the years many variants of the West Coast offense have emerged, including the Air Coryell offense and the Erhardt-Perkins offense.  However, few, if any, teams utilize a pure version of any of these offenses; and most practice a hybrid of these strategies with others.  

But, I would argue that West Coast offense aside, we have undoubtedly seen a gradual shift in the overall offensive strategy of most teams in the National Football League.  For decades, football was a game of hard-nosed, tough-fought yards which operated primarily under a run first, pass later mentality.  

Those days are long gone.  

When you look at the statistics for the top two teams in each division of the NFC and AFC at the Week 11 mark, the numbers speak for themselves.  Overall, those teams average 225.3 passing yards per game and 121.5 rushing yards per game.  The three teams with the best records in the NFL (Atlanta, NY Jets and New England who each sit at 7-2) have similar numbers, averaging 228.2 passing yards per game and 128.5 rushing yards per game.  In fact, of those 16 teams, there are six averaging less than 106 yards rushing per game.  

It's hard to argue that the NFL is not predominantly a passing league when most (successful) teams average about 100 more yards per game passing than they do rushing.  

However, the point of this long diatribe and history lesson is that all of this passing creates an environment in which receivers find themselves in "vulnerable" positions many times throughout a game.  Every time they go over the middle to catch a pass, or elevate to get a hand on a slightly errant throw by their QB, they are frequently unable to defend or protect themselves from incoming defenders.  And since receivers, arguably, are doing these very things much more frequently today than they were 30 years ago, they will incur more injuries. 

But ... who's fault is that exactly?  Is it the fault of the safety or linebacker sitting in pass coverage in the middle of the field?  Is it the fault of the receiver for not putting their own safety as the number one priority?  Or, is it the fault of the QB for throwing a ball which required the receiver to endanger themselves to make a play?  

The NFL is trying to turn a very gray issue into a black and white one, and I don't believe that's fair to all parties involved.  If defenders are going to find themselves paying $10,000-$15,000 for "launching" themselves at a receiver running a crossing route across the middle of the field, then I would argue that a QB who floats a pass and subsequently endangers their receiver should also have to pay a fine.  I would also argue that certain plays, no matter how perfectly executed, endanger the players more than others.  So, if safety is the #1 priority, then shouldn't those plays be completely banned from the game?  

In reality, when you're moving at the speeds these players move at on the field, it's not always possible to perfectly control every aspect of your body (or to predict what the other guy is going to do with his) ... so why are we expecting players to do that? 

Again, flagrant helmet-to-helmet hits should unquestionably be fined and punished; but we're seeing fines handed down for players "launching" themselves or landing blows to the shoulder and upper chest in a way deemed to be particularly aggressive or excessive by the powers that be.  

Which leads me to issue number two: who is actually making all of these decisions?

I'm not ordinarily an uber-sympathetic listener when it comes to the gripes of NFL players.  Dozens of issues have apparently been brewing in locker rooms across America, which will undoubtedly culminate with some sort of strike, lock out or similar act of contrition following the end of the 2010-2011 NFL season.  Like me, you may struggle to sympathize with many of their complaints and wonder if any of them are grounded in a real-world reality at all.  

But, in this case, I think they have a legitimate point.

Who exactly hands down these fines?  According to Commissioner Goodell, there's a panel of NFL Executives including himself, Ray Anderson (VP of Operations), Carl Johnson (Officiating Director), other front office staff, and former players/coaches like Art Shell and Merton Hanks (who is also, coincidentally, Assistant Director of Operations for the NFL) which evaluates film of the hits and deliberates on appropriate punishment for any identified violations.  At first glance, this may sound reasonable, but many NFL players have spoken up and voiced concerns about the policy.  

One of the most outspoken critics has been Troy Polamalu, strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Polamalu believes that current players and coaches should be involved in the evaluation process to ensure that players feel that their voice and and side is heard.  Commissioner Goodell and VP Anderson quickly quashed this idea, issuing statements in which they defended the current process and identified potential issues with Polamalu's suggestion (mainly potential bias between rival teams and players).  Other players have suggested creating a panel with recently retired players and coaches as to avoid any bias, but to still ensure a realistic, grounded approach to each and every situation.  Individuals like former LB Tedy Bruschi and Coaches Mike Ditka and Tony Dungy have been mentioned as possible candidates for such a panel.  

I have to agree with the players that the current system raises some eyebrows.  From a slightly cynical perspective, all these fines create big money for the league, yet they're the ones dolling out the punishments.  It's definitely questionable that there's no unbiased third party involved in the decision making process.  And, although there may be "former" players on the panel, Hanks hasn't played in the NFL for 11 years and Shell (who was an O-lineman) has been out of the coaching picture for about 5.  Not exactly recently removed.  

If the NFL is going to continue to be so aggressive with fines for malicious or aggressive hits on the field, then they must do two things.  First, they have to be clearer about what is acceptable and what's not.  One NFL Assistant Coach commented that the instructional video sent out by the NFL to every team in the league just created more confusion for the players and coaching staff.  NFL leadership can help achieve some clarity by involving recently retired or current coaches/players in the decision-making process.  These players and coaches should have the opportunity to hear the leadership explain every decision and break down every "malicious" play for them - especially when there's controversy.  Money aside, the players deserve to understand why they're being called out for their technique so that they can adequately adjust their play in the future.    

But, the bottom line is this: unless we want to completely change the offensive identity of the NFL today, players are gong to be susceptible to big hits.  The NFL should continue to enforce punishments for flagrant helmet-to-helmet contact, but they should tread very carefully when considering fines for other hits deemed too "aggressive" unless they want to risk altering the sport of football forever.  

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Shining Stars of the NFL

Ok folks, prepare yourself for somewhat of a soapbox post.

As I'm sure you're aware (unless you live under a rock), there has been a lot of talk lately about the inherent violence in the game of football, and significant work by the NFL to contain and limit the number of egregious and malicious hits that players receive on the field.  Following Week 6 of NFL play, NFL Executive VP of Football Operations, Ray Anderson, released a video which was shown to every NFL team depicting inappropriate and appropriate hits in order to educate players on the differences between the two. 

During the course of the video, a clip is shown from that week's Ravens vs. Jets game which highlights Ravens ILB Ray Lewis delivering a hit against Jets TE Dustin Keller.  In the video narration, Anderson narrates the clip by describing the play as "a great player making a great play ...".  

Which got me thinking ...

Now, I'm not going to sit here and try to say that Ray Lewis isn't a great player.  He is an 11-time Pro-Bowl selection, Super Bowl XXXV MVP, two-time AP Defensive Player of the Year, three-time AFC Defensive Player of the Year, and recipient of a multitude of other awards and accolades.  I mean, clearly, the man knows how to play football.        

However, I'm not so sure that Mr. Lewis should be an all-out poster boy for the National Football League.  In fact, I don't think that many of bright & smiling faces that the NFL or private companies often plaster on posters and video game boxes or feature in commercials and advertisements should even be playing professional football, let alone making thousands or millions of dollars on endorsements and ads.   

You may wonder why I'm so critical of these players, but the reason is simple ... they're not role models.  And in reality, many of them are the exact opposite.  

I'll preface this post by conceding that I do live in the real world and have made my fair share of less than perfect decisions (believe it or not).  I understand that NFL players are real people with the ability to make good or bad decisions just like the rest of us.  I do not expect anyone to be perfect, and I truly understand that everyone makes mistakes ... it's just part of being human. 

I also understand that many of these players are thrust into the public spotlight in a way that I could never comprehend (barring any overnight attainment of celebrity status).  A lot of them are treated as celebrities from the moment they step onto their respective college campuses and never look back.  When you consider the tens of millions of dollars in signing bonuses, adoring fans hanging around the stadium pleading for autographs and endorsements by companies like Nike and Under Armour - it's no wonder that these athletes feel (and act) superhuman.      

But, that's no excuse.

Sadly, it's nothing new or ground breaking, but year after year dozens of NFL players find themselves in real trouble with the real law.  So far in 2010, over 40 NFL players have been arrested for a wide variety of reasons.  And I would venture a guess that almost as many have been cut loose with a warning or slap on the wrist simply because of the jersey they wear and how they played the week before (although I do concede that some players are probably targeted by law enforcement due to their celebrity status).  

What a message to society.  

However, I would also argue that society is a huge part of the problem.  We all propagate this current attitude by allowing these athletes to continue to be celebrities and millionaires each time we put on their jersey to watch a game, and each time we simply sigh & shake our head when they get arrested ... again. 

But, I also believe in personal accountability, and the bottom line is that some of these players are either downright bad guys or they simply cannot make a good (aka smart) decision to save their lives.  

The vast majority of arrests in the NFL are for driving under the influence of alcohol (or some other inappropriate behavior under the influence).  I suppose that's a predictable side effect of the party lifestyle that so many players embrace off the field (after all, if you're worth $20 million - what would you do for fun?).  

But it is still completely unacceptable.  

Ask anyone who has ever lost a friend or loved one to the effects of drunk driving or talk to those who run national organizations like MADD or Arrive Alive.  Think back to your days of high school where they would park a completely devastated and unrecognizable vehicle at the school entrance to send a message to high school students.  Drunk driving is illegal for a reason.  Period.  End of story.

What's even more ridiculous is that most NFL teams have a program in place to prevent these exact incidences.  The program is called Player Protect and it guarantees NFL players safe rides home from wherever they are at any time of day (it operates 24 hours/day).  Like a taxi, the player just has to pay for the cost of the ride.  Or, for those players who don't want to utilize the program or belong to teams that don't have it, there are services in most cities in which reliable, licensed individuals are available to pick you up and drive you wherever you want to go for a small fee.  They're really revolutionary programs, and traditionally, they drive yellow cars just to ensure that they can be spotted easily ... good grief.  

No NFL player (or person, for that matter) has any excuse to ever get a DUI.  For the life of me, I really cannot understand why it happens so frequently, especially to millionaire athletes and celebrities.  Even from a purely selfish perspective, you would think these individuals wouldn't want to risk damage to their luxury Mercedes or loaded Escalade.  But it happens, all the time.  

Just recently, on September 21, 2010 (Week 2 of the NFL season) NY Jets WR Braylon Edwards was pulled over (while driving two of his teammates and one other individual) in New York in his Range Rover.  The officer smelled alcohol on his breath and Edwards subsequently registered a 0.16 on the breathalyzer ... twice the legal limit.  Although the Jets publicly admonished Edwards' actions, he has continued to play every game of the 2010 season.

And who could forget the events of March 2009.  Former Cleveland Browns WR Donté Stallworth was driving his Bentley in the early morning hours in Miami Beach, FL.  According to reports, Stallworth was intoxicated (reported BAL of 0.12) and speeding (10 mph over), when he struck and killed a pedestrian in the street (not in a crosswalk).  He pled guilty to second degree manslaughter, served 24 days in jail, and was suspended from play in the NFL for one year.  Stallworth is currently on the active roster for the Baltimore Ravens. 

What excellent examples for those of us in the real world.  Drive drunk and endanger yourself and three other people while in the midst of the most important time of year for your career?  A public slap on the wrist and a starting spot on the team.  Kill someone while driving drunk?  Spend less than one month in jail, sit out a year and find yourself a new team the next season.  

Quite frankly, the hypocrisy of these situations is utterly disappointing to me.  I am fairly certain that if it was you or I in the shoes of Edwards or Stallworth, our outcomes would not have been quite so auspicious. 

I am by no means am an expert on the law, and am a firm believer in the concept of being innocent until proven guilty; however I think few would argue with the fact that athletes in this country are frequently held to a different and much lower standard than the rest of us.  In fact, in the real world, individuals with a felony conviction on their resume have a hard enough time getting a minimum-wage job, let alone a multi-million dollar contract.   

Drunk driving and public intoxication aside, the much more disturbing crimes committed by NFL players are frequently violent in nature.  I could list report after report of players accused of assaulting their wives or girlfriends, or being involved in altercations at bars or nightclubs.  Undoubtedly alcohol and/or drugs play a role in these situations, but they are unacceptable nevertheless.  And, even more worrisome is the historical lack of action on the part of the NFL.  

Take Larry Johnson, who was drafted as a running back in 2003 by the Kansas City Chiefs.  He played in the NFL until September 2010 when he was released by the Washington Redskins.  In his 7 years in the league, Johnson was arrested no less than four times on assault charges against different women.  

Adam "Pacman" Jones is an extreme example, but one that cannot be ignored.  Drafted as CB in the 2005 NFL Draft, virtually his entire career has been tainted by numerous investigations and arrests.  With charges ranging from marijuana possession to disorderly intoxication to involvement with a shooting at a Las Vegas strip club (in which he reportedly slammed a stripper's head against a table), Jones earned himself a one-year suspension for the 2007 season. In 2010, Jones signed a two-year contract with the Cincinnati Bengals.  He's out for the season with an injury, but would otherwise be an active member of the team.  

In a country in which domestic violence has become frighteningly commonplace and a woman is sexually assaulted, on average, every two minutes; the NFL sets a disappointingly low standard by allowing players with records of violence against women to continue to play.  

However, not all the news is bad.  Roger Goodell, NFL Commish since 2006, has taken a tougher stance against "troubled" players than previous NFL leadership.  Goodell has been the first commissioner to suspend players for violation of the NFL's "personal conduct policy" even when official charges were not filed.  In 2010, Pittsburgh QB Ben Roethlisberger was suspended for four games after allegedly raping a college student in a Milledgeville, GA bar.  The woman decided not to press charges, although emphasizing in her letter to the local DA that she was not recanting her accusation.  

During his tenure, Goodell has handed down three season-long suspensions and worked to hold NFL players accountable for their behavior both on and off the field.  Clearly, it's a work in progress, and I would challenge him to do even more.   

This is the bottom line: we're all not doing enough.  Unless we want the NFL to turn into the NBA (no offense NBA fans), we must hold players accountable for their behavior off the field.  The NFL cannot continue to allow players with felony convictions to be on the active roster.  Kids may know the difference between video games and real life, but try explaining to them why players convicted of multiple DUI's, or assault charges (or worse) are still allowed to play professional football ... because I sure can't.  

It is a privilege to be a professional athlete in this country, and we can no longer allow some athletes to abuse the power that they are given.  I have no magical solution for this problem, except to encourage you to use whatever platform you have available to speak out and voice your disappointment at the low standards to which we hold NFL players.  The next time you hear of a player's second DUI or arrest on assault charges - speak up!  Send an email (Official NFL Comment Form), post a comment, or call-in a TV or radio sports show.  

Nothing will ever change if hardworking, ordinary American football fans continue to stand by in silence and allow NFL players of questionable morale character to play week after week, sign their autographs and earn their millions.  

It has never been acceptable for players to break the law or behave in egregiously inappropriate ways, but now it's time for us to ensure that it will no longer be tolerated.