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Ejecting NFL Players for Dangerous Hits Is Putting a Band-Aid on a Broken Leg

If the NFL wants to get serious about the safety of the sport, it’ll have to do more than put the onus back on the player

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Next week, the NFL’s Competition Committee will convene at the annual league meetings in Boca Raton, Florida, with the express goal of ramping up efforts to curtail an issue that threatens the very survival of the sport of football: excessive celebrations.

No, wait, actually nobody outside the league gives a shit about that. Sorry, the issue with real long-term ramifications for the sport is concussions and their long-term connection to the degenerative brain disease CTE. Wednesday, executive vice president of NFL operations Troy Vincent tweeted that the committee will explore a provision on dangerous and flagrant hits that would result in immediate ejections and player suspensions.

NFL referees already have the right to eject players for what they deem to be overly vicious or unnecessary hits. The league has handed down suspensions for repeat offenders in the past, but those punishments are rare. This proposal — an extension and expansion of a one-year test rule the committee passed last year, which stipulated that a player flagged for two particular unsportsmanlike-conduct fouls in a game would be automatically ejected — would likely resemble targeting rules that already exist in college football.

On its face, it’s hard to argue with a rule that would attempt to cut down on serious head and neck injuries. But with the NFL, nothing can ever be as simple as that.

First, there’s an inherent subjectivity with intent: Did the defender target his opponent’s head? Or did that offensive player duck into contact? If the rule is enacted, we’ll hear plenty of discussion as to what makes a player “defenseless” or what separates “a good football play” from a dangerous hit.

Second, while the motivation may appear benevolent, the league has a track record of downplaying and covering up the danger of concussions, so it’s hard not to wonder if these proposed changes have more to do with the league’s fear of more litigation rather than a concern over player safety.

The link between concussions and CTE is now clear, and the league is finally starting to acknowledge and track it. But former Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive lineman and now–SB Nation columnist Stephen White had it right:

The league might be taking steps toward improved player safety, which we can all get onboard with, but these bang-bang plays aren’t the cause for all concussions. In reality, the dozens of smaller collisions that happen throughout the course of a game — offensive linemen smashing into defensive linemen, a linebacker tackling a running back — can cause concussions as well. Football causes concussions: It’s a contact sport and concussions occur with sudden body deceleration, not simply contact to the head.

There’s likely to be plenty of groaning from players and fans alike that slowly but surely taking all violent hits — even legal ones that just look bad — out of the game is ruining the nature and soul of the sport. But there have already been 42 “player safety”–related rules changes since 2002 alone, and for the game to survive, the league is likely going to have to do way more than suspend players for dangerous hits. If not, then there might not be any more touchdowns to celebrate.