Executive action on football

The first fans
The first fans

President Obama, who says he likes a good party, especially if people play charades (though in my experience he stands in the corner and everyone’s afraid to approach him lest they get trapped in a discussion about the Bulls), is considering signing executive orders that will in some fashion help curb gun violence. The House GOP is threatening to impeach him if the does that, however. The president can do  many things, but he’s not supposed to touch anyone’s gun. Meanwhile there are rumblings that a new assault weapons ban has little hope of getting through the Senate. Republicans and rural-state Democrats know that you never gain a single new supporter when you take action on gun control, but you lose armies of them — the single-issue voter for whom the Second Amendment is more inviolable and fundamental than any of the Ten Commandments.

Probably the only thing the president could easily do these days is make some sensible reforms on long-term government spending, just to bend the cost curves and make the trajectories line up and help the quants sleep at night. The problem there is that any cuts in spending ought to be balanced by new revenue, Obama believes, which seems to most Americans a reasonable approach, and certainly is a requirement for any Democratic support on spending cuts. The GOP says nuh-uh on revenue. They gave at the cliff. They didn’t give very much, but now their arms are crossed and they’ve got a look on their faces that says, “We are not going to crack a smile for the rest of our lives.” 

So what CAN the president do? Not a lot. It must be frustrating, being the Leader of the Free World but unable even to get his own daughters to play checkers with him. I have a suggestion: If he can’t take assault weapons off the streets, and he can’t cut a Grand Bargain, maybe he can downsize the NFL.

Specifically, he could do something about a gentleman named Haloti Ngata.

You remember guy: The giant Tongan who broke Robert Griffin III back in December in the game against the Ravens. Griffin ran around left end and zoomed up through the middle of the Ravens defense for 13 yards, but he was hit and went airborne and then was crushed by Ngata coming from his right flank.

I have nothing against Ngata, other than the fact that he weighs 340 pounds. That is almost  100 pounds more than Dick Butkus weighed. [Interesting detail from that Wikipedia article on Butkus: "Butkus filed a lawsuit against the Bears in 1975, claiming the Bears knowingly kept him on the field when he should have had surgery on his knees."] 

 According to the Times, quoting the AP, in 1970 the NFL had a grand total of one player weighing 300 pounds. In 1980 that figure had risen to three. But then came the explosion: By 2000 there were 301 such 300-pounders and in 2010 as training camp opened there were 532, the Times reported. Here’s a story from a year ago listing 5 players heavier than 350 pounds: Paul Solaia, 355 (Dolphins), Leonard Davis, 355 (Lions), Marcus Cannon, 358 (Patriots), Bryant McKinnie, 360 (Ravens) and, rounding out the list it were, Michael Jasper, 375 (Bills). 

These fellas are some good eaters.

There surely are on-field benefits of being supersized, just for reasons of Newtonian physics. But the extra pounds aren’t good for the long-term health of the players, even apart from the issue of concussions and neurological damage that football players endure from a lifetime of head-smashing. And surely the supersizing is a factor in the routine destruction of knees and the crippling of so many NFL players.

Now we get to the issue of what happened to Griffin. Would he have injured that knee if Ngata, in hitting him, wasn’t quite so huge? I don’t know. I’m going to venture the answer “probably.” If you’ve seen the play, it was an awkward hit on the leg and it probably wouldn’t have mattered if Ngata was 340 pounds or a spritely 270. But it’s possible that Griffin wouldn’t have been so badly hurt. (Supposedly he just had a “strain” and was cleared to play a couple of weeks later, but read Sally Jenkins if you want to know what I think about that.)

Here’s the echo of the gun debate. You never know if any one particular initiative, law, regulation, or whatever, could stop any particular atrocity from happening. But you can try to tip the scales, as it were. You can take reasonable actions that improve the odds of beneficial outcomes rather than malign results. And in terms of guns, that means lives saved, potentially. 

The NFL should consider the imposition of a size limit, possibly even bracketed by position (thus someone playing on the line of scrimmage could weigh more than someone playing off the line). I will confess that I don’t know if this issue has been discussed much in the real world. But size limits are basic to many sports, including boxing. The fans aren’t going to protest, surely: They made pro football the most popular sport in the country decades ago when the players were much smaller, and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t root just as hard for players who weren’t the size of moving vans.

Obama’s role? He’s the number one sports fan in the country.  He ought to get out front on this, at least rhetorically. Threaten special excise taxes on the NFL if it doesn’t cooperate. Special taxes on football jerseys! Jumbo sodas! The hot dog tax! I’m full of good ideas. Threaten to yank the color guard or abolish military jet flyovers. Hit ‘em where they hurt if they don’t cooperate. And of course he needs to help us get a serious college football playoff and not just that 4-team gig they’re trying to start in a couple of years (my Gators got so jobbed this year after beating 4 teams in the top 12 — of course they lost to Louisville, a basketball program, on Jan. 1, because that was exhibition football and didn’t mean anything).

These football reforms are things that even Republicans might support. He could invite them over to that big lonely house to watch ballgames on his flat screen. This is win-win stuff. I want to hear a proposal on this in the inaugural address.

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | January 13, 2013