By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, October 19, 2010; 11:59 PM
A league that for most of its existence has celebrated violence, sold it, marketed it, even set it to music is continuing its abrupt U-turn. The NFL, slow as a tortoise when it comes to altering the way it goes about business, is moving with red-alert urgency by announcing midseason that violent hits to the head, starting now, will be punishable by suspension.
A Sunday full of violent collisions that NFL executives viewed as extreme clearly became the tipping point for a league that is becoming increasingly and painfully aware that its workforce is increasingly at risk. While football zealots, including a great many players, will initially ignore or dismiss this new accountability as a knee-jerk overreaction, resorting to suspensions as remedies signals the dawn of a new day in professional football. In fact, if the NFL actually follows through on its promise, the entire industry of football - from Pop Warner through college and the professional ranks - will have been put on notice.
The culture of the most violent game in America is about to necessarily change.
One person who seems to get that more than most is Steve Young, the Hall of Fame quarterback-turned-analyst, who late Monday night cut to the chase in a passionate and stark conversation with former linebacker and club executive Matt Millen on ESPN.
When Millen objected to the vagueness of the NFL's definition of what hits will be worthy of suspension, Young answered: "What they're worried about is that Darryl Stingley hit [Stingley was paralyzed in an on-field hit in 1978]. . . . They want to legislate the danger out, things that make you cringe. It can be legal or illegal. They're asking guys to not play as ferocious. It's dangerous, but there's always been danger in football. . . . They want to legislate the danger out. Like it or not, they want it not to be in the game."
While Millen was incredulous that a game so rooted in violence would try to reduce it after all these decades, Young reacted like he had clearly seen the future. It was obvious he wasn't necessarily in favor of a softer game, if you will, but Young said of the NFL's powers-that-be: "They don't want to see it. They don't want the cringe-factor. They don't want a death on the field."
The cynic in me sees this partly as the NFL trying to pre-empt criticism over the proposed lengthening of the season to 18 games in the face of such risk. The NFL knows it has to appear to be legitimately concerned about the physical welfare of its workforce.
But even if the league's motives are more sincere, the larger point is that head injuries and violent collisions have the NFL's attention as never before, and league/club executives are at a crossroads.
Something dramatic has to be done; former standout and big hitter Rodney Harrison said on NBC Sunday night that fines never deterred him. Harrison said if the NFL was serious about reducing and ultimately eliminating violent hits to the head, it would have to start handing out suspensions. And to those who nonetheless think the whole thing is much ado over nothing, the league is saying, even if reluctantly, "It's a new day."
"We understand that this is not just about the NFL," Ray Anderson, the league's vice president in charge of football operations, said in a radio interview Tuesday morning. "This is about safety at our level, at the college level, at the high school level . . . because we are the standard bearer and we are committed to safety at the highest level . . . so we will take all the criticism and all the backlash against those that say we are acting too aggressively in this regard. We are not going to be apologetic; we are not going to be defensive about it. We're going to protect our players and hopefully players at the lower levels by example."
Whether the public would love and support a sanitized game is another matter. Former quarterback Trent Dilfer observed quite accurately that it's the gladiatorial element of professional football that makes it so attractive.
Yes, people love passing and scoring, but some of the most celebrated players in the history of the game made their reputations with violent hitting. The Fearsome Foursome, Doomsday Defense and the Steel Curtain were revered because they hurt people. The most dominating team in the modern history of the game is probably the 1985 Chicago Bears, whose signature was knocking out opposing quarterbacks.
When I heard of the league's new remedy, I immediately thought of Dick Butkus and Ronnie Lott, men who would have to be atop any career leader board for delivering violent hits, many to the head. Pro football is richer for their works of devastation. So what is the NFL going to do now, pull their bronzed busts from the Hall of Fame?
I'm not going to chastise the NFL, whatever its motives, for trying to move toward a more civilized game in which health is a consideration, especially because we know exponentially more about head injuries now than we did five years ago and because we'll know so much more in 10 years than we know now. The league would be irresponsible not to take this new information under advisement.
But if the game evolves into something similar to the Arena league, where tackling is an afterthought, will it retain its current allure? Or is our interest in football more basic and barbaric than we want to admit?
How are players who have been taught the same violent tactics since age eight going to suddenly rein in every aggressive impulse during the mayhem of a war-like competition?
What some see as an unwanted tinkering with the product, others of us see as a watershed event in the NFL. And even as the league's intentions should be applauded, the result might leave the country's most popular sport forever tempered.