NFL violence makes strange bedfellows.
With Super Bowl XLVII looming, President Obama and Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard have both expressed serious reservations about the future of the NFL. In an interview with The New Republic published over the weekend, Obama suggested that the game "will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence." Pollard, considered one of the premier (and reviled, at least in New England) dispensers of mayhem in the sport, fears that the NFL may be headed for an unprecedented tragedy and ultimately cease to exist.
"The league is trying to move in the right direction [with player safety] but, at the same time, [coaches] want bigger, stronger and faster year in and year out. And that means you're going to keep getting big hits and concussions and blown-out knees," Pollard told CBS Sports. "The only thing I'm waiting for ... and, Lord, I hope it doesn't happen ... is a guy dying on the field. We've had everything else happen there except for a death. We understand what we signed up for, and it sucks."
Despite fearing such a horrific in-game moment, Pollard plays the game at the very edge of the rules -- and some would say frequently beyond them. If not for his crushing tackle on Patriots running back Stevan Ridley -- which included a helmet-to-helmet impact resulting in a fumble and a concussion for Ridley -- Pollard's Ravens may not have advanced to the Super Bowl.
“It was just a tremendous hit. It was football at its finest," gushed Ravens head coach John Harbaugh after the AFC Championship Game, via The Sports Network. "It was Bernard Pollard making a great physical tackle — just as good a tackle as you’re ever going to see in football right there. That just probably turned the game around right there.”
Responding to Obama's comments, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told ESPN on Sunday that the NFL has "no higher priority than player health and safety at all levels of the game."
Pollard believes that the rule revisions and half measures intended to increase player safety coming out of the Commissioner's office could actually lead to the end of the league.
"Thirty years from now, I don't think it will be in existence," Pollard told CBS. "I could be wrong. It's just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going -- where they [NFL rules makers] want to lighten up, and they're throwing flags and everything else -- there's going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it."
Can the NFL effectively legislate its way to safety? Would such changes alter the game too much to hold fan interest? And if they don't, will the sort of premium punishment that Pollard doles out make his worst-case scenario of a death on the field an inevitability? Will rule changes and equipment upgrades be able to improve player safety or must the game itself change?
With so many questions looming and the studies about increased awareness of CTE revealing the long-term impacts of playing football, Obama told TNR that he would have to "think long and hard" before allowing a son to play the sport. It seems like Pollard would agree with him.
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