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Who is the NFL Really Trying to Protect?

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After a weekend of particularly injurious football hits, the NFL is talking about ramping up the enforcement of it's current rules. NFL officials are proposing stricter punishments for violations, including suspensions for dangerous hits. On Monday, NFL Football Operations Executive Ray Anderson said:

We've got to get the message to players that these devastating hits and head shots will be met with a very necessary higher standard of accountability.

Every ESPN sportscaster jumped on the word "devastating." Then Anderson back peddled. Tuesday, on the ESPN radio show, Mike and Mike in the Morning, he said:

I don't know where the word devastating came from. That's not my word. What I would tell you is that if there are flagrant and egregious violations of our current rules, we will be enforcing, effective immediately, discipline at a higher level.

The NFL wants to appear to be operating in the best interest of its players, but its recent campaign to enforce the rules seems tailored to placating its sponsors, not its players. In fact, the NFL's actions might actually make it more difficult for players to safely and fairly play the game.

First of all, Anderson's evolving rhetoric is already confusing, ambiguous, and subjective. What, exactly, qualifies as a devastating hit? Or is devastating not the standard anymore? What makes a violation of a rule egregious? What happens if a hit follows the existing rules, but yields a horrific injury?

Without question, teams who try harder to follow the rules will lose. If you hesitate while making hits, you're going to lose. There isn't time to think in the midst of play. This season, teams are tougher than ever. Everyone is playing hard, and if your players back off for fear of suspension, but the others teams' players don't, you will lose.

Finally, certain players will be made examples of. Nobody really knows how the rule is going to be enforced because the standards are so subjective. What's most likely is that it's going to be arbitrarily enforced when the next shocking hit happens, setting an example for everyone in the NFL. This will leave players frustrated and confused as to what constitutes a flagrant violation.

The NFL is like that erratic teacher in high school, who always let students get away with talking in class, but comes back from Christmas break dead-set on enforcing the rules. The first kid to get caught talking in class is going to be publicly tarred and feathered, so that the rest of the class knows the teacher is serious. But she's not going to be able to catch every offender, every time. So the kids are going to feel like the system is unreliable and unfair.

If this were really about player safety, the NFL would take action to create clearly defined rules that specifically target the most dangerous types of hits. In order to decipher which hits deserve stronger punishments, the NFL would review statistics on the types of hits that have the highest probability to cause serious injuries. Flagrant violations of those specific rules would lead to automatic suspension, every time. And there would be some text in the rules that clarifies exactly what constitutes a flagrant violation.

Instead, The NFL is basing its tougher enforcement of the rules on subjective standards that may have more to do with the audience's perception of the hit than violations of specific clauses. If a hit appears devastating -- that's my word, and fans are upset, the stricter standards of punishment are likely to be enforced. There's not going to be a lot of room to judge intent either. During a hit, bodies change positions in a matter of nanoseconds. A player may appear to have been leading with his shoulder, but in the last possible second, his helmet collides with his opponent. Is that flagrant? There's so much ambiguity.

At the end of the day, the NFL has two primary interests: pleasing viewers and pleasing sponsors. Viewers love to watch big, exciting hits, but nobody enjoys watching a player get carted off the field. No sponsor wants to buy advertising slots during a sport that causes viewers to cringe -- especially when the game is played during primetime and supposed to be family-friendly.

A devastating injury to a star player in the league would also be a devastating injury to the NFL's bottom line. Viewers would be horrified, sponsors would bail, and the sport would suffer a serious PR crisis. The NFL isn't about to let that happen. So they're taking action -- on their terms.

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