In pro football, things may be changing.
As recently as one year ago, in testimony before the House Committee on the Judiciary, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said “it is fair to assume that head trauma may play a role” in chronic traumatic encephalopathy. A sentence later, he pointed out that CTE “is not limited to football players.”
Regarding point the second, he’s right. People whose heads smash into windshields during automobile accidents suffer brain injuries, too, as do soldiers in close proximity to explosions. The same can be said of people who tumble out of windows or off roofs and land on their heads.
But the point here is that in less than a year, the Commissioner has moved from “head trauma may play a role” to levying significant fines on players who create said head trauma by crashing into their opponents in ways that violate the NFL’s rules. The league also announced this week that “players will be held accountable under a strict liability standard for illegal hits,” and though no one can be certain exactly what that may mean, it sounds ominous, unless you’re an attorney looking for work.
Reaction to the fines of $50,000 and $75,000 that resulted from last weekend’s hits have varied. Brian Urlacher, a linebacker with the Chicago Bears, opined as follows: “I think it’s a bunch of bull (bleep).” James Harrison, a linebacker with the Pittsburgh Steelers, speaking about hits with which he’d caused Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi to suffer concussions on Sunday said, “If I get fined for that, it’s going to be a travesty.” Brandon Meriweather of the New England Patriots, whose helmet-on-helmet hit on Todd Heap of the Ravens on Sunday earned him a $50,000 fine, said afterward, “I won’t change my game, period.”
So, actually, perhaps among the players, reaction to the fines isn’t so varied. But their employer is scuttling for cover. In the not-so-distant past, the National Football League has cheerfully lent its logo to video games featuring hits that would be illegal if delivered by real players. The league has marketed itself with film that highlights especially violent collisions. But on Wednesday morning, the NFL removed from a website with which it partners and from which it profits pictures of last weekend’s illegal hits.
“We regret the mistake,” league spokesman Greg Aiello said of a policy that had never before been regarded as such.
Could that be the sound of the falling acorn from which some oak of significance might grow?