"Player safety." Whenever the NFL implements a rule, you usually hear or see those two words.
"Player safety," on the surface, seems like a laudable goal. But reality is much different. What "player safety" really is is a marketing ploy. It's a slogan designed to tell football fans and casual viewers that while this sport is dangerous, the NFL is keeping its players safe.
Think of why kickoffs were moved up to the 35-yard-line and touchbacks gave the offense team the ball at the 25-yard-line. Player safety! Not that it stops teams from returning kickoffs, but it gives the appearance that the NFL is doing something.
Quarterbacks, the league's big money earners and star attractions, receive extra protection. If you're a pass rusher and the nail on your pinky finger grazes the quarterback's helmet? FLAG! "Roughing the passer."
"Player safety," you see.
New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski lost his cool Sunday and performed an elbow drop on Buffalo Bills cornerback Tre'Davious White's head. Gronkowski was penalized. He has been suspended. But the NFL wiped out that penalty because there were multiple fouls on the play. The lone penalty they enforced was on Jerry Hughes because he said something to an official.
Last I checked, a tongue lashing won't give you CTE. The Bills were backed up 15 yards even though this exchange all started because Gronkowski decided to do his best impersonation of The Rock.
"Player safety" ... except if you say a naughty word to an official. The horror!
(Gronkowski has been suspended, which is fine. More on this later.)
And then there's Monday night. What a train wreck. The Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers squared off in an absolute blood bath. Ryan Shazier suffered a spinal cord contusion because he dipped his head while tackling a Bengal. He clearly couldn't use his legs after the play. It's possible he may never play football again.
Vontaze Burfict, who is Public Enemy No. 1 in the War on Player Safety, took a shot the head from JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster should be suspended. He should get the Gronk treatment. Burfict, as questionable as his past actions have been, doesn't deserve to get popped in the dome. It was a dirty play. (He was penalized.)
Not to be outdone, the Bengals got back at the Steelers with a shot to Antonio Brown's head on a touchdown catch. Another dirty hit. The flags flew.
Throwing a flag and handing out 15-yard penalties is nice. "Player safety," after all. But it's not the best the NFL can do.
Gronkowski should have been kicked out of the game. The same for Smith-Schuster and George Iloka, who delivered the hit on Brown. There should be no place in the game for these kinds of hits. The NFL for reasons that clearly have nothing to do with "player safety," has been reluctant to eject players for hits to the head. That should end now.
The NFL has spent weeks figuring out how to respond to this faux controversy over the national anthem. President Donald Trump has used his bully pulpit to make it an issue, even though it's not a serious problem. The fact is a vast majority of players stand for the anthem. By comparison, a small minority take a knee.
But the league ignores what is a bigger public relations issue, and that's "player safety." On Monday night, many Twitter users commented about the Bengals-Steelers game. You could tell they weren't comfortable watching this brand of football. This is a remarkable shift in thinking when you consider it wasn't long ago that most people would have said, "This is football." There are still those who subscribe to that way of thinking, but clearly there are more who look at game like the one Monday night and wonder about football's future.
And that's the real issue here. Without true player safety, football won't survive. There is no timeline for its demise, but it could happen. It could happen because fewer young people want to play a game that scrambles their brains or could result in serious injury because of a bad tackle or violent collision. We see this in high school programs across the country. While some continue to thrive, others are struggling to field a full roster.
Some of it is young people realizing the effects of the game and they want to avoid it at all costs. You also have parents who won't let their children play because of the risks.
The NFL needs to take player safety seriously. It starts with the league, which long ignored the effects of repeated head trauma. Blows to the head, such as the Gronkowski elbow drop on White and the Smith-Schuster blind side hit on Burfict, should be automatic ejections. But that's not all. A multi-game suspension should accompany any hit. In both cases, those hits were clearly intentional, illegal and unnecessary. You want to show players you're serious? Give them a three-, four- or five-game suspension for trying to concuss an opponent. If they do it again? Double the penalty. If they do it a third time? Kick them out of the league. Send the message that the NFL believes in safety and you're endangering your competitors.
Owners and front office types are also responsible. They run NFL teams. They must play an important role in emphasizing safety and speaking out when the league should do more. Coaches should instruct players on proper technique that could help lower the rate of head injuries. They should also hold their own players accountable. How many times do we hear coaches rant about holding their teams accountable for bad play or turnovers? These guys should clean up their own house when it comes to dirty hits. If one of your players commits such a foul, punish him. Suspend him. Send a message that this isn't good for the sport, it's not good for the league and it's not representative of our football team.
Finally, the players. This is about their health, right? They should watch out for each other. Competing is fine. Trying to concuss your opponent is not. Of all players, Gronkowski should know what it's like to miss time due to injury. It's not a great feeling. It's not where you want to be. You want to be on the field.
Bengals receiver A.J. Green was right when he said, "We need to take care of each other." Competing is fine. Committing dirty fouls and injuring opponents is not.
Hopefully the NFL uses the Bengals-Steelers game as a moment to take necessary action and launch a real effort aimed at achieving player safety. The current approach isn't working and it's hurting the league. There needs to be change or it won't be long until the NFL is a shell of its former self.