Souhan: NFL violence can be curbed without hurting popularity

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 18, 2012 - 11:40 AM
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The NFL must develop a soft helmet, because the current hard-shelled helmet is too easily used as a weapon on the field.

Photo: Denis Poroy, Associated Press

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The NFL can't continue down its current path in good conscience, and it might not be able to survive financially or legally as evidence ever more specifically reveals that tackle football damages brains, and squadrons of former players file lawsuits against the league.

How can the most popular sport in American history maintain its status while protecting its players and its future?

1. Change the helmet. The encompassing, beautifully decorated, hard-shelled helmet is unique to football. It has become a pervasive symbol. It has also become a weapon.

The NFL must develop a soft helmet. Rugby, lacrosse and hockey all feature hard checking, but players in those sports know it would be foolish and dangerous to lead with their heads. So they don't.

2. Increase penalties. Whatever the composition of the helmet, the league must eliminate all hits with and to the head. If players are punished severely enough, they will adapt. Throw anyone hitting with or to the head out of the game, and suspend him for the following game.

Take away his paycheck for those two games. They will learn fast.

3. Decrease pad size. Huge shoulder pads make players feel impervious. Smaller pads would lessen the willingness of defenders to launch themselves into offensive players and increase the popularity of old-fashioned form tackling.

4. Institute stricter testing. One of the funniest ongoing jokes in American sports is that baseball has been flayed in the court of public opinion for allowing performance-enhancing drugs to alter the game, while hulks of previously unimaginable proportions have increased the popularity of the NFL.

Force equals mass times acceleration. Reduce the size and speed of chemically altered players and you will reduce trauma.

5. Increase field size. A longer and/or wider field would make smaller, quicker players more valuable and create need for defenders who are valued more for coverage skills and sure tackling than hitting.

6. Call unnecessary roughness. The rule is already on the books. It just needs to be applied more liberally, and literally. If a defender uses more force than necessary to bring down an opponent or jar loose a pass, make an example of him, and keep making examples until the player learns.

7. Pay players more. It's more clear than ever that NFL players are sacrificing their bodies for our enjoyment. They are the engine that drives an incredibly popular and lucrative business. They deserve to be paid far more than they currently make.

We also have learned that a frightening number of NFL players go broke once they leave the league, so a portion of their raises should be put into a retirement fund that can't be touched until they've been out of the league for a few years, at which point they might be better prepared to handle their finances responsibly.

8. Educate rookies. "Education" in these cases often sounds better than it is, but the NFL should at least accept the responsibility for explaining the risks of playing in the league to prospective players.

The NFL should work in conjunction with the players union to graphically explain what happens to a player's body and brain if he plays football for a living.

9. Eliminate celebration of violence. The NFL has great influence with its rightsholders, and its rightsholders determine what we see on broadcasts and highlight shows. It wasn't long ago that ESPN and Fox were celebrating violent hits. The pendulum should continue to swing toward responsible broadcasting.

When a player is injured with a violent hit, that's not a highlight, it's a new development in an ongoing news story that should be examined and critiqued.

10. Fire old-school broadcasters. Enough with the tales of glory from the good old days of blood-and-guts football. It's not nostalgic to remember when players gouged each other's eyes in piles and clotheslined enemies; it's irresponsible.

Take a hint from two of the best analysts in the game: Troy Aikman and Cris Collinsworth. They're smart and prescient and refuse to glorify mindless violence.

The NFL can become less violent and survive. It can't be assured of remaining this violent and surviving.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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