Earlier this week, NFL owners voted in favor of installing a rule that would require all players to wear thigh and knee pads beginning in the 2013 season.
We know what you're thinking. The concussion epidemic in the NFL is threatening to destroy the very fabric of the league as we've long known it. Lawsuits against the NFL are piling up at a rapid clip. Former players are dealing with serious brain damage and depression. Junior Seau's recent suicide has shaken players, past and present, leaving many to wonder whether the risks of playing football are worth it.
The long-term future of the game is iffy. The negative publicity is cascading over the NFL. Yet now, in an effort to heighten player safety, the NFL is worrying about knee and thigh pads?
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he wants players to consider the improved technology of such pads. Goodell also noted that in a recent conversation with Nike's CEO, he learned that NBA players today are wearing more padding on their upper legs than NFL players.
"There is something wrong with that," Goodell said. "We need to put that protection in."
As usual, Goodell's presence and tone made it seem as if sometihng major had been accomplished with the rule tweak. Yet at a press conference Thursday in Washington, D.C., DeMaurice Smith shrugged at the change. The executive director of the NFL Players Association, Smith wondered aloud whether the NFL was thinking too small with its initiatives. Intentionally.
"I understand the position that the league took and announced the other day on hip pads and thigh pads," Smith said. "It does seem somewhat ironic to me that there have been discussions about hip pads and thigh pads and I certainly don't remember one conversation about how we can develop a better mouthpiece or whether we should have more helmet standards in the National Football League. If the league wants to focus on hip pads and thigh pads right now, I think I understand why."
Asked why the union and the league haven't had more serious conversations about better mouthpieces or increased helmet standards, Smith shot back.
"Ask them," he responded. "Of course we have [raised that issue]."
Smith's inference: in an effort to slow the assault on the dangers of today's game, the NFL is using this new knee and thigh pad rule change to divert the conversation, to create a distraction -- at least temporarily -- away from the far more serious issues than have been grabbing headlines in recent months. It is the union's job, Smith noted, to make sure the big-picture safety discussions aren't derailed.
"Look," Smith said, "when has there been a day when we haven't talked about player health and safety? When I got this job [in 2009], the head of the NFL's concussion committee [Elliot Pellman] was a rheumatologist. It was the players union who took the issue of helmets and concussions to Capitol Hill. It was the players union who built upon the discussions from GQ when they had the article aboue Dr. Omalu's [concussion] studies and asked hard questions about why did the National Football League seek to prevent Dr. Omalu's study from being published. It's the players union who urged the teams to decrease two-a-day practices and to decrease helmet-to-helmet concussions. Because we now know it's not only the big hits that cause problems with players. It's exposing them to repetitive contact that results in either head-to-head or head-to-ground contact."
With a relationship that is growing increasingly prickly, Smith wants Goodell and the league to know that the NFLPA will not slow with its push to protect players across the board.
"I'm proud of our union that we have stood up to make a stand," Smith said. "I know every now and then when the league announces something like hip pads and thigh pads, everybody just wants to talk about hip pads and thigh pads. But the fact is that we have committed ourselves to changing the conversations. And changing that conversation not only includes issues like hip pads and thigh pads. What we have tried to do is confront the National Football League with one simple thought change: that a game can be profitable and fun but a game can also be safe. And as long as we have those kind of discussions, that actually improve the health and safety of our players and make their lives better after they leave this game, that's what we need to do."