Whether you think the NFL has paid mostly lip service to the problems of concussions, head trauma and ultimately CTE in modern football or you think the league has made significant and meaningful strides in those directions, we can probably all agree that the NFL is at least doing more than it was 10, 5 or maybe even two years ago.
Rules penalizing hits on defenseless players and hits to the head — particularly helmet-to-helmet contact — can have a meaningful impact on a team’s momentum and a player’s wallet. Once those things happen enough times, it theoretically makes them less likely to happen as frequently.
But the NFL also is engaged in a delicate, near-impossible dance in this regard on two fronts.
For starters, football at the highest level is an incredibly fast-moving and violent game played by men coached to be physical right up to a specific point. A hit aimed at a shoulder can become a hit to the head if a defender moves at the last moment. Or a defensive player, caught in the heat of the moment of trying to make a play — or one trying to send a message of retaliation or intimidation — might cross that line on his own.
The second point is a little trickier, but it seems to me that the NFL’s move to penalize certain types of hits that used to be legal in the name of safety — a good thing in principle — has divided fans into two camps. And neither side is particularly happy.
The last week has provided fodder for an example of what I’m talking about.
Not to be lost in President Trump’s inflammatory comments last Friday about what to do with players who kneel during the national anthem was his rant about this very topic.
“Today if you hit too hard –15 yards! Throw him out of the game! They had that last week. I watched for a couple of minutes. Two guys, just really, beautiful tackle. Boom, 15 yards!” Trump said during a speech in Alabama. “The referee gets on television — his wife is sitting at home, she’s so proud of him. They’re ruining the game! They’re ruining the game. That’s what they want to do. They want to hit. They want to hit! It is hurting the game.”
Fast-forward from that point to Thursday night, when the Bears’ Danny Trevathan — his team losing a chippy game to the rival Packers — lined up Green Bay wide receiver Davante Adams, who who was being controlled by another tackler with his forward progress stopped, and delivered a brutal helmet-to-helmet hit that sent Adams off on a stretcher.
Most of the reactions I saw on Twitter were focused on outrage at the hit. Then again, a curated Twitter feed of like-minded people is hardly a good sample. It doesn’t take long to find examples of people who loved the hit.
There was a point in time when that kind of hit would have been celebrated by a plurality of fans watching. We can’t speak for Trump in this specific case, but the tone of his rhetoric last week gave voice to the type of fan that still wants to see violent hits and thinks rules protecting players have made the game soft in some way.
Trevathan was flagged 15 yards, the Packers’ drive was extended and after a delay they scored a quick touchdown. The intent of the rule to penalize a team for an illegal hit was validated, but it didn’t protect Adams. So even if you like NFL rules protecting players, you come to realize that the very nature of the game makes that impossible and that when players do cross the line and get flagged, the player on the other end of the target still suffers.
The NFL is at a seeming crossroads with fans on a lot of subjects, including national anthem protests. But if you want the most lasting reason the league’s popularity could see a meaningful decline, it’s this: Some fans think it’s too violent, and some think it’s too soft.
To sustain its massive popularity, the league needs both groups, but keeping both happy might be impossible.