In last week’s preseason game between the Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals, defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh acted in a way that opened the doors yet again to the debate regarding illegal hits in the National Football League. A conversation that was fueled by contrasting opinions sparked uproar in the football community, in relation to the professional establishments themselves as well as the game’s followers, revived itself at the sight of Suh’s withholding of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s head in his chest, and tearing him to the ground as the quarterback’s helmet snapped off of his body. Where most defensive players would say they witnessed a play that should be applauded for its fearsome nature, others may say that Suh’s pursuit and finishing of Dalton would be clear and deserving of punishment. From my own perspective, I viewed an act that steps too close for comfort upon the line of an active play being before a defender’s eyes, or rather behind the defender’s ears. No matter what perspective you take on the situation that occurred in the preseason match-up between the Lions and Bengals, it is clear the National Football League had to take action, and did so by fining Suh twenty-thousand dollars, which has since been appealed.
How much blame can one put on the aggressiveness displayed by Suh? We all very well know that this is going to be, and quite so is, a matter of one being the product of the environment he was raised within and continues to dwell within. Since the beginning of Suh’s football career, there is no doubt that such violence was encouraged and applauded by his peers and mentors, as the ones who catered to his very needs as a developing football star were themselves accustomed to such play. Sure, this will be Suh’s third go-around with a fine delivered by the National Football League, but as a former football player myself, and as one who has been surrounded by football fanatics my entire life, I know that such athletes function upon short memories. This style of play that Suh has displayed, more specifically in his man-handling of the likes of Andy Dalton, Jay Cutler, and Jake Delhomme in the past two years, will continue to be engraved within the defensive tackle’s arsenal. Of course he’s outraged at the fine, but I do also believe that with everything you align yourself within, there will be restrictions, and in our adjusted sense of awareness in regards to the medical evidence of today, football needs to adapt to the day, rather than continue the promotion of the game of the past. As much as we want to hold on to it, there will inevitably be increased rates of fines and suspensions.
Suh’s generation of football players, and the generation that laid its impact on the game of football before Suh’s, viewed no harm in the adoration of aggression. Football is one of few sports that allows for such an exertion of anger and outrage, and masks itself beneath a blanket of beauty and uniformity as this perceived disciplined violence gives meaning to who we are. One of the most notable figures who laid the groundwork to what we consider today to be the ‘illegal hit’ went by the name of “The Animal” and “The Enforcer”—former Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus.
More so now than ever is the need for the adjustment of defensive mentality, but the way in which we approach such a task is but a difficult one to imagine. The culture of football is so deeply instilled within the minds of our athletes in a way that may never remove the art of the tackler’s approach, though I’ll be the first to tell you that the art of tackling has since eroded in all levels of play. It’s this cultural understanding of the defensive approach that the National Football League has threatened, and it’s the league’s duty to maintain the public’s perception of the game’s ‘good image’ in whatever way possible. For guys like Butkus, and for many today that step on the same gridirons he once dominated, there is no name to be given to this style of play the league is looking to impose. They don’t consider it football.
Butkus will live infinitely in the National Football League’s Hall of Fame, and stories will be continuously passed down through generations recalling his dominance and desire for opponent demoralization. It will be nearly impossible for some to forget the hits he laid on wide receivers and quarterbacks decades ago, where some of those hits knocked players unconscious. The Chicago Bears have a synopsis of legacy on their team website, where it is said that “Butkus wreaked unprecedented havoc on the offensive units of all other National Football League teams,” which was generated by his “drive, meanness,” and “a consuming desire to pursue, tackle, butt, and manhandle—anything he could do to thwart the enemy on every play.” He was a man known to have played “every game as though it were his last,” and delivered blows to his opponents in a manner that featured a trademark spear to the chinstrap.
According to former Rams defensive end Deacon Jones, “every time (Butkus) hit you he tried to put you in the cemetery, not the hospital.” This guy’s life was football, and everyone embraced it. And above all, people respected it.
Many may say that reigns of the most feared defender in the National Football League at the time was passed on to former Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum in the 1970s, and being a devout Raiders fan myself, I can see where such an opinion stems from. Butkus was, with no doubt, the most feared man in football when he played, but when Tatum’s career sparked, the black and silver’s pride became known as the most dangerous man in the National Football League. Tatum was once quoted saying “I like to believe that my best hits border on felonious assault,” and with such a belief came definitive results, where Tatum would come to drill New England Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley in a 1978 preseason game that left Stingley a permanent quadriplegic, and where his “bone-jarring hit” laid upon Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Sammy White that sent White’s helmet across the field would come to be considered “the most brutal hit in Super Bowl history.” Just watching the tapes of Tatum destroying defenseless receivers and connecting with others in helmet-to-helmet collisions reminded me eerily of the head driven hit that New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather laid upon Baltimore Ravens tight end Todd Heap during the 2010 regular season. Guys like Butkus and Tatum are no longer forces on the field, but their style of play lives on in the minds of the professional athletes we watch every week.
Acknowledging the fact that football needs reform is key, for we cannot keep on with these reminiscent deliveries of illegal blows to the head. We can sure appreciate the past, and reflect upon the mystique of the National Football League’s past, but we sure cannot condone it. We have to learn from it and other resources, specifically that of the amounts of research published by our medical community. But the cyclic nature of football hasn’t allowed for much of a change, and knowing where these athletes are coming from, it’s hard to change. It’s hard to consider all of the implications of damage when you’re given a split second to decide the path you’re set to take to track the ball carrier. You can’t think when you’re out there. It’s mostly a game of read and react.
Defensive players have felt victimized by the recent implementations of rules and regulations that combat the perceived instances of illegal blows to the head, and many have spoken publicly of their frustrations regarding the league’s commissioner’s office in unfairly and unjustly handing out fines to the game’s most feared players. They feel stuck, surrounded, and threatened, but not in a sense that particularly threatens their own playing time—they worry of even more of a larger issue, a threatening of their game.
LaVar Arrington, a since retired NFL linebacker, has opened up with a particular passion in calling attention to the issues of the dilemma we witness form the perspective of the players. He, and many other former professional football players such as Mike Gohlic and Mark Schlereth, view the league as “becoming softer,” and as an attempt to clean up the league’s image in response to its critics rather than primarily focusing on and being motivated by the need to protect the players. Several years ago the National Football League wouldn’t have thought twice about it, and would never have hoped to see the media-driven medical criticism of the league’s treatment and care of players after their careers end. But today we find our game in a vulnerable state, and in a changing state (though to our defensive leaders, a change for the worse), though many cases of illegal hits come to be collisions caused by poor luck, where a receiver’s movement and a defender’s line of fire come to meet at the wrong place at the wrong time.
To foreshadow our previous discussion of the mystique and aggression of players such as Butkus and Tatum, former players like Arrington believe that “certain players of a bygone era wouldn’t be able to play in this league.” Personally, I think that’s an overstatement, but he’s got a valid point with regards to the evolving nature of the game of football. It’s different. Guys like James Harrison who go “out there to hurt people” now have to think twice after they bring down a ball carrier. Did I do something wrong?
Harrison was the face of scrutiny in the realm of illegal hits last season, and according to Ray Anderson, the league’s chief disciplinarian, we should expect an even stricter enforcement of the better-defined rules that constitute defenseless players and impermissible blows. The league will be compiling a profile of ‘repeat offenders’ who will be more likely at chance for suspension this upcoming regular season. Sorry James, but I’m sure your name is already on that list.
In the words of Anderson, “everyone will be very clearly on notice now that a suspension is very viable for us and we will exercise it.” I’m sure that players are outraged by such a decision, and NFL fans cringe at the thought of their best linebackers being ‘on notice’ for a track record of illegal hits. In addition to a more publicly aware potentiality of suspensions being handed out, the league has also further defined its rules regarding a defenseless player. They are as follows:
+ A quarterback in the act of throwing.
+ A quarterback at any time after a change in possession.
+ A ball carrier already in the grasp of tacklers and having his forward progress stopped.
+ A receiver attempting to catch a pass.
+ A receiver who receives a blindside block.
+ A player fielding a punt or kickoff.
+ Any player that is already on the ground.
I believe it’s a reasonable list of defenselessness, and falls into a category of common sense. We haven’t seen too much criticism from the players regarding the defenseless player, but again, as we come full circle, it is that of the player fines and suspensions that triggers the uproar.
According to Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher:
“I don’t like the rule, I don’t think any defensive player likes it. We’re still going to try to separate the ball from the player, that’s what we do as defense. We’ve been taught that since we were kids, that’s what we’re going to try and keep doing.”
And with regards to the league’s fairness and handling in assigning fines and suspensions, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu worries of the clarity and properness of the process that determines such figures. He believes that there could and should be a “more democratic process” that further involves the players and other league figures, as the “process could be cleaned up.” With Polamalu, I agree, as we will continually see fines based on the wrong place at the wrong time predicament, which has come to effect the financial pockets of some players and has resulted in inside disapproval of the commissioner’s credibility. Even so, something has to be done.
Michael Kaplen, chair of the New York State Traumatic Brain Injury Services Coordinating Council, has been very proactive in speaking out against the National Football League and it’s handling of the concussion crisis at hand that has so dominantly spread throughout the ranks of professional and amateur football organizations. Though I disagree with him on some points regarding his perception of the game of football, I do believe that he has many ideas on the right track, specifically concerning the need for cultural change headed by the most prized institution in professional sports—the National Football League itself.
“The NFL for years has been compliant in selling violence and they are a part of the problem. They are content to sell violence and violence is not cool. My concern is not with the NFL but with the Pop Warner and high school players. They emulate what they see. You start changing the attitude with the NFL and work your way down. The NFL players don’t get it.”
Absolutely. The National Football League, whom I have openly criticized in respect to its denial of medical fact and handling of its former players once their lives are done on the field, is the problem, and though it has been active in raising awareness in the past year or so, it still has a much larger task to take on—that being the realization of knowing that our youth athletes look up to this league, and that the actions of the league’s players ultimately mold into the character of young players that will come to follow them throughout the extent of their football careers. It’s a matter of a cultural machismo that has valued the dehumanized aggression and infliction of pain rather than the beauty of form and execution. As I have mentioned, tackling has now become a lost art, and with that we will continue to see injuries. And with the lost sense of technique that has become a fundamental epidemic in the sport itself, we are also plagued by the attitudes that still flourish throughout the programs that head our youth athletes.
Even with my own experience as a high school football player I have seen the root to what we now view as the annoyance of illegal hits and player fines and suspensions in the National Football League. And it is something that stems from my before mentioned point of the fine line between a play being before your or behind your ears. When I was still playing, my high school linebackers coach had a philosophy that was encouraged and expected from his entire unit, but was looked down upon only when you were caught. His philosophy: play five seconds after the whistle.
The reality is that our favorite athletes are getting ‘caught’ now, and we need to, as fans and as athletes, understand the time that we live in. Take the time to browse an article that descriptively explains the implications of repetitive concussions, especially in former athletes in this case, for the more we come to actually learn rather than hear of this issue, the more fundamental cultural change we will come to see, and improvement will be known.
I’ll stand by this—you can still play football with the violence that we all know and love, even with the regulations that have been introduced. It’s just a matter of removing ignorance and unnecessary acts that don’t categorize themselves within what is defined as football.