American football is a violent sport. Fans delight in watching hard tackles and television programs replay jarring hits. But are some hits too dangerous? There are passionate reactions to the National Football League's recent crackdown on hard hits.
With improved training and advances in sports science, American football players are bigger, stronger, faster and harder-hitting than ever before.
For decades the NFL has prided itself on physical action that draws thousands of spectators to stadiums across the country, and millions of television viewers each week during the season. In recent years, the NFL has become increasingly concerned, however, that some hits are too violent.
Several head-to-head blows two weeks ago left players unconscious on the field. Although some of the tackles were penalized as rough play, others were let go as part of the inherently violent nature of the sport. Now with the number of player concussions on the rise, though, top NFL officials took action to help prevent dangerous hits to the head.
Last week, NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Ray Anderson released a video for all league teams that highlights legal and illegal hits. He warned players that disciplinary action would be taken if the rules were not heeded. Anderson stressed that dangerous hits have no place in American football.
"If you attempt to break up a pass and deliver an illegal hit to the neck or head area, you are accountable, even though you are aiming at a moving target," said Anderson. "That is the rule. Protecting players from needless injuries is our goal. Hits to the head or the neck area that are reckless and wild must be eliminated."
Some players dissent
Although player safety is a major concern, the NFL crackdown has not been well-received by some of the players.
The NFL announced large fines for defensive players involved in the head-to-head collisions. Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison was fined $75,000 because of repeated rough play. Harrison threatened to retire, calling the penalty unfair.
Players like Arizona Cardinals linebacker Joey Porter see themselves as being unfairly targeted and say the new rules will adversely affect how they play. "It was already bad for the defense when they made all the rules for [to help protect] the quarterback. You couldn't touch them. We might as well go out there and play flag football."
ESPN television football analyst and former NFL defensive lineman Mark Schlereth echoed the sentiments of many defensive players who say that hard hits are part of the game.
"You can't basically take the National Football League - and what we do as players in the National Football League - and basically eliminate contact from the National Football League. The game of football is about going out there and trying to separate the man from the ball. It's going out there and playing hard. And it's going out there and trying to get after people. That's what the game has been based on."
Schlereth adds that a lot of what happens on the field is instinctive. "It's reaction. I mean the players are so fast, they're so big, they're so strong, it happens in a moment's notice. It's not like players are out there going, 'Watch me try to decapitate somebody. 'They're out there basically saying, 'I've got to do my thing and I've got to eliminate this play.'"
League says new rule is in game's best interest
But the NFL and some of its players say it is in the best interest of all players to limit certain types of tackles. They say the league merely is trying to protect its players and that some violent hits are unnecessary.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman saw the games two Sundays ago and voiced concern about the potential for injuries. "I saw a couple hits. I just think sometimes hitting a guy high helmet-to-helmet is unnecessary. I mean, from that standpoint you don't really want to hurt anybody or put anybody out for the season with a concussion or neck injury. But other than that, just play football."
Although it is impossible to eliminate every helmet-to-helmet hit, the NFL says the new rules will deter players from going for unnecessarily rough tackles.
If last week is any indication, players can pull back and still be effective. The hard hits are not going to go away and neither are the fans.