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Monday, February 4, 2013

8 Ways to Truly Improve Player Safety

The NFL has harped on one issue for the last year:  Safety.

Safety, safety, safety. That's all we've heard. Concussions. Blows to the head. Make the game safer. Make it less violent.

How's that working out for you, Roger Goodell?

It was noteworthy that, on the biggest stage, there were no penalties for illegal hits, and very few flags for the incessant pushing/punching/shoving that occurred after the play. Mercifully, it allowed the game to move along more quickly, and that's always a good thing when the Ravens are involved. (The less Ravens, the better).

But the message was clear. It's okay to police that stuff during the season or even in the playoffs. But at the Super Bowl? We don't want the biggest game messed up with any of this "safety" or "sportsmanship" stuff.

This is just more evidence that NFL Commissioner Goodell doesn't want safety from anything other than lawsuits.

Ever since this started, the "safety" measures enacted by the league have largely been window-dressing. Villify the most violent players in the game, and have the evidence to bring to court that you're trying to make the game more safe. That might keep you from having to make a million-dollar payout to the family of Junior Seau or Dave Duerson.

And I don't totally blame Goodell for this trend. He's following in the footsteps of his predecessors who believed that the NFL was too big to fail and simply needed to cover up their disregard for the players that make it happen. Just read the case of Mike Webster if you don't believe that.

The difference is that Goodell is taking very public actions to supposedly end the violence. Two things about that.

First, it's impossible. Football is a violent game, particularly at the NFL level. And as long as the league makes money off big hit videos, the violence will not decrease.

Second, these public actions ignore several private realities about such safety measures. That reality is that they are a drop in the bucket. What if the NFL was REALLY concerned about player safety and football's future? Here is a list of measures that the league needs to take if it is serious, or expects to be taken seriously:

1. Standardize the helmet requirements:  Helmets can't prevent concussions, but they can certainly help. I've watched the Pittsburgh Steelers for years, and defensive linemen Casey Hampton and Aaron Smith looked like they had beanies instead of helmets.

A number of players don't like the look or feel of the most advanced helmet technology. Tough crap. Make them wear the best helmet available and make sure it fits as it should. If it doesn't, then get them off the field. And while you're at it, make sure they strap it on properly!

2. Require a mouthpiece:  Some doctors have argued for years that the right mouthpiece/mouthguard can help reduce concussions. Make every player wear one. Even the kickers.

3. Widen the field:  Players are significantly bigger, stronger and faster, but the playing surface is the same. Add 5-10 yards on each side, and there is more room to move, gather and properly tackle or avoid helmet contact.

4.  Fine players for poor technique:  Two of the worst concussions in the league this year occurred on running backs who lowered their head before contact. If you're going to penalize and fine defensive backs for leading with the head, then why not fine running backs for poor technique?

Some helmet-to-helmet hits are unavoidable, but many of them involve poor technique by the players. Fine them or suspend them, and the lowering of the head may stop.

5.  Suspensions, not fines:  Forget the ridiculous fine system. Suspend violators, cost them a paycheck, and hurt the team. This will push players to use better technique and push coaches/organizations to preach and teach proper technique.

6. Expand the roster:  This is the point where the NFL can put its money where its enormous mouth is. Put 53 on the active roster, 60 total, and expand the practice squad to 10. Yes, it will cost more; but it will also give teams greater flexibility to hold out an injured player because they will have more options.

If necessary, contract the Lions, Browns, and Jaguars franchises to increase the talent pool. Hey, if you haven't made it to the Super Bowl by now, it may be time to move on.

7. Hire real doctors:  Not team doctors, but REAL doctors.

After getting knocked senseless in the AFC Championship game, Patriots running back Stevan Ridley went to the locker room. He then returned to the sidelines, just moments later. My understanding is that concussion victims need to be still, quiet and limited lighting as soon as possible after the injury.

So why would a doctor let a player run back to the sidelines if he needs immobility, quiet, and darkness? A doctor needs to have the authority to look at these injuries objectively and tell players that they need to stay put.

It's pretty hard to say, "Tom Brady needs to sit" when the guy that pays you is saying, "He needs to play." Remove the teams from those decisions as much as possible.

8. Pay for Little League safety:  As stated in my last column, the game is in danger at the lower levels. Do whatever has to be done to get the equipment, education and training to the rec leagues around the nation. Relieve the safety threats and lawsuits at that level if you want the game to grow.

The NFL has the money and the clout to help youth, high school and even college teams get the proper equipment and training to deal with head injuries (or any other injury). They need to invest to make sure that happens.

Will any of these things happen? I doubt it. The hubris of Goodell and the NFL will not allow them to be humbled into making changes. They believe that they are too big to fail, and that unfortunately may be their undoing.

And that attitude will cause the game, and everyone involved in it, to suffer.

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