The NFL is violent. In the past, the violence was acceptable, even glorified. However, with a generation of former players drawing attention to the long-term effects of head injuries—and the league facing publicized law suits—player safety has become a hot topic.
The greatest area of concern surrounds concussions, and the NFL has introduced multiple measures to keep players with concussions off the field. Now, the attention is focused on helmet-to-helmet hits.
Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed was recently suspended for having four helmet-to-helmet hits over the past three years. The fourth, which came against the Pittsburgh Steelers, was far from a vicious hit and occurred in part because receiver Emmanuel Sanders lowered his head. The suspension was overturned, but the NFL's message was clear. Players must adjust their style to avoid helmet-to-helmet hits... or face consequences as severe as suspension.
Some have suggested that the NFL employ a “red card” type rule, in which players are ejected from the game for egregious helmet-to-helmet hits. On the face of it, this ejection seems less harsh than a suspension. However, the process through which a suspension is decided allows for unlimited review and takes into account players' past infractions. Furthermore, the appeal process allows for a second perspective, independent of the league.
Currently, penalties that are considered to be “subjective” cannot be reviewed. This is because calling such a penalty is up to the officials' discretion, and a taking a second look at the play won't result in any conclusive observation. Ejections for helmet-to-helmet hits would be up to the officials' discretion.
The effect an ejection could have on a game and even a team's record is great enough that the decision should not be subjectively decided within the time constriction of a game. Moreover, the inability of an official to make a decision based on a player's history and the lack of an appeal process make ejections much more arbitrary than suspensions.
Officials can have a significant impact on the outcome of a game. For the sake of competition, officials should be as unobtrusive as possible. The rules should be enforced to facilitate play, not to affect the results of the game.
Changing rules makes a statement, and the NFL is eager to make it widely known that the league is focused on preventing concussions. Facing law suits and negative attention, the league is looking to make a splash. While garnering attention for taking extreme measures to change the game, the NFL is ignoring another option that could improve player safety.
James Harrison, one of the most frequent offenders of helmet-to-helmet contact, wears a helmet that is reinforced with Kevlar. Other players around the league do the same. However, the league does not require players to take advantage of the extra protection such helmets provide.
Player safety , especially regarding concussions, is extremely important. As the NFL learns more about head injuries and their lasting impacts, the league is obligated to take the issue seriously. However, a rule change that would allow a player to be ejected from a game at the discretion of a crew of officials and without extensive review could not be applied in a consistent, fair way.