NFL

Player Safety Comes to the Fore at Owners’ Meeting

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It might seem somewhat pointless, what with the player lockout, but the NFL has to continue functioning – and that means looking at rules changes and disciplinary procedures when the owners’ meeting is held in New Orleans from Sunday to Tuesday.

The lockout might be threatening to, at the very least, delay the 2011 season, but the competition committee must still do its job.

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First up for the owners to discuss will be a clampdown on illegal hits, while also on the agenda are big changes to kickoffs to hopefully reduce injury and modifications to instant replays.

Rightly, player safety is paramount and illegal hits are to be – if the proposals are adopted – punished more severely next season, if there is one. This must happen. Last season, the league introduced fines but not suspensions in relation to what were considered unnecessary hits to the neck and head so as to allow coaches and players time to adjust.

Banning players is the only way to eradicate this worrying trend in football. Fines are all well and good – and should remain as a deterrent – but suspending players will force teams to consider taking internal disciplinary action. No coach wants to be missing vital members of his roster for, say, three or four games in a 16-game regular season, so watch illegal hits disappear once bans become commonplace.

Executive vice-president of football operations Ray Anderson and Rich McKay – the Falcons president and competition committee chairman – have emphasized that players who continuously break the law will be suspended.

Anderson believes the league needs to be “aggressive in disciplining players”, referring to replacing fines with suspensions, but was also concerned with what constitutes “a defenseless player”.

But he does reckon receivers should join quarterbacks, returners catching punts or kicks, grasped runners, grounded players, and kickers and punters in receiving extra protection.

Interestingly, the league will consider retrospective suspensions by looking back over two years to establish who the repeat offenders are. Players might not like this, but it seems reasonable to judge which footballers have been overly aggressive in recent seasons. There will be a few nervous pros casting their minds back right now…

However, McKay made reference to what is probably the most important decision and that is to “add a category that will prohibit illegal launching, which will prohibit people from leaving their feet, springing forward and upward, and delivering a blow with any part of his helmet or facemask”. It’s about time, too, as this practice has been particularly dangerous over the years as there is little or no control involved in this type of tackle.

Also relating to player safety, the committee – which has been worried about concussions and other severe injuries – wants to see kickoffs moved from the 30-yard line to the 35 to basically shorten the field. Also, it proposes that the ball should no longer be spotted at the 20-yard line but the 25 following a touchback.

The aim is to curb the running start players get at a kickoff – and these changes should work. Everyone – players, fans, coaches and sponsors – should welcome alterations that improve player safety. We all want a tough, hard-hitting but fair game.

The NFL plans to make every scoring play reviewable and not only those within the last two minutes of each half. That makes perfect sense, too. It always seemed bizarre that, for some reason, touchdowns during a specific four minutes were more important than those for the other 56 minutes of a game. The most important score can come in the first, 31st or 51st minute. Nothing is certain. That’s part of what makes the sport exciting.

Also, when a replay official asks for a review, the referee would take charge of it, thus removing the need for coaches to challenge scoring plays.

On a final note, it’s incredible, but the only team not demanding at least some payment towards season tickets during this lockout is the New York Giants. It might be tough for teams working ahead of a season that may not even get started, but there is still a damaging recession on and most fans don’t have the cash available to spend on a spectral football season.

Thankfully, following on from the Kansas City Chiefs’ decision, there is now an official policy in place throughout the league that will provide for refunds should games not be played.

Supposedly, there is also to be 1% interest added to refunds, although the Jacksonville Jaguars have upped that to 1.13%. That seems like a minor gesture, but it could be quite costly to the teams. With an average attendance of 66,960 per game last season, that makes 1% interest a big number when taken across all 32 teams.

Hopefully we’ll see some great football next season, but it does still seem insulting to demand payments for a product that may or may not exist in five-and-a-half months.