NFL lost when it comes to regulating player safety

In the NFL, big hits are a common occurrence. When you have the fastest, strongest and most athletic players playing a physical game on a 120 x 53 yd playing surface, ultimately hard collisions are to be expected.

Over the past five seasons, it has been the NFL’s primary focal point under commissioner Roger Goodell to regulate player safety. However, the league has been going about it all wrong. Rather than worry about which hits are technically illegal, i.e. helmet-to-helmet hits, and ones that can do the most damage (hits that go low to ball carrier’s knees), they instead are lost in how violent a hit looks.

There have been a number of examples over the past few seasons but I think there has been no starker contrast to what is right and what is wrong than with how the league dealt with two serious hits in week two of the preseason.

First there was this physical shot from Chicago Bears rookie linebacker Jon Bostic on San Diego Chargers wide receiver Mike Willie. This hit was not penalized during the game, yet when the league reviewed the play they issued a $21K fine to Bostic. Apparently the league found that the hit was illegal because Bostic lowered his head to hit a “defenseless” receiver according to a source cited by ESPN.

Conversely, there was this hit by Houston Texans’ rookie safety D.J. Swearinger on Miami Dolphins’ tight end Dustin Keller. As you can see in the video, Swearinger went low on Keller, hitting him square in his right knee. As a result, Keller suffered a dislocated knee and torn ACL, MCL and PCL ligaments. Keller’s season is over and a long rehab awaits him just to recover full strength in the joint. Perhaps at more concern is Keller’s career. The tight end was on a one-year contract with Miami, now that he won’t play a single down for them this year, it is unlikely Miami will re-sign him at the end of the season. Considering the rehab he faces, whether any team offers him a contract in the spring of 2014 seems unlikely.

Swearinger’s hit was not penalized by the officiating crew calling the game and has not drew a fine from the league office. It has been deemed legal.

There you have it. Two hits within the span of a couple of days, one deemed illegal by the league office because a player went high (Bostic clearly hits Willie in the chest with his shoulder pads) and caused no lasting harm to the opponent, while the other was deemed legal despite possibly ending a player’s career.

This is the current state of the NFL. It is a league that is too concerned with how violent hits appear rather than what is “clean” and what isn’t. When you take action against defenders like Bostic — whether that action is a fine, penalty or suspension — you are dictating how that player plays in the future, and thus, dictating how the game is played. This cannot be viewed lightly.

By penalizing players for hitting “defenseless” receivers high, you are forcing them to go low. Low in the way that Swearinger did to Keller, destroying Keller’s knee and possibly his career.

The NFL needs to re-examine just what hits are truly illegal. Take emotion and appearance out of it. The NFL employs the best football players in the world. The game is played at the fastest, most physical level of any sport today. Decisions and reactions are made within the smallest fractions of seconds. When a violent collision occurs, it is often a result of the speed and physicality of the game, rather than a player performing that action in an illegal manner.

Bostic reacted to what he saw. Chargers quarterback Phillip Rivers looked to his right after receiving a shotgun snap and found receiver Willie on an inside slant mere feet from where Bostic stood. Bostic took one step to his left, lowered his pad level and struck Willie in the chest separating him from the ball, causing an incomplete pass. A textbook hit, Bostic was not penalized for the hit by the officiating crew overseeing the game.

The violence of the hit came from the speed at which the game is played. Willie was running at top speed and Bostic made a fast-twitch muscle reaction with as much force as the 6-foot, 1-inch 245-pound linebacker possesses. Those two forces meeting in such a manner results in a violent collision. It is nothing more than physics.

On the other hand, you have hits like the one Swearinger put on Keller that are far more calculated. Swearinger had a good second or two to determine just where he should hit Keller. He decided to go low in part because of the size difference in the two players, but probably also because of the way the NFL is policing high hits.

Ultimately, the high hit was clean and left no lasting injury to either player involved while the low hit left Keller with a season-ending injury to his knee.

An injury that need not have happened if the league simply made the correct call on what a “legal” hit is versus what an “illegal” hit is.

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