Following his team's victory in the AFC title game, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh was asked about the fumble-inducing hit Bernard Pollard put on Patriots running back Stevan Ridley in the fourth quarter of a then-one-score game, and he called the play "football at its finest."
The NFL has a problem. Football has a problem. The culture of the entire sport has to change before the careers—heck, lives—of more players get ruined.
Per NFL rules, the hit was not a penalty. Pollard was going for a tackle when Ridley lowered his head to brace for impact. The helmet-to-helmet contact was incidental, drawing no flag because the NFL rules do not protect running backs the same way they protect quarterbacks and receivers.
The play may have been clean, but it was not football at its finest.
Ridley fumbled the ball after impact with Pollard because he was knocked cold from the blow, causing his arm to go limp and the ball to fall out of his grasp as he collapsed to the turf.
The NFL is a league where the rules prohibit the ground from causing a fumble, but knocking a player out is completely within the rules.
Pollard's comments after the game were indicative of the nature of the sport, no different than what any other player in the NFL would say. He said, via USA Today:
It's just a tackle. It's football. He broke a hole and we filled. That's fine. That's football. I hope he's okay. We're competitive in the moment. But when everything calms down you want that guy to be okay.
Earlier in the game, Ray Lewis was penalized 15 yards for a similar hit on Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, where the helmet contact was just as incidental as with Pollard and Ridley. The difference in the two plays, per NFL rules, was that Ridley was a running back and Hernandez a "defenseless" receiver.
During the first hit, many Ravens fans (and impartial observers) complained about the flag, suggesting that Hernandez was actually responsible for the helmet contact by lowering his head. During the second hit, many Patriots fans (and impartial observers) complained there was no flag, questioning why a blow to the head that violent should not draw a penalty.
The discrepancy is rather confusing. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told me via email that the NFL Competition Committee has discussed the issue of hits to the head of running backs, suggesting they will "most likely continue to discuss" the topic in the near future. He reminded me that the committee must look at the sport through the "lens of the entire season" and not just react to a couple of hits in the AFC title game.
The issue is bigger than just two hits in the title game, and it far eclipses the scope of this season. The most pressing issue in the NFL today is not redefining the rules surrounding defenseless players. The NFL has a much larger issue to tackle than just figuring out how to better protect the running backs.
The entire culture has to change.
It's pretty clear that no helmet technology on the planet is able to keep NFL players safe enough and, most importantly, properly protect their brains from repeated trauma. What needs to happen is a fundamental change in the culture of football and a redefinition of how to play the game.
I know it's easy for me to say that from where I sit, and I've heard all the retorts, too.
"You've never played the game, so you don't know."
"It's football, not tennis."
"Do you want them to wear skirts?"
"Do you want them to play with flags? That would ruin the NFL."
Would it? If the entire sport of football went to a "rough touch" system, would we all just stop watching? If eliminating hits is the only way we can make the game safe enough for the next generation to continue to play without an increase in traumatic injuries to all parts of the body (especially the brain), should that not be the next logical step in this discussion?
Put differently, I don't see how we as a culture, and the NFL as a brand, can justify watching hits like those this weekend when remembering what happened to a former great like Junior Seau. Forget about whether or not a hit is worthy of drawing a flag; it's impossible to watch a guy get knocked cold without remembering the damage each of those collisions can do to the players involved.
It's not about being clean or dirty; it's about being safe. Because of Seau, there is a direct link between player head trauma and death. We have to remember that just because a hit to the head doesn't kill a player on the spot, it doesn't mean that won't be the fatal blow a few years down the line.
And what happens if a player dies on the field? We've seen players become paralyzed after collisions on the field, and while the awareness has risen after each destructive blow, the game hasn't fundamentally changed enough to make it that much safer for those who still continue to play.
During a lengthy speech (the transcription of which was sent to me via email) about the safety of the game to the Harvard School of Public Health in November, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell addressed the many ways in which the NFL is trying to make the game safer for its players.
Strategy, strength and speed are what make the game great. We don't want to take physical contact out of the game. But we must ensure that players follow rules designed to reduce the risk of injury. Enforcing rules on illegal hits to the head with fines and suspensions has changed tackling for the better. Players and coaches have adjusted. They always do. We now see fewer dangerous hits to the head and noticeable changes in the way the game is being played.
The league, to its credit, is doing a lot to advance player safety. Having said that, even Goodell knows that hits in his sport lead to trauma, paralysis or even death; all the helmet research and rule implementation in the world isn't going to fix much of anything.
The sport needs to completely revamp the rules—not to two-hand touch or flag football, but to something far closer to those than what we have now.
For generations, players were taught to lead with their shoulders when tackling. Well, leading with the shoulder is actually leading with the head, just off to the side. When an offensive player spins, sidesteps or lowers his body to brace for impact, those heads collide. The game has gotten too fast and ferocious for players to lower the head, lead with the shoulder and hope to make the tackle.
What about, instead of leading with the shoulders, which puts the head in an incredibly vulnerable position, we teach kids to keep their heads up and lead with their chest and arms? Can we get back to teaching kids how to wrap up and tackle the opponent instead of launching their body to make the biggest, most effective and certainly most destructive hits?
So what if the defense gives up an extra few yards per play? Eliminating any kind of defensive launching or leading with the head or shoulders would not only create a safer environment for players, it would lead to more broken tackles and big offensive plays. Who doesn't like high-scoring games?
I truly don't know if that's the answer, but it has to be better than what players are doing now. And yes, eliminating big hits could also make the game less exciting to watch, but at some point we need to decide if football players are real people who play the sport or disposable commodities who give up their bodies (and lives) for our entertainment. Do we care when former players kill themselves because of depression linked to head trauma, or don't we?
If we, as fans, don't care about the well-being of the players—if we see them as modern-day gladiators who will either get out alive or be eaten by the proverbial lion—that's fine.
I don't think that's how most of us feel.
Most of us genuinely care when a player is seriously injured. We all want the game we love to be safer, and all the rhetoric and research to this point hasn't done enough. The NFL needs to lead a change in culture before there aren't enough players left to change it themselves.