By Jason Keidel
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The NFL is enduring an alarming confluence of conflicting vibes. You’ve got rampant parity, parody, glory and gory jammed into a tinder box of a season.
RGIII and Andrew Luck are wildly popular and pristine faces of the league’s future, and in a few years they will be ready to grab the baton when Peyton Manning and Tom Brady finally concede the throne. Until then, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning are rather suitable buffers between QB regimes.
But beyond the excitement on the field is the vulgar truth behind the curtain, where concussion-addled players stumble off the field and into a frigid world that doesn’t embrace former players. And recently we’ve seen active players deactivate in the most gruesome sense.
Men are dying, with the horrors in Kansas City and Dallas well documented. And we don’t, and perhaps won’t, know if brain trauma had any say in the murder-suicide and vehicular homicide. Suffice it to say, all theories are in play.
So the once-Teflon NFL shield is marred, clawed and cracked, facing unprecedented turbulence, from death to dishonor to class-action lawsuits.
Now the NFL wants to eliminate the kickoff, the eternal precursor to every football game in America. Special teams have become too violent, we’ve been told.
No doubt that the NFL is engaging in a form of foxhole prayer with this, a knee-jerk reaction to clean its stained soul after all the years of neglect toward the very athletes who made this league so omnipotent.
There are compelling arguments on both sides of the debate. But I am against wiping the kickoff from the map for many reasons. First, and among the least forceful arguments, is David Wilson, who provided a lovely aesthetic retort to rule changes. Wilson, who lost his job as running back because of fumbling, made special teams his personal canvas last night against New Orleans, ripping the game from the Saints with one dash down the right sideline for 97 yards. Wilson finished the game with over 320 total yards, breaking the team record and salvaging a bumpy, rookie season.
Then there’s the human condition — a rather opaque term used to describe our species. Whether we want to admit it, we are animals. We have evolved over eons, for sure, but the evolution is negligible.
Without this missive morphing into an anthropology sermon, we are a savage species. Whether the thrill is vicarious or voyeurism, we watch knowing that any play can end with someone getting his bell rung. And we like it. No, we don’t want people permanently injured. But the titanic risk and reward that comes from playing football, a gamble of the highest order where the difference between coherence and coma is a matter of inches or milliseconds, is something that thrills us. And to pretend that it doesn’t is to deny what we are.
And like most things we watch, from news to reality shows to athletics, we like that someone is willing to endure shame and pain for gain and fame in front of us. It can either speak to our cowardice that we aren’t willing to do the same, pity for the contestants who think that money and celebrity will fill the obvious void in their lives or genuine joy for people who are willing to work so hard for something.
The greatest argument against removing the routine of kickoffs is precedent. In courts of law we often hear of dangerous legal precedents, a haunting term used to discourage groundbreaking rulings out of fear that it provides a wedge to more sweeping reform that belies the intent of the original ruling. Think of the penny tax. Now some people surrender up to 50 percent of their pay to Uncle Sam. Even working stiffs like us are sure to belch at least 30 percent before we even see our pay stubs. There are innumerable examples, but you get the drift. The kickoff would be a prelude to more drastic reform. That’s not a theory; that’s the weight of endless historical proof.
I once interviewed Phil Simms for another entity, and he often talks about the “it won’t happen to me” syndrome we suffer before we reach middle age. From drinking to smoking to NASCAR to football, we say sickness and suffering are things that happen to other people.
It’s surely fueled by the ignorance of youth — a condition we all caught at some point in our lives. But this kickoff idea, and farce of legislating violence out of football, won’t change anything. It doesn’t change the physical inevitabilities of large, fast men colliding at alarming force and the resultant wreckage. It also speaks to our right to earn a legal living as we see fit and as our talents warrant. We drink the whiskey knowing that too much is a problem, puff on the cigarettes knowing that it pumps our lungs with smoke, drive fast cars knowing that they can flip and dive headfirst into ball-carriers knowing that we may not get up from it.
Finally, nothing that the NFL does will change what it has done. Making the game slightly safer, much more boring and far more vulnerable to drastic alteration won’t fix the broken bones and shattered souls of those men left behind with no money, no moxie and no future.
The intelligentsia, who love to talk and do little, have framed this as a debate between old-school and new-school sensibilities, that anyone over 40 is simply afraid of change, whereas America’s youth — far more hip and empathetic — see the perils of tradition.
It’s gibberish. Beyond the obvious, athletic splendor of pro football, the primary reason we watch it is the palpable, inherent danger. To deny that is to deny us.
Do you like the direction that the NFL is going in as it aims to further protect its players, or do you think it will eventually destroy the game you love? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…