How I’d Fix Sports, Part 3 of 3: The NFL
The National Football League isn’t like any of its other sporting cousins. The peanut gallery will chime in that it is because it rakes in so much more money and enjoys so much more popularity Stateside than baseball, hockey, or basketball. The NFL may be on the down slope of its latest, most golden era, but it’s still a cash cow. I mean, 35 million people sat down in front of the television to watch a game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Football Team With a Goddamn Racist Nickname, heretofore known as WASTEAM. Of course, Richard Dietsch, the dickhead Dr. Strange to Darren Rovell’s boring corporate lackey Baron Mordo, didn’t specify whether it was the week two game in Washington or the Thanksgiving tilt in Dallas. Either way, a lot of fuckin’ people sat down to watch at least one of those games.
But unlike the other three leagues running in the US right now, the NFL is broken at a fundamental level. People love football so much that they’re willing to look past the mutant DNA and tune in on Sundays (and Mondays and Thursdays and sometimes Saturdays, good fucking lord). Flagging ratings might suggest otherwise, but I tend to think the ratings deal is more “Nielsen can’t accurately determine who’s watching what anymore” rather than “ZOMG THE NFL IS DYING.” However, the rumblings are there. Some of them come from people who will come crawling back eventually, like the White nationalist hordes who pledged eternal boycott because Colin Kaepernick decided he was going to take police brutality sitting down as a form of protest during the National Anthem.
But more and more people seem to be flocking away from the NFL nowadays, almost as if it were a childish endeavor, like, say, obsessively fanboying over professional wrestling. People don’t want to see men turned into zombies in real time thanks to skull-rattling hits. People don’t want to watch games go five quarters and combine for only 12 points. People don’t want to watch games where the bulk of the game is dominated by old men in striped shirts explaining why they threw yellow flags. People don’t want to become emotionally attached to men who beat the ever-loving stuffing out of women off the field (or worse).
The tried-and-true league apologists will claim that the number of folks who decide to swear off the game or the league are low or that they’ll come back, but similar defenders of baseball had the same hubris about that game’s run as America’s Pastime. Several bouts of labor strife, including one that cancelled a World Series, plus overreactions to PED usage and an embarrassing lack of marketing the league’s best players, and Major League Baseball has taken a distinct backseat to the NFL in American parlance and is probably, realistically on par with the National Basketball Association in true popularity. If you think that can’t happen to the NFL, you are underestimating the greed-driven stupidity of its cabal of owners, headed by the dunderheaded drill sergeant reject himself, Roger Goodell. Hubris is a hell of a drug.
The NFL doesn’t have to go down this path. It can be a leader and stay on top for the rest of recorded human history, which could be millennia or a few short months after Donald Trump gets handed the nuclear codes. The R-squared value on that correlation isn’t very strong. Again, I don’t know if what I’m about to lay down is going to help the league, but these problems are too egregious not to address.
I — PLAYER SAFETY
The NFL has a problem with chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It has had a problem with it for years, and has tried half-measure after half-measure to attempt placing a bandage on a severed jugular vein. It has helmet-to-helmet contact rules that are lazily enforced on the defense and not enforced at all on ballcarriers who put their heads down and hope for the best. Its concussion protocol is sketchy at best. It’s only a matter of time before another player is paralyzed on the field, another former player commits suicide thanks to CTE side-effects, or the worst-case scenario, a player dies on the field due to an injury suffered there.
The concussion protocol overhaul is the first and foremost thing that needs to be handled. While football is an inherently physical game, it doesn’t have to be unnecessarily violent, and the concussion protocol has to figure into making the game on the field such. The protocol has to be proactive and reactive, not just reactive. That means anytime a player leads with his head, offense, defense, on the ball, or away from it, a personal foul penalty must be called. Fifteen-yard chunks will definitely make people think twice about lowering the head. It might slow the game down at first, but people will learn.
But how will they learn? The next part of the concussion protocol would be league-sponsored rugby tackling seminars. Rugby tackling is safer than the “launch yourself at a runner” method popularized by highlight reels. Many colleges are teaching it, and the methodology should be reinforced at the pro level as well. Changing philosophy will eliminate so many dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits, like the one by Keanu Neal on Larry Fitzgerald November 27. Falcons fans, neutral observers, even color commentator John Lynch asked how he could have avoided that hit, but the answer was easy. He came running in flush to Fitzgerald so that helmet contact was unavoidable, but had he come in lower, crouched, he might have been able to avoid the head contact. It’s all about form.
As for the actual protocol off the field, it appears to be comprehensive, but it’s useless if it’s not backed up by measures on the field or if the steps aren’t followed through completely. Again, football is never going to be a completely safe game, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try to make it safer. People bemoaning safety measures have no idea of nuance. One doesn’t have to turn football into something completely unrecognizable to make it safer, at least in my opinion.
II — OFF-FIELD CONDUCT/RECREATIONAL DRUG USE/CELEBRATIONS
If you ask most sane people what’s wrong with the NFL, it’s either the aforementioned head trauma crisis or it’s the rash of players committing acts of unspeakable violence against domestic partners. Yet if you ask some of the more vocal fogeys, the most devastating things threatening football are drugs and celebrating. I get why drugs can be a bugaboo, but comparatively speaking, whether performance enhancing drugs or illegal narcotics like marijuana, they’re a drop in the bucket compared to the real things haunting the league. And exhibiting real human emotion as a threat to the game is a fucking joke. Real talk, if your fee-fees get hurt because someone celebrated after a big play they made, the problem isn’t with them, it’s with you. Terrell Owens running out to the star at midfield in Texas Stadium is a fucking walk in the park compared to Greg Hardy beating the shit out of his girlfriend and throwing her on a bed of guns.
The biggest problem with the domestic violence epidemic, however, is that the league really isn’t in a position to dole out punishment that law enforcement SHOULD be doing itself. Jurisprudence in the area of domestic violence is woefully lacking in this country, which is to say it’s a joke in most of the world. Additionally, going all zero tolerance on domestic violence will make the problem even worse, as pointed out by Diana Moskovitz on Deadspin. But none of those circumstances excuses the league’s utter tone-deafness on the subject. Whether it be the Baltimore Ravens scripting for Janay Rice to apologize for her role in getting beaten in an elevator or the New York Giants players, coaches, and owners sticking up for Josh Brown even after a journal documenting his abuses of his now ex-wife came out and anything in between, the league and nearly every single one of its teams have shown a willing negligence towards abusers and their victims.
I feel the league can do two things to at least address its DV problem. The first would be to put a gag order on any team or player from commenting on the issues further superficial facts surrounding the case, i.e. the player is under investigation and we’re handling it or whatever. No press conferences, no comments about supporting or not supporting the accused, no teams getting to victims and having them speak on stages. The PR around these cases needs to be non-existent from a league or team scale. The second thing involves the Commissioner’s Exempt List, which is where accused domestic abusers go when their teams decide to suspend them. If someone goes on that list, they should still receive their pay, but that pay should go in checks that are addressed solely to the victim. “But what about cases of fraud?” you might ask if you’re a men’s right activist douchebag, to which I say that while fraud probably exists and false cases have come up, they are probably dwarfed by the cases of DV that go woefully unaddressed by law enforcement, let alone ones in total. Which is to say, stop imagining shit, assholes.
With drugs and especially celebrating, the league can do wonders by simplifying approaches to both and lightening the austere stances on them. Drugs are a touchy subject, sure, because many of them are illegal, and the spectre of PED usage is still stigmatized because people think that ruin the integrity of athletics. However, what if I were to tell you that if everyone used selected PEDs under the supervision of a doctor, the general health of players might improve? The use of human growth hormone is controversial, but if it’s under the supervision of a reputable doctor using it to help players heal more completely from injury, how bad can it be? The key phrase is “supervision of a reputable doctor,” and I’m not advocating that HGH be used willy-nilly.
But at the same time, how much research has really gone into its deployment? I wouldn’t ban it, and furthermore, I’d put more research dollars into how it can help mend muscle tears and other injuries. It’s already used to help AIDS patients dealing with muscle atrophy; perhaps it could be used in otherwise healthy people too? It certainly is a better gambit than the use of cortisones, which are used to numb pain in a certain area so that a player can get back in the game to play. But those shots don’t treat anything, and players risk further damage on injured parts playing on them. The policies seem backwards.
As for marijuana, it seems silly that it is more of a dealbreaker to have a NFL career than domestic violence. Additionally, in a game where many players succumb to debilitating painkiller addictions during and after their careers, marijuana’s analgesic properties make it an alternative to Percocet or Vicodin with less nasty side effects (although it must be noted that smoking marijuana carries the same risks breathing difficulties as cigarettes, so try not to pretend it’s an idyllic solution to everything). Additionally, more states are decriminalizing or even legalizing it.
Yet, the NFL continues to treat it like it’s on par with murder. Josh Gordon’s career has been ruined because the NFL has treated him like a goddamn pariah for liking weed; yet if his drug of choice were alcohol or an opioid painkiller, would he be treated as such? I understand needing to regulate marijuana usage by players, but this zero tolerance bullshit is counterproductive, especially as pot usage is becoming more and more accepted. The league should probably treat it more on the level with alcohol usage.
While I can understand some regulation on marijuana use, the penalties on celebration are Draconian and superfluous. Human beings are built to feel emotion for the most part. If you’re not, then that’s okay, everyone’s different. But when one does something good, that person might want to let everyone know that they’re happy, and hey, their friends or coworkers want to join in the celebration. Why is this outburst of emotion and enthusiasm a bad thing?
Oh, that’s right, because grown-ass men need their precious egos spared.
I’m a huge proponent of the concept of the safe space, but a huge chasm exists between the safe space needed by a sexual assault survivor from the grotesque world tainted by rape culture and the pro athlete who can’t face his own misgivings on the field of play and takes the celebration of a guy on the other team personally. The funny thing is so many players on the field would bash someone for seeking a safe space in any other walk. Remember when JJ Watt went after a scrub QB on the Titans for a selfie celebration, or when James Harrison bashed participation trophy culture? Did they need safe spaces from expression of human emotion?
Celebrations should absolutely be allowed, and they should be allowed to be as elaborate as the people doing them want to be. I would draw the line at directly taunting a player on the other team, but 15 yards for directing a verbal “attack” at someone is ridiculously excessive. Taunting should be five yards maximum, and if the other player can’t handle being taunted and has to throw a punch, why is it the problem of the person who taunted anyway? I thought these “adults” were supposed to have discipline. Since I’m into talking officiating now, it’s as good a time as any to get into…
III — OFFICIATING AND GAME MECHANICS
The NFL is grotesquely overofficiated and at the same time, the level of inconsistency in the calls is even more baffling. Officials seem to want more screen time, but frequency at which they throw the flag for ticky-tacky bullshit while letting egregious stuff slide is disturbing. For example, going back to the Cards/Falcons game, Patrick Peterson got called for pass interference in the end zone on Julio Jones by lightly grabbing his forearm. Move over to the Rams/Saints game happening on the same day, and Saints WR Willie Snead literally got sling-bladed by the defensive back, and nothing got called. Granted, those respective calls/no-calls were made by two different crews, but it’s also not uncommon to see mind-numbingly inconsistent calls in the same game.
The NFL can attempt to fix this problem in two ways:
- Making officials full-time employees with salary and benefits
- Simplifying the rulebook
The first one is self-explanatory. Officials would make more of an effort to know the rulebook and be better at their jobs if they had better pay. The NFL can afford this since it gets a metric shitpile of money combined from television deals, ticket sales, licensing, merchandise, and other revenue streams. The officials can be paid like full-time employees with raises and everything. And hell, for the ones who are deemed too physically unfit for the job, they can get a nice pension for their service while they’re replaced by younger, fitter, more mentally capable officials. Then again, the country just handed its keys over to the most anti-labor assholes possible in the last election, so maybe spelling out that PRO-LABOR POLICIES ARE GOOD is needed in this day and age.
Simplifying the rulebook is a bit taller of a task, because so much of it needs to be untangled. No one knows what a catch is, and pass interference is a mess all over. Even the formation rules are arcane. If you need more than a couple of minutes to clearly explain a rule to a casual fan, it’s needlessly complex. The most important thing is to define what a catch is. The fact that the NFL has such obfuscation around its pass-catch rule is insane. It’s not like catching the forward pass is a niche element; it’s in the fucking DNA. It’s half of what the offense does when it’s on the field. It would be like if baseball had arcane rules on what was a fair or foul ball that most umpires couldn’t agree on how to interpret.
Firstly, “completing the process” needs to be done away with. Mainly, the Calvin Johnson Rule is a pile of shit that has overly complicated the catch process. Secondly, the rules on when a receiver becomes a runner feel like it’s left to the referees to make a judgment call instead of establishing a set rule. So I propose a catch rule that is simple. If the receiver holds onto the ball after catching it for two seconds or takes two steps, it’s a catch. If the receiver makes a catch and is taken down immediately, then as long as he’s got control of the ball when he’s touched down, it’s a catch. In the end zone, if the receiver makes a catch and then voluntarily relinquishes control of the ball, or if he loses the ball after he’d be down in the field of play, it’s a fucking catch.
But of course, unsure hands, bad rules, and hits from defenders aren’t the only things that keep people from catching the ball. Pass interference is on one hand a necessary foul, but on the other, it’s seemingly arbitrarily called, as demonstrated above with the differences between Jones and Snead in the two separate games. The problem is exacerbated in the penalty yardage for pass interference and the automatic first downs for defensive holding and illegal contact, DPI’s lesser siblings. Defensive pass interference being a spot foul is a joke. It’d be a joke even if the potential for yardage didn’t have the potential to quintuple or even sextuple (if you’ve got a rocket arm like Michael Vick and can get a 90 air yard pass off enough to get interference) a personal foul call.
I don’t really see any way that one could fix the mechanics of the defensive pass penalties, especially since they’re judgment calls at best. If you legislate all contact, the game slows down to a muddy pace. This problem can mostly be fixed with what I outlined about giving officials better benefits or adding younger, more able officials. But the yardage shit can definitely be codified. If offensive pass interference is ten yards, so should defensive pass interference. Additionally, the automatic first down would be stripped from it and from the five-yard cousins. Judgment calls shouldn’t get the benefit of having a first down tacked on regardless of whether the yardage nets it or not. A ticky-tacky call shouldn’t net a team a fresh set of downs; in fact, it probably should be the same net effect as formation violations. Speaking of which, why does the NFL insist on such arcane formation rules? I’d throw out any rule that isn’t “five men have to be on the offensive line,” “no one can advance beyond the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped,” and “no one on the offense can simulate the snap or the beginning of the play before the ball is snapped.” I don’t care if the tight end isn’t covered up.
What I do care about, though, is that the officials get calls on the field right. Even with the replay system, shit gets botched, and sometimes, those egregious calls come after a coach has expended both or all three of his challenges. The challenge system is good, but it stands to be tweaked. I don’t think a coach should lose a challenge that he gets right, and I don’t think he should lose a timeout if the challenge is unsuccessful because of insufficient video evidence. The NFL already has the three categories of true results for replay challenges in place: overturned, not enough evidence, confirmed. It seems dumb to have two of them mean the same consequence. If I were to tweak the replay system, first, I would have a dedicated replay official to review every play as it happens so that he/she is at the ready when a challenge is thrown or a reviewable play pops up in the final two minutes of a half. This would lessen time for the referee to make his final decision. Secondly, the challenge system would be reworked so that a coach gets two incorrect challenges a game. If a coach keeps getting the challenges right, no reason should keep him from making sure the official is on the ball. Next, a coach would only lose a timeout if the call on the field were confirmed. No visual evidence shouldn’t cost the coach a timeout; if it’s not clear, that coach was at least justified in asking for clarification, right? So why punish him? Finally, in the interest of expediency and not allowing coaches to bog down games, the spot will no longer allowed to be challenged. How many times has a spot been challenged successfully? And how many times has the view on said reviewed spot been so obfuscated that it would be futile to even review anyway.
Honestly, helping to let coaches know when to throw the challenge flag shouldn’t be the only thing I’d be helping them with. NFL coaches are the second biggest cowards in sports, after college coaches who oftentimes bolt on kids after making every promise in the world to them. Coaches are more conservative than Rand Paul, Tom Cotton, and Ted Cruz mecha-Shiva’d into a ghoulish Tea Party manticore of poor-hating tyranny. So, punting will be regulated. If you’re inside your own 25, you’re allowed to punt at will. If you’re between your own 25 and midfield, you’re only allowed to punt if the distance to the first down is greater than or equal to two yards. Between midfield and the opponent’s 40, you can only punt if the yard to gain for the first down are greater than or equal to five. And if you’re inside the opponent’s 40 yard line at all, you are not allowed to punt at all. Fuck punting.
As for the other aspects of kicking, I would totally move the line of scrimmage on a two-point conversion to the one-and-a-half yard line to encourage coaches to go for it more, since merely moving the PAT back to a 33 yard kick hasn’t done that to anyone other than the Steelers. Also, Justin Tucker had a fucking righteous idea to give kickers a reward if they split the uprights on a kickoff. He gave a choice between a point reward (I would go with one point just because I wanna see a team end a game with only one point for the anomaly/weird factor) or having a touchback start at the ten instead of the 25. I’d go with the points all the time. Also, I would allow players the option of returning a kick that doinks off the uprights as well.
IV — SCHEDULING
The NFL schedule seems to be at the perfect length, but at the same time, greedy corporate fucks in ownership occasionally seem to want to bang the 18 game season drum every once in awhile. While the NFL doesn’t seem to need more games, I think it could stand to expand ever so slightly. The NFL also seems to love the idea of having games on neutral sites. I can see the appeal even if I think robbing a team of a home game to do so is pretty dumb. Thankfully, I have a solution that could appeal to everyone.
First off, lop two weeks off the preseason. The league has no reason to put players through four weeks of games that don’t count, especially in a sport as grueling as football. Then, expand the season to 17 games in 19 weeks. Each team gets eight home games, eight away games, and one neutral site game. The neutral sites would include international locales like Mexico City and London, huge college stadiums outside of NFL gravity like Alabama and Nebraska, and former NFL cities or other large North American cities with adequate facilities like St. Louis, Toronto, or Honolulu. The neutral site games would be your wild card games to do things like Super Bowl rematches or regional rivalries that don’t happen every year, like Jets/Giants, Ravens/WASTEAM, Texans/Cowboys, or coming soon, Chargers/Rams. Also, each team would get two bye weeks with the expansion of the season.
I would also get rid of conferences and give playoff berths to the eight division winners and four unconfined wild cards. The top four seeds would get byes, and winning the division would no longer guarantee a home game in the playoffs. I mean, the best teams should get the most advantageous conditions, right? Why should a junk team like the Texans/Colts/Titans get to host a far better wild card team from the West like the Broncos/Raiders/Chiefs? This way, the two best teams in the league will potentially be able to play in the Championship if they survive their playoff matchups, and teams that actually win more games will get to play at home.
V — PUTTING ROGER GOODELL IN A PILLORY AND LETTING VARIOUS FANS AND PLAYERS THROW TOMATOES AT HIM, ROTTEN ONES OR FRESH, I DON’T CARE
Honestly, the idea that the commissioner acts as the representative for the owners is an odious idea, because it assumes that the owners don’t already have the enormous power of controlled wealth over the players in the first place. Even if that were the case, how many people in any sport have done a worse job at public relations and administration as Goodell over the years? Bud Selig has reached depths of incompetence, but reactions to him have been more malaise than hatred. David Stern had been at times a public relations nightmare, but he did a much better job of keeping his league running. Goodell should be fired, and his replacement shouldn’t be a rep of the owners, but an impartial steward of the league. He or she must be ratified by the players’ union as well as the owners, and that person should act to make the best decisions for everyone in the league, not just the owners or their bottom lines. Football is the sport where the disparity between player and owner is the greatest, and it needs to be fixed going forward.
As for Goodell, let’s get that fuckin’ pillory ready. A whole bunch of people are gonna wanna get their tomato shots in.
The NFL needs a lot of fixing. Do I think any of it will get repaired, let alone in the way that I laid out above? I highly doubt it. But as long as it keeps making money, it will hum along until something catastrophic happens. The sad part is, my plan is far from the only one that could at least theoretically fix what’s wrong. But whatever, who am I?