No Fun League: NFL Players Must Embrace NBA’s “Softer” Masculinity to Survive

Roger Goodell and the National Football League have rightfully received significant criticism for giving lip service to the issue of player safety but not really doing anything about it. Money has been suggested as the root of that nonfeasance. Goodell doesn’t exactly cover himself in glory on this issue, either, when he says stuff as dumb as “There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch.” Not to put too fine a point on it, but no one to my knowledge has ever been speared by a 280-pound middle linebacker while binge-watching “Stranger Things” in their living room.

Because it is so obvious that the league really doesn’t care all that much about player safety, it has to fall to the players to fix this problem themselves. If recent evidence is any indication, today’s NFL players are still doing a horrible job of taking care of each other.

The optics of Pittsburgh Steeler Ryan Shazier’s spinal injury from Monday night were really troubling. Shazier made the fateful error of not seeing what he hit, leading with the crown of his helmet while tackling Cincinnati Bengal Josh Malone:

Watching Shazier immediately grab for his lower back and observing that his legs clearly aren’t working is hard to unsee. Still, this play is the most basic example of the insane risks football players take with their bodies in the normal course of play. Shazier’s hit wasn’t dirty, or late. And while initial reports on Shazier’s condition were encouraging, as time passes and no news of an anticipated full recovery comes out, the ramifications of this play seem more and more likely to diminish the quality of the rest of Shazier’s life.

Football players can do next to nothing about the brutal violence inherent in the game when it is played correctly. It’s the brutal violence stemming from “borderline” (read: dirty) hits during play and straight up cheap shots after the whistle that the players can and should do something about. Again, based on recent evidence, they’re going the other way and making things worse.

After Shazier’s injury — in the same game — two more players delivered unnecessarily wicked hits to opponents that led to one-game suspensions (one of which was rescinded).

Here they are:

At least those plays happened during the game. New England Patriot Rob Gronkowski was suspended for this cheap shot against Buffalo Bill Tre’Davious White:

How Gronkowski evaded a stronger sanction than a one-game suspension defies logic. Gronkowski is listed at 6’6″, 265 pounds on the Patriots’ roster. White is listed at 5’11”, 192 on the Bills’ roster. To summarize: Gronkowski (wearing a WWE-style elbow guard on his left arm) attacked a prone opponent, seven inches shorter and 73 pounds lighter than him, after the whistle, driving his head into the turf and putting that opponent into concussion protocol. Again, the players would be foolish to trust the league to do anything meaningful to protect them from themselves.

Drums are beating about whether football will survive if the game cannot be played without so much malice. The answer, of course, is that it won’t. Parents are already holding their children out of football by the thousands over concerns that the sport cannot be played safely. Fans of the sport at the professional level are also considering whether just watching the game is morally or ethically acceptable.

It doesn’t need to be this way. If NFL players want to know how to make the necessary transition from barbaric spectacle to entertainment, they need only look to their peers in the NBA.

A generation ago, NBA players were just as malevolent and recklessly violent as today’s NFL players. Some of the footage, viewed in the light of today, is insane:

So what happened? Why aren’t NBA games still littered with clothesline fouls, pushes in the back, undercuts beneath the basket, et cetera? Without question, the suspensions and other discipline that followed “The Malice at the Palace” in 2004 informed player behavior going forward.

Ultimately, though, no matter how much control the NBA would like to think it has over player conduct, the simple truth is that it’s the league’s players who decide whether or not they are going to play hard and clean or, in the alternative, with the intent to injure. Based on this season’s disciplinary record (and those of recent years), the NBA’s players are leaving behind the days of “proving their manhood” with violence and concentrating on delivering entertaining athletic performances.

Why is this happening? As usual, when you follow the money the answer readily reveals itself. Ananth Pandian’s column for CBSSports.com analyzed how and why NBA basketball evolved from the thuggish, gladitorial “basketbrawl” of the 1980’s and 1990’s to the comparatively balletic presentation of today. Money is the root cause:

During the late ’80s and most of the ’90s…(p)hysical defense reigned supreme, which resulted in low-scoring games as offenses were restricted by the body bumping and hand checking that was common place. The NBA has since shifted dramatically from those days, hand checking is illegal and teams with fast-paced offenses, like the Golden State Warriors, thrive. Because of this shift, a lot of former players frequently think that the current NBA is soft and simply not tough.

One of those players is former Sonics great Gary Payton, who Pandian described as “a ruthless defender that would take great joy in talking trash to an opponent.” Pandian notes that if Payton played today, “he would constantly be fined for his hard-nosed and aggressive play.” Payton apparently agrees.

So we see that NBA players of today have fiscal incentives to keep their games clean. The natural byproduct of those incentives is that NBA players are simply doing less violence to each other than they have in the past. It’s regrettable that this evolution in the NBA hasn’t caught on in the NFL. The years have passed, but as you will note below, almost nothing has changed in football.

Eagles fans have fond memories of the explosive hit Sheldon Brown delivered on Reggie Bush in the 2006 NFC playoffs. Here are Merrill Reese and Mike Quick waxing nostalgic about it:

My memory of that play is more informed by an article Tim Layden wrote for Sports Illustrated chronicling that hit, and others like it, in July of 2007. The article closes with a quote from Brown’s then-teammate Lito Sheppard:  “I don’t want to hurt anybody seriously, and I don’t want to get hurt seriously. What we’ve got to do is find a way to play this game without killing each other.”

That was more than a decade ago, and NFL players still haven’t found their way.

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