NEW YORK - Now that the 2010 season is over, several new controversial changes are coming to a head for 2011, and fans aren't going to like them. In fact, some are saying this may be the end of American football as we know it.
On March 4th, the current NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire, setting the stage for some intense negotiations over the coming weeks to reach a deal between players and owners. At issue are the players' salaries and an expanded 18-game regular season. That much is known. What isn't well known, and hasn't been reported in the media, are the proposed changes to the way the game is traditionally played.
There's been a lot of media attention lately on the long-term health effects concussions have had on players. Repeated blows to the head throughout a player's career can dramatically increase the chance that they'll suffer from what's called Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a fancy way of saying brain injury. Former players alleging that the league knew of these neurological risks, but actively suppressed this information are filing at least two class-action lawsuits.
The NFL has recently stepped up its preventative measures by implementing stricter guidelines for when players should be allowed to return to games or practices after a head injury. Citing another example that they're taking concussions more seriously is the implementation of a new two-minute procedure, called the King-Devick test. The test, which is administered on the sidelines during games, can identify abnormal eye movements associated with violent blows to the head. If a player fails the test, they'll need further evaluation before being allowed to play again.
However, as proactive as the NFL has tried to be on this issue, none of these measures may be enough to head off the inevitable changes being proposed for the future of the game.
Some of these changes include playing touch instead of tackle football, giving new meaning to the word 'touchdown'. Specifically, the proposal calls for, "no more sacking the quarterback", and suggests alternative means for bringing down other players, such as running backs and wide receivers. A variation of flag football is also being proposed, as well as having players be considered down when a defender wraps their arms around them. Blocking would still be allowed under the new rules, but penalties for violating any of the above guidelines would be far more punitive. For example, instead of the usual 15yard penalty for things like: roughing the passer or using a helmet to spear another player, a new 30yard penalty will be enforced instead. Those who continue to engage in this egregious head to body contact will be given a red flag and removed for the duration of the game.
As controversial as these proposals are, the NFL wants to preempt any further damage to its already bruised and battered reputation, as well as prevent any future litigation regarding these injuries. More importantly, it wants to make sure there are no roadblocks to the CBA, which if allowed to expire in March, could be far more damaging financially than any fan backlash for abandoning tradition. After all, and the NFL is well aware of this from a demographic point of view, football is not just for men anymore.
Calls to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell regarding the specifics of the proposals have gone unanswered, however, spokesman Greg Aiello stated that although it's too early to get into any of the details, he did confirm that many of these new changes are on the table, some considered quite radical. "We have to put our heads together and come up with some solutions. We need to think of the future of this game, and if that means making it less of a contact sport, and more 'touchy-feely', so to speak, then so be it", he was quoted as saying.
The NFL Players Association welcomed the proposed changes, and said that safety and the future health of its players were more important than whether or not fans got to see them take a hit. "We don't want to butt-heads with the league, the fans, or other players on this issue. We just want to make sure we can remember these games just like everyone else", they said in a statement.
Though polls have yet to be taken on this issue, fans of the sport are likely to be banging their heads against the proverbial gridiron in frustration.