NFL Rule Changes Draw Mixed Emotions From Football Faithful


Author: Jack McHenry

The summer of 2011 left many football fans uncertain as a 132-day-long labor dispute dredged into August and threatened to shorten or cancel the season. But nationwide, fans’ hopes were restored when the labor negotiations were settled and the 2011 NFL season was assured. The long process of negotiations led to significant rule changes to on-field play. Given the rise in violent, injury causing collisions on the field and scientific discoveries linking head trauma from football to premature brain degeneration, the NFL has made rule changes to reduce the number of violent collisions.

The most significant rule change was the outlaw of “launching.” Launching is when a defensive player, in order to deliver a devastating blow to an opposing player, leaves the ground and leads with their helmet, often striking the opposing player high in the head or neck. The act of launching is prohibited when it is carried out upon what the NFL calls a “helpless player.” Generally, a helpless player is an individual who is in a position where their ability to protect themselves from a big hit is compromised.

An example of this is when a receiver is in the process of catching a ball. When the receiver is focused on making a catch, often times in an off-balance or airborne position, they have a lesser ability to brace for contact, so they are considered a defenseless receiver. This is an opportune moment for defensive players to deliver a bone-crushing tackle, which can set the tone physically during the course of a game or swing momentum in favor of the big hitter’s team.

Another rule change specifically aimed at eliminating contact was the change in kickoff rules. Beginning this season, teams kick off from their own 35-yard line instead of the 30-yard line. Kicking from five yards closer to the end zone results in more touchbacks. This makes for no live return and an automatic spot of the ball for the offense on their own 20-yard line. Kickoffs were specifically cited as plays when injuries are most likely to occur, so by kicking from the 35-yard line the chances of a live return and the subsequent injuries are significantly reduced.

While the rule changes are aimed to protect players, there is significant debate concerning whether the new rules are effective and whether they compromise the nature of the game. Players now are bigger, faster and stronger than they used to be. Thus, many argue that trying to limit contact by banning certain tackling techniques and fining for big hits is futile. Another consideration is shortening the preseason, adding a second bye week during the season and perhaps even shortening the regular season. Any of these options would give players more rest and limit opportunities to get injured by eliminating games. However, upper level NFL management has not taken to this approach and has favored rule changes.

Players oppose the rule changes because it alters techniques many have practiced since they began playing football. Others take an almost philosophical approach, discussing the need for football players to overcome their fears on the field of play. Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, one of the best defensive players in the NFL, explained his opposition to rule changes. In an interview with Sports Illustrated Polamalu said, “When you start conforming to these rules, you take away the aspect of fear and overcoming fear is what makes us men, you know? It’s what challenges us. You take that away, you kind of make the game for everybody.”

While Polamalu’s thoughts appear chauvinistic to some league officials, his sentiments are shared by many players in the NFL who are used to fast and violent game play. These comments are characteristic of the debate over rule changes because they illustrate the lack of uniformity between how the game is played by its current athletes and how NFL personnel would like to see the game played in the future.

Only time will tell if these rule changes are effective in preventing injuries or if they will instead diminish the explosive athleticism and violence that fans find to be the most compelling aspect of professional football.

This article has been archived, for more requests please contact us via the support system.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here