This year’s NHL and NFL buzz phrase is “player safety.” Both leagues have become increasingly aware of the consequences of hits to the head of athletes, which often times cause concussions and long term brain damage. The NHL has had to deal with the loss of its biggest star, Sidney Crosby, because of a head injury, as well as the suicides of three former players, all who played the “enforcer” role on their team, giving and receiving many head injuries both during play and during fights.
Last season, the NFL had a rash of scary injuries – with many players ending up unconscious on the field – that led to key players missing playing time. This has evolved into a public image problem for a sport that already has a reputation of being violent. Matters escalated when former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson committed suicide in February – he made sure not to shoot himself in the head because he wanted to make sure doctors could study the effects that football had on his brain. Both leagues have had to face the facts, all of which suggest that the long term effects of playing either sport can lead to brain tissue degeneration. All in all, this is a disaster for both sport’s athletes and audiences: the games look too dangerous, and players aren’t playing at their peak.
Each league has taken responsive measures by having team doctors treat head injuries more carefully. The mentality is no longer “get over it, wimp.” Instead, team doctors have to comprehensively examine and clear a player of lingering symptoms before that player can return to play. More importantly, though, each league has begun levying fines and suspensions for players who endanger the safety and health of the other players. While each league should be applauded in their attempts to protect their players, there’s one problem: until now, these leagues have celebrated it, fetishized it, and ingrained “the big hit” into the current generation of players. Now, both leagues are trying to backtrack and fix the very problem they helped create. So far, this has proven to be difficult. The players are complaining that these fines change the way the game is played, and they’re right. After all, they’re being told not to do something that they were trained to do.
Let’s consider, for a moment, the generation of players that are currently playing in either league. Even the oldest players, at around age forty, grew up in the “modern” era of sports media coverage, which began around the time ESPN was founded in 1979. The youngest, at around age 18, were born right as the internet started to prosper. The nature of modern sports media coverage is that highlights are played almost all day. Moreover, for both football and hockey, until about two years ago, highlight packages focused on one of two things: scores or huge hits. “NFL Countdown”, the ESPN pregame show, featured a segment called “Jacked Up!” in which the commentators played scenes from the previous weekend’s games that featured the biggest hits. Essentially, there was a whole reel of potential brain injuries being played in the studio, while the commentators squealed with delight and told the victims of these hits that they were just “Jacked Up!”. Defensive players in the NFL saw the segment as a badge of honour – they were publically applauded for being able to deal such punishing blows. The same trend exists in hockey. Don Cherry, the venerated NHL commentator, releases videos annually of what he deems the best hits of the year in his Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Hockey series. Almost all the hits featured in the past are now ones that would lead to a suspension.
What’s more, while the NFL and NHL players competed for this perverse honour, the future players of the leagues were watching those shows and joining the cult of “the big hit”. These children looked up to the pros, as most young children are wont to do, and celebrated those hits, wanting to emulate their heroes. In addition, many coaches at all levels of either game were supporting these dangerous hits. These hits were simply seen as a part of football and hockey culture. When the opportunity presented itself, a player was supposed to go for the head. In a recent interview with GQ Magazine, James Harrison, the often-fined linebacker of the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers, claimed, “That’s what we’re told by coach… ‘blow through the guy, not to him’. When the fines came down he said, ‘Don’t change a damn thing. You’re doing it the way we do it on this team.’”
Now, each league is desperately trying to change the rules and, consequently, their culture. They want to kill the monster they created, and the players, as well as staunch traditionalists, are having a hard time coping. The players are struggling to balance competitiveness with safety. There have been instances in both sports where players have passed up tackles or checks in an apparent decision to avoid a penalty or fine, while, in other cases, players are upset with calls being made on hits that they think are normal or just ‘part of the game.’ Overall, it seems like the real issue is inconsistency when it comes to calls: some hits get fines while others don’t, and the players are acting out.
Brooks Laich, a forward for the NHL’s Washington Capitals, recently claimed that he doesn’t “care about all that [concussion] awareness crap…This is what we love to do, guys love to play, they love to compete… How can you take that away from somebody?… We accept that there are going to be dangers when we play this game…sometimes it feels as if we’re being babysat a little too much.” The old guard of each sport cry out against what they perceive as the ‘wuss-ification’ of the league. Don Cherry’s first “Coach’s Corner” segment of the season played a highlight reel of crushing hits by former NHL star Scott Stevens, and Cherry asked how many games he would be suspended in with today’s new rules. As the clips rolled, Cherry ranted, “Hall of Famer, we used to love this guy, we used to say ‘what a hitter’… How many games would you give him for this [hit]? Enjoy this folks, because you’re never ever gonna see it again. Never… It’s ridiculous, what they’ve done. The players will not hit. Guaranteed!” This profusion of passionate admiration came in a response to clips of hits that left the opposing players lying on the ice, dazed, and, most likely, concussed. In fact, one of the clips showed a hit that ended the career of the recipient.
He’s right, though, about one thing: the fans and both leagues were in full support of dangerous hits, creating a big hit fetish that was instilled into the players’ psyche. They’ve now turned their back on hits because of the pressure they receive in today’s hyper-aware, safety conscious culture. Right now, the players are struggling to adapt to the limits that have been put on their style of play and the way they were trained to play the game. The NHL and NFL will continue to fight these issues, but they won’t be wiped out of the game for quite some time, at least not until the first generation of players who have grown up in this new, safety conscious reality reach the pros.