NFL Cracks Down On Hard Hits

NFL players step into their new reality this weekend. They'll play the first slate of games since the league announced that it will suspend players for dangerous and flagrant hits.

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From baseball to football now, and NFL players stepping into a new reality this weekend. Its the first slate of games since the league announced its going to get a lot tougher punishing players for dangerous and flagrant hits. That means more fines and suspensions for those who break the rules. Does it also mean that football, a game historically defined by violent contact, will become a different kind of game this Sunday?

NPRs Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN: No, says Ray Anderson, the game will not fundamentally change.

Mr. RAY ANDERSON (Executive Vice President of Football Operations): People should not overreact and think that the physicality of football is being compromised. Thats simply not true.

GOLDMAN: Ray Anderson is the NFLs executive vice president of football operations. Hes been the man at the center of the storm. After several vicious-looking hits during games last weekend, Anderson was the first to indicate the NFL might ratchet up punishment for dangerous hits to defenseless players.

The NFL did, and Anderson says the intense reaction to the crackdown, that the NFL will become a powder-puff league, is ridiculous.

Mr. ANDERSON: This doesnt mean the big hits are going out of the game, but hopefully the games will also be absent guys laying on the turf, getting carted off because theyve been hit in the head and neck area against our rules.

GOLDMAN: In locker rooms around the league this week, many a player said he agreed, safetys an important issue. But the statements of support often sounded canned, a quick throwaway line before revealing concern and confusion about the new policy.

Lawyer Milloy, a defensive back for the Seattle Seahawks, has been in the league 15 years.

Mr. LAWYER MILLOY (Football Player, Seattle Seahawks): When I came into the league, you really didnt have to worry about, you know, the way you hit. And Im proud that I came in in that era.

GOLDMAN: Milloy knows its a different era now. The league has been sensitized to head injuries in the last couple of years. But suddenly, with this weeks announcement, Milloy, a four-time Pro Bowl player, is wondering how to play a game he has mastered over the past decade and a half.

Mr. MILLOY: You know, going into a game, am I thinking about it? Id be lying by saying that I wasnt, you know. How do I tackle this guy? You know, can I have the woo hits like, you know, Ronnie Lott used to talk about? Theyre really taking that out of the game, and thats a shame.

GOLDMAN: The woo hits were what Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott called the violent hits that made the entire stadium go woo. But Milloy and others are wondering as much about the tackles that don't make the highlight reel, the run of the mill that now could lead to a suspension.

Lets say a defender, adhering to the rules, aims to hit a wide receiver below the head-neck area. But at the last instant, the receiver lowers his head instinctively to protect himself and thus creates a helmet-to-helmet hit. Will the defender be punished? The NFLs Ray Anderson.

Mr. ANDERSON: If he catches the ball and then has the opportunity to protect himself, then he is no longer deemed a defenseless player.

GOLDMAN: So no penalty. Anderson says it will be a thorough, robust and fair process to determine hits that are worthy of suspension. He says NFL players are smart and can adapt.

Defensive players in particular have done it in recent years as the league has moved to protect the quarterback more and more. Lawyer Milloys head coach, Pete Carroll, often sees proof that players get it.

Mr. PETE CARROLL (Head Coach, Seattle Seahawks): Yeah, I've noticed in our team in particular, we've had a number of hits on quarterbacks and hits on the sidelines where our guys have been very attentive to not make that last little shot on a guy. And really, theyre doing a good job, better than I wouldve thought, better than weve coached them up. You know, their awareness is there.

GOLDMAN: But will old habits die hard? Lawyer Milloy said this week he tries to do the best he can to play by the rules. But he adds hes going to stay true to who he is, that collisions are going to happen, and hes not going to worry about things he cant control.

Others are more defiant. Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder was quoted this week as saying: If I get a chance to knock somebody out, I'm going to knock them out and take what they give me. They give me a helmet, I'm going to use it.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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