Violence, Injuries Headline In NFL, NBA And MLB

Safety is the big word in sports in 2013. Major League Baseball wants to ban collisions at home plate, the NFL playoffs are as much about who's on the disabled list as anything else, and in hockey, the NHL has a decision to make about fighting. Host Scott Simon talks with Howard Bryant of ESPN about how injuries shape sports.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Safety - the word in sports, in 2013. The NFL playoff spots may go to the last players standing; Major League Baseball wants to ban collisions at home plate; and an especially vicious hit in hockey - and that's saying a lot, in hockey - renews calls to try to ban violence. Howard Bryant, of ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine, joins us now from the studios of New England Public Radio. Thanks very much for being with us, my friend.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott. You're going to have to work on your inflection if you want a new job.

SIMON: Uh - (mumbling). Want a new job? Did you hear something...

BRYANT: ESPN.

SIMON: OK.

BRYANT: Accent on the "E."

SIMON: Oh, ESPN, ESPN.

BRYANT: That's right.

SIMON: I beg your pardon. Well, enough of this chit-chat. Is the NFL playoff spots going to go the last team standing? Rob Gronkowski, of the New England Patriots, isn't going to be on the field, for example.

BRYANT: Well, they always do. And I think that's one of the things - when people talk about safety, they talk about concussions and head trauma and lawsuits, and all these things. But what doesn't get talked about enough is the impact on the actual game itself. And it's a game of attrition. I mean, you look at one team coming into the season in September, and then you have all these great players. And it doesn't happen like this in other sports. Injuries are part of the game, as they say.

But this next man up, last player standing stuff in the NFL is a little much, if you look at what's happening in these games. You've got Rob Gronkowski, with the Patriots, who's out for the season. That's going to affect that race. You've got Aaron Rogers not playing again for his sixth straight game. The Packers were a very, very good team; Super Bowl contenders, and now they're struggling to get there.

SIMON: And the game is poorer when Aaron Rogers doesn't play.

BRYANT: Exactly. And it's a bad game. And they always make it sound as though OK, well, the next player's going to be as good because he's going to step up and have a moment to shine. But the bottom line is, is that without your stars, you don't have much of a game. And, you know, you've got Wes Welker up in Denver, who's not going to be playing; or maybe he's going to miss another week or two. And so it really does affect the quality of the game, and that's why so many teams are mediocre. There's a fine line between parity and mediocre and right now, the NFL is pretty sorry.

SIMON: I want to ask you on what seems to be assault and battery by Shawn Thornton, of the Boston Bruins, against Brooks Orpik, of the Pittsburgh Penguins. It's painful to see. And what does this suggest to you - is it the history of hockey; is it the so-called culture?

BRYANT: Well, it goes back to what a lot of folks have always been fighting about with hockey, and "I went to a fight, and a hockey game broke out." You have this culture of the game of protection. And one of the arguments is, is that if you don't have fighting in the game, if you don't have this sort of vigilante justice, then the players are going to take cheap shots at each other - although they're taking cheap shots at each other now. And the argument is, is that you need this element of the game in place one, because it's part of the history of the game but also because it's part of the culture.

The other element is, is that this is barbaric, and it shouldn't be. I honestly feel - I agree with Dan Boyle. My good friend Dave Pollack, of the San Jose Mercury, talked to Dan Boyle, the defenseman who got smashed into the boards in October. And he said look, the bottom line is that players here have to learn how to respect each other and right now, we don't. If you want this game to be safe, if you want it to be clean, the players have to respect each other; never mind what the penalties may be.

SIMON: Boy, melodrama going on, on the Washington football club whose team name I refuse to utter. Coach Shanahan benching Robert Griffin III for the rest of the season - good idea or...

BRYANT: Well, it's all part of a bigger power play. The big problem is the owner. The problem with the Redskins goes back to Daniel Snyder. He's worse than George Steinbrenner, worse than Marge Schott; worse than all of them. He's one of the worst owners that you could possibly have. When he started, he had past-prime players with Deion Sanders and Bruce Smith trying to make a splash.

SIMON: We're about to run out of time. Not much time for many more worse, yes?

BRYANT: Awful. He's just bad.

SIMON: Howard Bryant, thank you. Thanks so much.

BRYANT: My pleasure.

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