NFL crisis: What happens if someone dies on the field?

Monday night’s big NFL game between the Packers and the Seahawks drove a stake through the heart of anyone still trying to pretend that a group of third-tier referees could officiate a sport that involves guys the size of appliances who move like gazelles.

One ref signals one call, the other signals something entirely different, and the fans see a fiercely contested match-up decided, wrongly, by the guys in zebra stripes.

If you’re new to the whole mess, these replacement refs have been brought in because of a hardball labor dispute.  And after this week’s debacle, ESPN concluded that the back-up officials are “hurting the NFL.”

In this clip, from NPR, you’ll hear color commentators at Monday night’s game worrying about the health of the sport’s brand.  That’s creepy.

The real worry here should be the health and welfare of the athletes.  If modern NFL players run like gazelles, they hit like wrecking balls.

This is a sport that faced close scrutiny before the season began, due to increasingly horrific research into the ravages of concussions and other head trauma.

Hundreds of former players are already involved in a class-action suit, accusing the league’s owners and official of “deceit and deception” in their handling of brain injury on the field.

This is dangerous stuff.  Even with highly trained, experienced referees on the field, preventing devastating injury or death is a high-wire act, a constant negotiation between the violence of America’s most popular sport and the whistle-thin veneer of rules and officiating.

Now that the high school and junior college referees are managing the grid-iron, it’s easy to see things spiraling out of control.

The fact that the NFL is holding a season at all under these conditions shows the level of contempt the league feels for players.  Can you imagine NASCAR asking drivers to hit the track without proper safety precautions?  No way.

Even mixed martial arts — which, by the way, has a better safety record than the NFL — would balk at throwing fighters into the ring without giving athletes the protection of proper officiating.

So it’s a good thing that right now people are carping about games being lost and the brand being damaged.  In the days ahead, we could be talking instead about young men being paralyzed, or killed, or their careers shattered by avoidable injuries.

Frankly, when it comes to caring for athletes, the NFL already operates in an ethical gray zone that is shading ever darker as new research about mental health emerges.

To pull back from the brink, the league should make the safe choice for players:  Put experienced refs back on the field, or call off the season until the labor dispute is over.

The time to make that call is now, not after we see an athlete carted off the field on a covered stretcher.


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15 Comments on “NFL crisis: What happens if someone dies on the field?”

  1. Newt says:

    As of last night, the entire NFL season should be considered “exhibition,” without any meaning by both the fans and the sports chattering classes. Too many games have already been compromised. The standings and playoffs should be considered likewise. If fans did this, and viewing fall off a point or two, which they will not, it would quickly cause the settlement of the dispute.

    As for the safety angle, playing football, as with motorcycle riding, and, for that matter, women who stay in realtionships with crazy-dangerous men, and other self-destructive but enticing behaviors, good luck, Brian.

    Love has no pride.

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  2. Pete Klein says:

    Brian, what is it with you and football, and motorcycles?
    Why not add climbing in the Himalyas?
    There should at least be a law where they are required to get all the dead bodies and other junk off the mountains.
    Life is dangerous. At least the players like playing football and make great money even when they are bench warmers.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  3. Brian Mann says:

    Peter –

    Most people who play and get injured playing football aren’t being compensated well — they’re high school and college players who have almost no safety net.

    Even NFL players who are earning major bank deserve to know that the guy blowing the whistle knows how to watch for dirty hits.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  4. Didn’t Theodore Roosevelt try to ban football when he was president?

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  5. Though it’s telling. Unions spend a century helping raise the standard of living for masses of hard-working Americans and people give them the finger. But a few scab refs ruin a little football game and suddenly everyone’s like, “Give the refs union whatever they want!”

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  6. oa says:

    Excellent post, Brian Mann. And you are right, Brian Alphabet. Though TR’s action was more a threat to goad colleges into action to make it safer, which they did under pressure by changing rules.

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  7. Pete Klein says:

    I played football in grade school and in my freshman year in high school. Switched to track when I realized that at 125 lbs and 5′ 7″ that no matter how many milkshakes I drank, I would never be more than fodder for practice.
    That said, I would have continued if I had been bigger.
    There are only two sports I like. Football is one and the other is hockey. Both are team sports and both are rough.
    I come from Detroit. Need I say more?
    Oh, by the way, if you want to talk about danger, how about we eliminate the military? Now that’s real danger (and a team sport) no matter how much or how good your safety equipment is.

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  8. Mervel says:

    As long as the NFL is as profitable and popular as it is, this will not change.

    However if the “Brand” is diminished by sloppy games and people stop watching and stop coming you would see change. Right now its all talk, people are still tuning in and the money is flowing.

    The owners are the league, the owners are in charge of what is happening right now.

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  9. Peter Hahn says:

    Brian – I believe that they (dont know who) go over the films after the game and fine any players who do hurtful things. Even if the refs miss the action.

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  10. Dave says:

    I’m not sure how much the refs in football can really protect the players. Their role in a game is very different from the role a ref plays in MMA.

    In MMA a ref has the ability to (literally sometimes) jump in between the fighters and stop the action of a match before an unsafe situation turns bad, or they can call the match when one fighter is clearly hurt. That is mainly how they are able to protect the participants.

    NFL refs have no real equivalent. They can not throw themselves in between an illegal tackle as it happens. All they can do is call penalties after the fact and hope that somehow deters a situation from happening again. The NFL has been struggling with this for years now, precisely because a 15 yard penalty is not a very effective means of deterring dangerous hits… they have thus resorted to large fines and suspensions after review of the game. Also with slow and limited results.

    The NFL certainly has a safety problem, but I don’t think it is a problem that the refs are responsible for.

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  11. Brian Mann says:

    Dave –

    I disagree. I can’t prove this — yes, this is a topic about which I get to have unadulterated opinions — but think refs in football are vital in terms of controlling the tenor of a game, identifying players who are pushing the envelope, sensing toxic energy between athletes.

    Players who know they have good refs watching control their angles better. Also, in a blood sport like this, there’s an important element of knowing that there are, you know, rules, and capable people who can adjudicate them. WIthout that veneer of civilization, I think the potential for bad things happening ticks up significantly.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  12. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    I’m not sure how any referee, no matter how skilled and experienced, can prevent the injuries and type of hits we witness nowadays in the NFL. These players are simply so big, strong, agile, quick, fast, etc. that they’re literally freaks of nature. Many times the illegal hits aren’t intentional, it’s just that the game is so fast and quick that players simply can’t always adjust their technique, angles, etc. to avoid illegal and physically punishing contact.

    Toss in the fact that to perform at the NFL level and keep your job, and to avoid injury to yourself, you have to perform at an intensity level that makes it nearly impossible for any player not to cause injury to other players on occasion. If you’ve ever played football you know exactly what I’m talking about. The first lesson you’re taught is to play with intensity or you’ll hurt yourself.

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  13. Dave says:

    These types of injuries have been a serious problem for more than a decade now – during this time the regular refs have been on the field. That should tell us that they are not much of a factor when it comes to preventing this. If the solution was as simple as controlling the tone and energy on the field, we likely wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    The only headway that has been made on this issue has come via rule changes, and fines and suspensions. The refs had (and have) nothing to do with either of those.

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  14. mervel says:

    Well we don’t really know. This is the first time we have had 3rd tier ref’s in the NFL for a long time. So we don’t know the impact. I lean toward agreeing with Brian, I think they can have an impact on the game particularly on the really overt intentional violence. Good ref’s can see that happening, they can see someone who is intentionally trying to injure another player. We do know that bounties exist in the NFL to intentionally hurt other players, I think this is probably tied to the particular team culture but also can be tied to organized gaming’s large influence on professional football. NFL football may go the way of boxing, with the influence of organized crime and injury, if the owners don’t try to really change what is happening.

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  15. Pete Klein says:

    This will never happen but it is something I have thought about from time to time.
    Boxing is not one of my favorite sports but it is one that recognizes size does matter and has divisions based upon size. Size also matters in both football and basketball. Would anyone be in favor of having sized (weight and height) divisions for football and basketball?

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