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Hitting the Head on the NFL’s Contact Issue

Where do we draw the line on our overreactions to big hits?

NFL: New England Patriots at Buffalo Bills Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

Let me get this out of the way. I have never played a second of NFL football and I played about five snaps of college football. Most of us are not 6’5” 245-pound freak athletes like Cam Newton – though most NFL players do not even fit that mold. We are not the ones putting on shoulder pads and running out of the tunnel to thousands of screaming fans. Nor are we exposing our bodies and brains to the rigors of this collision sport. While some of us may still dream for times like this, we are simply spectators of a violent and entertaining competition. We invest time, energy, and money into a dangerous, life-changing sport the way we have done for most of our history.

Humans have always gravitated towards more violent sports. Look at the gladiators in the Coliseum who used to fight to the death. What about rough and tumble fighting in rural America during the 18th and 19th century (shout out to my freshman year Sport History professor). These fights, which were also known as gouging, were as violent as could be. Some tactics included pulling out hair, scratching with pre-sharpened nails, and of course, eye gouging. What about heavyweight boxing in the mid 20th century or today’s MMA fighting? A sport in which players wear protective gear from head to toe does not seem to compare to some of our violent practices of the past.

Clearly, I understand that times change. Humans progress, sports evolve, and we no longer gather in huge mobs to watch grown men rip each other’s eyes out. Bills Mafia may still practice this, but that’s another subject for a different day. At what point do we say enough is enough? The NFL has come a long way from its days of denying the long-term effects of repetitive head trauma and giving players concussion tests that consisted of counting fingers. They have done what they can to take dirty head shots out of the game. But when do we get to the point where players can just play? Hitting is a natural part of game. The amount of regulations that have been implemented are clearly not working.

It’s easy to see why Steelers Safety Mike Mitchell was so mad. Putting aside the motivational aspects of his epic rant, Mitchell made some valid points.

When do all of these safety measures put defensive players at risk? When do these rule changes start changing the way the game is fundamentally played? Let me be clear, this conversation does not include players like Rob Gronkowski, whose actions this past weekend cannot be defended and probably warrant stiffer punishments. Gronk could have easily broken Tre’Davious White’s neck.

But plays like Juju Smith-Schuster’s crack block on Vontaze Burfict are part of the reason why football is the most popular sport in America. It is part of the reason why the Steelers-Bengals rivalry is currently the best rivalry in the NFL. Don’t believe me? The best rivalry used to be The Patriots vs whatever team Peyton Manning was on. Somewhere in between, the Packers and Vikings met in some pivotal NFC North games. Ravens-Steelers is a cute rivalry when Joe Flacco decides to wake up out of his state of mediocrity. I think the Patriots and Giants have some history between them but I don’t remember why. But let’s be real, the Steelers-Bengals rivalry is currently the most intriguing rivalry in the NFL and it’s because of hits like that.

What was your reaction when you first saw that hit live? My friends and I immediately jumped off the couch in excitement at the sight of such a great block. The block actually distracted us from Le’Veon Bell bulldozing Dre Kirkpatrick for the seventh time. It was not away from the play, and it was not unnecessary. Burfict could have made that tackle if not for Juju’s block. Let’s be honest, no one even reacted to the actual hit. Not the fans, players or even refs. Go watch the video. Juju led with his shoulder and elbow first into Burfict’s chest. Flags were not thrown until after the hit when Juju stood over Burfict taunting him, something that will definitely be revisited the next time the Steelers and Bengals meet up. None of us thought it was a penalty until ESPN’s super-extraordinary HD cameras picked up the back of Juju’s helmet contacting Burfict’s facemask. What is up with those cameras by the way?

Crack blocks have been a part of football forever. We had plays in our playbook where it was my responsibility to specifically come down from my receiver position and crack a linebacker. I’ve delivered the blow, and I’ve received the hit. Both sides don’t feel too good if we’re being honest (one is clearly better than the other though). We’re supposed to get rid of this play because you can get hurt? What’s the difference between this block and the block Michael Floyd made last year against the Dolphins? It’s a full speed contact sport. We don’t need guys asking for permission to light someone up.

The NFL has already become a shell of itself. In no way am I condoning fighting, especially in a league that has a long history of domestic violence. But I found it perplexing that in both the Gronkowski hit and the Juju hit the teammates of the injured players did not come to the defense of their teammate first, instead complaining to the refs for flags. We are becoming conditioned to assume that every big hit that occurs in today’s NFL is illegal and dirty. Among many other problems, this could be another reason why NFL ratings continue to slip.

My position is this: targeting and dirty head shots need to stay out of this game. I don’t say this with much pleasure, but Roger Goodell deserves credit for how he has eliminated those type of hits. With that being said, there comes a point in time where we need to let these players do what they are paid millions of dollars to do: play. This game comes with inherent risks. The players knew this when they signed up and the fans expect this when we turn on our televisions. This is just another chapter in our love for contact sports. Instead of trying to change the fundamental aspects of the game, accept it for what it is because if we are calling it how it is, we all love hits like that.