The latest NFL controversy over helmets and protecting players depresses me. It's just a game, not a field for toxic masculinity

That’s right. ‘Soft’ football will bring down the nation that sent people to the moon, helped win the Second World War, created the world’s biggest economy, won countless Nobel prizes, Olympic medals and so much more. Spare me 

James Moore
Saturday 25 August 2018 10:42 BST
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It’s not Donald Trump that’s leading to the decline in American civilisation. Nor is it Hillary Clinton, or even Bernie Sanders. It isn’t even the stuff conspiracy whacko Alex Jones says they’re putting in the water to create gay frogs. No, I’ll tell you what’s going to bring down the Stars & Stripes: the NFL’s new helmet rule.

To judge by some of what has been written, tweeted and broadcast, the reaction is symptomatic of an all-pervasive, lily-livered wimpiness that has created the millennial man: a shrinking violet capable of crying at the mere mention of going to see Jennifer Lawrence in a romantic movie now she’s finished with Katniss Everdeen’s bow and arrow.

Before you ask what on earth I’m banging on about, I should provide an explanation of NFL’s Rule 12, Section 2, Article 8. As far as I can.

The rule imposes a 15-yard penalty on teams when players lower their heads and bring their helmets into play when initiating contact with an opponent. It is part of the league’s attempt to make the game safer and, in particular, to reduce the incidence of head trauma, which has become a hot button issue thanks to the growing body of research into the detrimental impact of football upon players’ brains.

This impact has led to a small number of athletes bringing their careers to a premature close. It has also played a role in the reluctance among some parents to have their children playing at youth level, and even raised questions about the sport’s long-term future.

Cue blowback from people arguing that Rule 12, along with other attempts to ease the toll the sport takes on players’ bodies, will ultimately turn the NFL into a glorified version of non-contact “flag football” that no one will watch.

Some of the comments have strayed into absurdity. Take college coach Larry Fedora, for example. He feared that: “the game will be pushed so far to one extreme that you won’t recognise the game 10 years from now. And I do believe that if it gets to that point that our country goes down, too.”

That’s right. “Soft” football will bring down the nation that sent people to the moon, helped win the Second World War, created the world’s biggest economy, fostered the emergence of corporate giants like Google and Apple, won countless Nobel prizes, Olympic medals and so much more.

Spare me.

Fedora’s comments look even worse in the wake of the scandal currently being played out at the University of Maryland, where Jordan McNair, the offensive lineman, died from heatstroke after a brutal team workout.

No, his death didn’t have anything to do with head trauma. But some of the criticisms of the rule, and the idiotic belief that players have to endure punishing and deeply questionable training methods to “toughen them up” hail from the same boneheaded, hyper-masculine place.

And yes, I can say that even though I haven’t played the sport. I survived a lorry on top of me, and I’ve since played full-contact murderball and other para-sports. So I think I know a thing or two about toughness.

It’s worth noting that despite all the rule changes, at whatever level of the sport you care to consider, people are still watching, both in America and around the world. American football is still chess with violence, and it still offers those of us who can’t shake the habit an atavistic thrill.

In many ways the helmet rule may add to our enjoyment. In the context of the game the no-helmet rule imposes a heavy penalty that will keep offensive drives alive and potentially change the outcome of close contests.

Rule 12 is subject to the interpretation of officials in a sport that plays at breakneck speed. It is possible to envisage a defensive player launching into a tackle with every intention to avoid helmet contact, only to inadvertently find himself in that position.

Controversy will inevitably result.

One or two high profile flags each week will be enough to create a huge fuss. Fedora and his ilk should be thankful because you need the furore to draw people in. The talking points through the week will serve to add to the interest and excitement of the games. It will fuel fans’ endless conspiracy theories about the league being out to get their teams. “Did you see that call? It’s because the NFL hates the [insert nickname here].”

Those conspiracy theories are harmless when compared to some of the guff Alex Jones and his friends have peddled, even if they are all bunk.

Followers of the sport should know that the only real conspiracy is the NFL’s continuing attempts to do down the Oakland Raiders. This I can state as a fact with absolute confidence because I’m a fan.

I’m betting the NFL is quietly hoping that all this malarkey will draw attention away from players protesting racial injustice during the national anthem. It may have to steel itself for a disappointment there.

Solving that problem is a real challenge for America. Solving the helmet rule is not.

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