The NFL has passed two new rules this off-season under new commissioner Roger Goodell, both of which will affect the Patriots--and one of which might be attributable directly to a Patriots player.
The first rule, which drew a major uproar from fans (though the rule won't affect fans): alcohol has been banned from all official NFL team functions, including, as this ESPN headline helpfully lists, players, owners, coaches and guests. This includes team buses, airplanes, parties...you get the idea.
The rule is similar to some also enacted in Major League Baseball after Josh Hancock, a relief pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, was killed in a car crash while driving drunk. Some Major League clubhouses are now banning beer and some teams are also putting the ixnay on booze at team events.
Meanwhile, more recently, the NFL announced that it will be enacting new procedures around head injuries and concussions. To wit (from an article on Football.com):
- Neuropsychological baseline testing will be required for all NFL players beginning this season, using a standardized test to establish an individual functional baseline.
- An NFL MTBI conference will be held on June 19 in Chicago for all NFL team physicians and athletic trainers to share the most up-to-date information on state-of-the-art care and management of concussions.
- evaluation procedures used by NFL teams will be shared among all medical and training staffs.
- The NFL rule requiring every player to wear a chin strap that is completely and properly buckled to the helmet will be strictly enforced. Teams and players will not be permitted to modify the attachment of the chin strap to the helmet or improperly modify the helmet in any other way. The longstanding safety-related rules related to the use of the helmet also will be strictly enforced.
- The NFL will establish a “whistle blower” system so that anyone may anonymously report any incident in which a doctor is pressured to return a player to play from a concussion or that a player with a concussion is pressured to play.
Once again, the case of one player has spurred the NFL to action on this issue--this time one of our own, Ted Johnson.
This time it was the publication by the Globe's Jackie MacMullan about Ted Johnson's chronic health problems now that he has retired, which he attributes to years of repeated concussions and being pushed to play before it was medically advisable to do so.
One could argue that both rules stem from the same sentiment in the commissioner's office: the league must do a better job protecting the health and safety of its players.
A commendable attitude, to be sure, but I have to say I see both these regulations very differently. To me, the cases of Josh Hancock and Ted Johnson could not be more different, especially if they are to be the basis for new policies across professional sports leagues.
A return to Prohibition?
From what the public has been made aware of in Hancock's case, the pitcher had a longstanding issue with alcohol and drugs. That night, he had been drinking not in a clubhouse but in a bar far away from his team's ballpark. The bartender tried to get him to take a cab, but he refused. He was also talking on a cell phone and speeding when he slammed into the back of a tow truck and was killed instantly.
In Hancock's case there is some argument that intervention was necessary, on the part of his Cardinals organization, management and teammates. There is the urge to make such intervention mandatory, to build in some safety mechanism.
But the plain fact of the matter is that some people have problems with addiction--and those people, if you believe the principles of AA, have always been and will always be addicts. It doesn't mean that they cannot be helped--but it has been well established throughout our nation's history that the prohibition of a substance for people without addiction problems does little to change the situation of those who do. In other words, Josh Hancock's teammates--and he--could have been prohibited from drinking beer in the clubhouse at the time of his death, and it would not have altered the course of events one iota. That bar would still have been open. Josh Hancock would still have been a problem drinker. That rule serves only to punish other law-abiding adults who do not have problems with drinking; when it comes to the other Josh Hancocks hiding out there among the Major League ranks, the ban will only push them out of the relative safety (and convenience) of the clubhouse and into off-site establishments if they want to drink. Hence more of them will be driving to said establishments--and away from them again. If anything, the new prohibition in some Major League clubhouses could make more Josh Hancock cases more likely, not less.
Pacman Jones and his famous troubles might also be behind the thinking of Goodell when it comes to the NFL alcohol ban. But again, not allowing booze at team events means that unless players are contractually obligated to appear at those events, many are probably more likely to blow them off. As in the case of baseball, the NFL's draconian measures when it comes to alcohol will drive the Pacman Joneses away from NFL-supervised events and toward the strip clubs.
And there is also the matter of the fact that alcohol is legal, and the NFL is attempting to regulate the legal behavior of all its adult employees--not just players. The NFL is, in effect, saying that it does not trust its employees, on and off the field, to drink responsibly. Which frankly is not something I think should be an employer's business or decision to make.
Helmet laws: live free and / or die?
So, you could also argue, the helmet regulations are a similar thing--where the alcohol ban has analogies in laws that are debated in wider society nearly constantly, helmet bylaws have multiple analogies in civil law as well. Many of the same "nanny government" arguments have been made about motorcycle helmet laws, for example.
But here's where I think it's different. Here, rather than trying to regulate the choices of employees in a social setting, the NFL is taking long-overdue action to correct a problem that occurs on its field of play and over which it has undisputed direct control. It's debatable what say the league has in what happens to players outside the locker room and field turf, but what happens to them--and their bodies--in the course of playing duties is incontrovertibly within the NFL's purview, and something that has warranted more action from the league for years.
It seems like such a little detail--and it is--but I for one was happy to see the chin strap issue in particular be addressed. I have noticed any number of players unbuckling chin straps between plays and then leaving them flapping when it comes time to break the huddle, and I've always wondered if someone shouldn't nudge them and say, what are you stupid? Put that helmet back on right. Since no one did, I then concluded that maybe the chin strap didn't matter as much as I think it did.
Turns out it did--and all the unbuckling I've seen is just a function of the unique psychology of the professional athlete, especially the young professional athlete, who believes himself to be invincible. And like I said, it is a very little titchy detail.
But ask Ted Johnson how he feels now about those little details he dismissed. This is a place where the NFL has the example of many of its retirees to demonstrate the effects of the "invincible" attitude on a person's body and mind long-term. This is a place where the NFL has the means and motivation to improve its procedures, and those improvements will have a direct effect on the quality of life for all players. Most importantly, this is a place where the NFL has a responsibility to work toward a better outlook for its players once they're done playing for a franchise and want to enjoy the fruits of their labors.
It's been interesting to see these new edicts come down the pike this off-season. I think both are well-intentioned. But I'm hoping only one of them stands up long-term.