I’m not a neanderthal. I’d like to think that, in my 48 years of life on earth, I’ve evolved to understand that change is not only necessary to survive, but also to grow and flourish. I, for one, embrace change, perhaps at a slower rate than your average millennial, but for the rest of the pack, I’d say I adjust well.
But there’s one thing which will never change, and that’s my love, my passion, and my enjoyment of watching the game of football. I tried to play it in my youth and I wasn’t very good. At practice one day for Swissvale High School, Brian Chizmar, who attended Penn State University where he was a part of their 1986 National Championship Football team, hit me with a block so hard I can still feel it. As I finally came to my senses, he was standing over me with a grin on his face.
It wasn’t a cheap hit. He didn’t do anything anybody hadn’t done before. He simply crushed my body into a crumpled tomato can — and that was that.
Hits like that happen in football.
Now this was 1985. Players have gotten bigger, faster, and stronger in today’s game, along with being more in tune with diet and nutrition. Even at the high-school level, the physical conditioning, and strength training, has become more advanced. Kids that are going into FBS don’t have as big a jump to make when it comes to being up to speed with training regimens.
Blocking is still pretty much the same. There are some subtle changes I’m sure, but the fundamentals haven’t changed. What is changing, or at least there’s a charge to make changes for safety purposes, is tackling. Those fundamentals are being tweaked to ensure safety for both defensive and offensive players.
That’s change I can buy into and agree with.
But when it comes to the rest of what’s playing out in the league, in terms of player suspensions and fines, I can’t.
In what was one of the most enlightening player interviews in quite some time, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell went off on the current state of the NFL. His words were unkind at times, mostly towards the commissioner’s office and other league officials in charge of handing out fines and suspensions.
But what Mitchell said made total sense, to me at least.
“At the end of the day, this is football.” Mitchell stated. “If you want to see flag football then let’s take our pads off it would make it easier for me ‘cause now I don’t gotta wear heavy (expletive). But give us flags for me to pull off because that way I know what we are playing.”
Mitchell is right. The game is meant to be played in a physical manner. Notice I didn’t say dirty. For that, please see the elbow dropped by Rob Gronkowski just a few days earlier. Or perhaps the shot to the head Cincinnati Bengals safety George Iloka laid on Antonio Brown late in the fourth quarter of Monday Night’s bar-room brawl.
One thing I know for sure, and that’s this — You can’t take the physical nature of the game away and preserve the sport in the same context of what it was created to be.
I’m not saying you can’t make it safer, but not so much that you limit the physical side of play to make it more like checkers than chess. With shoulder pads, grunting, the occasional blood spatter, and all that comes along with football of course.
Mitchell continued by saying “You know I signed up to play full-speed, contact football and we are not doing that. I feel like I gotta ask a guy ‘Hey are you ready for me to hit you right now before I hit you?’ And that’s crazy.”
In a era where people are guarded, almost scripted with what they say in fear of retaliation from the wretched media, fans, front office types and anybody else, Mike Mitchell spilled the beans on what I believe many players feel. You can’t take the violence from the game and think it will still be the same.
And Mitchell is right. If defensive players have to roam the field, hunting their targets with the lurking idea of avoiding fines and suspensions, then they face fines and suspensions further hitting them in the wallets.
Who signed up for that?
Not one player in today’s game did. Everybody is fully aware the chance they take when stepping on the field. They know they are one play away from things like what happened to Ryan Shazier, or the countless others who have suffered traumatic injuries from the game of football.
The players understand.
They signed up with nobody forcing them at gunpoint to do it. They can walk away at any time, and several have like Steve Fainaru who walked away from the San Francisco 49ers after just one season citing concerns of long-term effects of repetitive brain trauma.
Nobody forced Fainaru to leave the sport he loved.
And nobody is forcing the players in the league now, nor the ones who will be eligible for the 2018 NFL draft, to join them.
It’s voluntary. They get it. They are smarter than you think. And they know the price that can be paid for the dream to play the sport they love at the highest level possible on God’s green earth.
Mitchell went on to say that players on the other side of ball help to contribute to part of the problem defensive players face. When a quarterback throws a bad ball that a wide receiver has to adjust to, it may not allow the defensive player to do the same thing because as we all know, the speed of the game doesn’t always allow that.
But don’t tell that to the guys in suits. Or TV talking heads. They judge only on what they see in that exact moment of time from one perspective. Something Mitchell takes personally.
“And at first you are taking our money, but now, you know, I got (expletive) like Matt Hasselbeck calling me a dirty player and trying my character and we’ve never met before.”
I wish I saw a way around all of this, but I don’t. The game is being forced into a box that will only continue to shrink around the players on the defensive side of the ball, and eventually you won’t be able to recognize the sport.
I’ll be ready to ascend when that time comes. In the meantime, it seems as if the game of football is dying and there’s nothing that can be done to keep it from certain death.
John Phillips is the author of this article and has covered sports professionally since 1992. He has been a member of the BTSC community since 2014. Follow JP on Facebook if you can find him.