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For NFL players, a safer game ought to be an easier sell

September 26, 2018

Clay Matthews appears to be the biggest victim in sports. The hue and cry over the persecution of the Green Bay Packers pass rusher would lead you to believe that he was the one tackled and smashed into the ground at FedEx Field Sunday.

But no, he delivered the blow, and if there was a GoFundMe campaign for roughing-the-passer penalties, teammates and opponents alike would be reaching into their pockets to help fight the injustice.

Maybe even Alex Smith, who took the shot from Matthews on Sunday and then was the beneficiary of the 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty, would write a check.

“I think there’s some gray here with this that needs to be ironed out,” Smith said.

It’s gray, all right. It’s murky and confusing. How else to explain the wailing and gnashing of teeth over new rules designed to make the game safer from a generation of players who stand to benefit both physically and financially over the long haul from a safer game?

There are reports the league’s competition committee may tweak the implementation of the roughing penalties after all, there have been three times as many called in the first three weeks as there were at this point last season.

But the NFL won’t reverse course. No, this dramatic change in the way the game is played on the field is where the game and more importantly the business are going.

This is the new world order of the NFL. Get used to it.

It would be nice to say the movement to protect players is because of the concern owners have for the health and welfare of their players. But we know that is not true. We are a few years away from an 18-game schedule, and that is not a prescription for the health and welfare of players.

No, someone inside NFL headquarters on Park Avenue has made the decision that the new tackling rules, the aggressive roughing-the-passer calls and more than likely other rule changes in the pipeline are good business moving forward for their product.

They’ve heard the narrative for nearly 10 years about the dangers of the game, the damage it leaves behind and the impact on fans and viewers beyond their core football group and decided that it’s time to take steps now to ensure that their money machine keeps spitting out dollars five to 10 years down the road.

If that means human wrecking balls like Matthews have to gently place quarterbacks on the turf, so be it.

It might not work. It’s possible the game is so inherently dangerous that it can’t be changed. But NFL business leaders clearly are concerned enough that they are willing to make dramatic changes on the field and risk the complaints from their core fan base and, ironically, the players themselves, that the game is becoming too soft.

“Unfortunately, this league is going in a direction that a lot of people don’t like and I think it is getting soft,” Matthews told reporters after his team lost 31-17 to Washington Sunday.

Again, what do you think is motivating the league to make these changes? Goodwill? Compassion?

No. They are worried about the damage to their product caused by the damage on the field.

You might think that the players partners in this business with the owners, getting 50 percent of the revenue would have the same concerns. Then again, these players, for the most part, have already gotten paid.

Why should they care about the earnings of a 12-year-old youth football player 10 years from now in the NFL?

“They don’t care about the rest of us getting hurt,” cornerback Richard Sherman posted on Twitter. “Long as the QB is safe.”

Well, someone in the business of the NFL has decided that it is good business for quarterbacks in this league to stay safe. And if it is good business for the NFL, isn’t it good business for the NFL Players Association, whose duties do actually include protecting the health and welfare of its players and future earnings for those members to come?

“Roughing-the-passer calls are out of control,” defensive end J.J. Watt posted on Twitter.

That may be, and the calls may be dialed back some. But Sherman and Watt should be smart enough to know that this is football as we will come to know it.

In the film, “North Dallas Forty,” John Matuszak has the great line when he declares in anger to coaches in the locker room, “Every time I call it a game you call it a business. And every time I call it a business, you call it a game.”

The game is changing for the business.

You can hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan every Wednesday afternoon and Saturday morning and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast Tuesdays and Thursdays.

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