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TLS Sunday Debate: NFL Helmet Rule

A hot topic of debate this #NFL Preseason has been the new helmet rule. Today, Jack Soble and David Wildman debate the NFL's new rule and the effect it could have moving forward.

With the NFL preseason officially underway, one hot topic of debate has been the new helmet rule, which saw its debut during Thursday night’s Hall of Fame Game. The rule has been subject to much scrutiny since its inception back in March. Today, two of The Loop Sport’s most outspoken authors, David Wildman and Jack Soble, sound off on their opinions about the controversial rule.  

For reference, the new rule states that a player shall be penalized 15 yards and possibly ejected any time one of the following occurs:

  1. Player lowers his helmet to establish a linear body posture prior to initiating and making contact with the helmet.
  2. Unobstructed path to his opponent.
  3. Contact clearly avoidable and player delivering the blow had other options.


Jack Soble: I do acknowledge that this rule change will not be popular. Nothing the NFL does will be, and with good reason – they have made enough egregious mistakes under Roger Goodell that they have not earned the benefit of the doubt in any shape or form. However, a helmet rule like the one they enacted, which prohibits use of the crown of the helmet to initiate contact in any case, is necessary to make football less prone to chronic head trauma. Youth football participation rates are at an all-time low and with horrific injuries like the one that happened to Ryan Shazier, it was time for a change.

The Shazier Play: 

David Wildman: Jack, I appreciate you acknowledging the fact that under Roger Goodell, the NFL has lost all benefit of the doubt. Because you were so cordial in acknowledging that fact, I’ll acknowledge this rule was without a doubt passed with noble intentions. The play that injured Shazier was catastrophic and tragic, and this rule is a clear reaction to that very play. That being said, the play that injured Shazier was unfortunately, a routine play. The action that has been outlawed by this rule is one that happens every single game, and many times cannot be avoided. You saw it in the Hall of Fame game, the plays being penalized (one in particular, which is embedded below) are plays that are staples of every NFL game. Furthermore, the reaction suggests that the very players this rule was meant to protect don’t even want this particular protection. Andrew Sendejo of the Vikings has been very outspoken against this rule, posting a picture on social media of him wearing a “A Make Football Violent Again” hat, and another picture of him in a modified helmet with a facemask on top so he is always leading with his face mask. Like I said, noble intentions, but all this rule has done is turn a basic football play into a penalty, and no one, players, fans and coaches alike, wants more penalties on Sunday. Like you said, football comes with inherent risks, and plays like the one this rule has outlawed are one of them.

HOF Game Play:

Soble: You mentioned that the action being outlawed is one that happens every single game. I wholeheartedly agree with you on that point. Where our opinions differ is that I believe that it shouldn’t be, and much more often than not CAN be avoided. Any time a player lowers their head to make contact with an opponent, they’re putting themselves at risk for head trauma and neck injuries that can debilitate athletes not only in immediate and drastic situations like with Shazier, but with more long-term consequences like developing CTE. The play from the Hall of Fame game is a play that I think is clean, even under the new rule, and will likely not be called in the regular season. In most cases when stricter rules are put in place, they’re over-called in the preseason and settled down once the games count. I can point to a few examples of safeties, like Andrew Sendejo, delivering clean hits with their shoulders, hits that are legal under this rule. Deon Bush’s shot to Ravens tight end (forget his name, will check later) comes to mind as a more recent example but a textbook case of this is from another Bears safety, Adrian Amos, in 2016 against Cole Beasley. He puts his head to the side of Beasley and leads with his shoulder, delivering a crushing blow that didn’t risk his safety whatsoever (will embed video). Much of this adjustment has to come at the youth level, where coaches must install the muscle memory of leading with the shoulder and keeping the head up, but professional players have to adjust too if we want to eliminate these dangerous plays.

Wildman: You have a spearing rule in place already, those types of plays are absolutely dangerous and avoidable. What this rule does, and the reason it’s already causing issues, is make regular football plays penalties. It’s going to change the tides of games when a safety comes in and draws a flag for making a hit that was legal and encouraged up until this year. Suspensions of key players could turn seasons on their heads. Making the game safer is a noble cause, and it would be great to do. But this rule is the beginning of a slippery slope that could see football turn into an unrecognizable mess when it’s all said and done. As far as eliminating head trauma and head injuries, that’s something that will never happen. The research on sub-concussive trauma that happens every single play suggests this rule will ultimately do nothing in making football a safer option long term. All it does is make each game a little more difficult to watch, and I can promise you this rule will cause more confusion and outrage than it is worth. Watch. It already has.

Soble: Short term, I agree, it will likely cause some confusion. Most newly implemented rules do, save for the restoring of fun celebrations last season. I would argue that in the long run, it will be worth it to take some of these plays, that yes, were routine football plays before, out of the game for good. While in the Hall of Fame game there were multiple plays, like Nick Orr’s hit in the back of the end zone where he led with his facemask (NOT the crown of his helmet) that were called, and should not have been. That, I expect, will become less and less common as the referees get used to this new rule and can better determine which hits are and are not unsafe. I did also see at least two instances, one in the beginning of the game against the Ravens, where a concussion-causing hit was called a penalty and would not have last season, and that is progress. While head trauma will never be fully eliminated from football (or any sport, Hockey has serious problems with this as well), there are steps like these we can take to scale it down and make the game a little less harmful, both in the short and long term.

Wildman: Jack, I hope you are right. But my feeling about this rule has been the same since it was first announced and the Hall of Fame Game only showed me what I was afraid of. This rule is going to be a mess, just how big of one we’ll have to wait and see. No one around the league is a fan, and I think there is a reason.

Soble: Sometimes you have to make unpopular decisions for the good of the game. People talk about football ceasing to exist all the time, whether it be “falling ratings” (which are not actually falling), or anthem protests, or any other crazy reason. But what could actually put the game in jeopardy is these increasingly daunting studies that show how bad it is for the brain, on a long term scale, and are causing this drop in youth participation rates. The last five words of that sentence is what actually could threaten football, in my view, and if the NFL can successfully take out much of what’s causing head trauma, it could go a very long way towards restoring the participation rates and keeping football going for many more years.

Who do you agree with? Jack or David? Sound of on Twitter and in the comment section!

Follow David Wildman and Jack Soble on Twitter–Feature Photo Credit: SB Nation 


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