Bone-jarring collisions between freakishly athletic men with bodies seemingly sculpted from solid blocks of granite; devastating tackles of an NFL ball carrier that more closely resemble head-on car crashes; the resulting cataclysmic explosions of these plays resonate through entire stadiums and reverberate in rich HD surround sound within the homes of millions of viewers on a typical Sunday afternoon or Monday night- an incendiary combination of lycra fabric, heated body armor and some wildly flammable accelerants – primal, competitive human nature and fight-or-flight survival.
These are the hallmarks of professional football.
Humanity, it would appear, is a term not typically associated with the patently violent and often unforgiving NFL, when it comes to acts regularly committed on the field of play. The league has a sordid reputation for ferocity. Handshakes, post-game congratulatory hugs and pulling your starters in a blowout are for the math teacher/coach and staff at State U on down to the army of varsity and jv gridders who strap up and go turf hunting on Friday nights, from the Atlantic shores of Maine to the parched oil rig-laden plains of West Texas, and the muck-filled glades of Florida to the muggy valley fields of Southern California.
Millions of individual and collective acts of violence have been unleashed within the NFL’s field of play (and some out of bounds) over the course of time and have subsequently been championed with a photographer’s lens and video instant replay. Apart from these images, all that remains is the human wreckage – an unforgiving and stark reminder of the league’s reputed tendency for brute force. Among them: the shot of a maniacal, gap-toothed Ray Nitschke as he stands in symbolic defense for Lombardi’s Packers dynasty in the 1960s. The Steelers and a grimacing, bloodied Jack Lambert who anchored the feared ‘Steel Curtain’ defense for Pittsburgh in the 1970s. The Doomsday Defense of the Dallas Cowboys, led by Hall of Famer Bob Lilly, also of the 1970s. And south on I-90 in Chicago, you had the Monsters of the Midway, led by wide-eyed “Iron” Mike Singletary in their resurgent, dominant defensive run during the mid-1980s.
Recently, the NFL has responded to a call for action from a large contingency of fans and league sponsors to re-think its once-celebrated legacy of destruction.
Several notable, horrific injuries have been sustained on the field (Daryl Stingley, Dennis Byrd, Kevin Everett) and terrible tales of despair (Mike Webster) endured off of it by ex-NFL players over the years. There’s also the issue regarding the suicides of several high-profile former players (Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, to name a few) and a realization that the NFL must now take massive strides to help support the health and safety of players, by implementing strict regulations and changing rules for contact. It would appear the league has taken a monumental step in a new direction toward becoming something which even 10 years ago couldn’t have ever been imagined.
Comparatively, off the gridiron, the league appears to have an equally unsavory (though more palatable) reputation due to the callous, calculating and coldly bureaucratic approach that teams often take when it comes to handling personnel moves, including the cuts of players who are injured or aging. Or both, if you ask Charles Woodson.
A youth movement has been spearheaded by NFL general managers, coaches, scouts and trainers that more frequently targets younger, healthier, faster and less expensive players. According to Football Perspective, just two of the teams (Seattle ranking first and Cincinnati ranking fourth) in the NFL’s top 10 youngest made the playoffs in 2012. That number summarizes the apparent motives by NFL executive leadership to eschew veteran presence and locker room character for incredible 40-yard dash times, limited experience – all in the name of cliched potential.
In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL, one minute a player is at his professional zenith, adored by legions of fans and seemingly in control of his destiny; in the blink of an eye, he might be injured or aging and suddenly he finds himself on the bench and then, quite possibly, out of a job. That’s the harsh reality of the league now more than ever.
Case in point: the recent decision made by the Patriots to unceremoniously cut starting defensive lineman Kyle Love. Under normal circumstances, this move may not have garnered much attention. Love was a starter but hardly considered an absolute commodity by the typically shrewd Bill Belichick. The issue, however, is how New England reportedly decided to part ways with Love after they’d discovered his diagnosis of Type 2 Diabetes. This particular type is widely recognized to be much easier to manage and treat than its counterpart – Type 1. Notably, Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes and has had success treating it. If the ex-Vanderbilt Commodore eventually gets cut from the Bears, it likely won’t have anything to do with his insulin levels, rather his inability to beat the Packers or win a playoff game.
Over the years, many coaches have gone on record as saying one of their absolute most difficult tasks is the act of cutting ties with a player in camp or at some point during the season with whom they have developed a bond. That bond is forged when no-name players typically play hurt and labor tirelessly for a comparatively minuscule shot at even making the final 53-man roster, let alone securing a coveted spot on one of the NFL’s 32 practice squads. Cutting players is, in essence, the severing of that bond, of defusing a budding relationship between a coach and his eager disciple. It’s the final, painful act of formalizing the decision by a franchise to go in another direction.
Quite simply, for the player who is being released, it’s the scathing, immediate and demoralizing confirmation that he either didn’t do enough – or wasn’t good enough – to warrant consideration for a roster spot.
The recent Love debacle has brought to light a larger issue of which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell plans to make a serious point of focus: It concerns the treatment of players once they’re actually cut from an NFL team’s roster. Goodell reportedly wants to revisit and possibly revise the process of how NFL teams handle these types of transactions and how the NFL can better manage such sensitive, life-altering decisions.
Though front office doors aren’t likely to swing wide open in the wake of a possible future mandate handed down from Goodell regarding a change in process related to the serial dumping of talent every season, it’d be interesting to better understand the psychology and rationale that go hand-in-hand with making these types of personnel decisions and the impact they have – much like the physical toll that is imparted on the field in devastating fashion – on the players across the league.
If NFL commish Roger Goodell has anything to say about it, it’s a process that will become a little softer, a little more humane.