$.01—The biggest issue on the docket for the NFL owners during their spring meetings is the political football that is the national anthem protests. Owners created a new policy that does nothing but effectively punt on third down in a lame attempt to appease those who opposed the specific act of protest of kneeling during the national anthem.
Here is the official media release from the NFL:
The 32 member clubs of the National Football League have reaffirmed their strong commitment to work alongside our players to strengthen our communities and advance social justice. The unique platform that we have created is unprecedented in its scope, and will provide extraordinary resources in support of programs to promote positive social change in our communities.
The membership also strongly believes that:
1. All team and league personnel on the field shall stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
2.The Game Operations Manual will be revised to remove the requirement that all players be on the field for the anthem.
3. Personnel who choose not to stand for the anthem may stay in the locker room or in a similar location off the field until after the anthem has been performed.
4. A club will be fined by the League if its personnel are on the field and do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
5. Each club may develop its own work rules, consistent with the above principles, regarding its personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
6. The commissioner will impose appropriate discipline on league personnel who do not stand and show respect for the flag and the anthem.
Here’s what it’s really saying:
If anyone employed by any form of the NFL is on the field visible to the paying public, they will be standing during the national anthem rendition. Period. That includes players, coaches, cheerleaders, trainers, officials, etc. But unlike past doctrine, being on the field for the anthem and presentation of the flag is no longer required of anyone.
I’m not crazy about forcing folks to stand for the flag but I can accept it given the option to not be present and not get in trouble any more for not being on the field. That’s a fair compromise waffle.
Where the NFL punted here is with the inherent ambiguity in points 4-6 of the above rules.
Teams will be responsible for creating their own rules for any personnel (read: players) who defy the new rule. But section four of the release leaves no definition of the concept of “show respect”.
Is it disrespectful to close your eyes in prayer, or to kneel after the conclusion of the anthem in prayer, which is a common sight in stadiums but almost never shown on broadcasts?
Is it now illegal to link arms in a show of unity while standing and singing the Star-Spangled Banner, as the Detroit Lions did with local law enforcement officers and active duty military personnel in a game last year? Steelers owner Art Rooney thinks so, but Lions owner Martha Ford was the driving force and an active participant in Detroit’s action.
Who decides in cases of disagreement on what is respect and what is not? According to point No. 6, that would be Roger Goodell himself. How has having him be judge, jury, executioner and St. Peter at the gates on all things discipline, from Spygate to fining players for wearing the wrong color of socks, gone for the league?
The NFL cannot define what a catch is, but now we’re supposed to trust them to determine what is respectful and what is an affront to the national anthem? Forgive me for being incredulously skeptical that this won’t create more problems than it solves for a league where some owners and commissioner appear hellbent on turning its golden goose into rotten foie gras.
$.02—Get ready to get angry about the new targeting rule adopted by the NFL. It seems most fans hate the new infractions, judging by my social media feeds.
The NFL produced a helpful video to illustrate what is now a penalty and what will now result in an ejection.
Believe it or not, I actually support (most of) this new emphasis. Take the first play in the video, a hit by Browns LB Christian Kirksey on Colts WR Kamar Aiken from last September. That play was not ruled a penalty last year because Kirksey went low with his hit. It’s a penalty now because he led with the crown of his helmet and initiated contact with his own head. It doesn’t matter what Aiken did or where Kirksey hit him; this is all about the defender leading with the head or using the helmet to make contact with the opponent.
This is reactionary, of course. The NFL is about as proactive as buying a fire extinguisher after burning down the house by throwing lighter fluid onto a lit propane grill. That doesn’t mean it’s not a good rule, however. The players need to be protected from themselves sometimes, and this is one of those times. I never want to see what happened with Ryan Shazier last year happen to someone else. Too many players still use their helmet in order to add extra oomph to their tackle, or practice terrible tackling form and launch themselves headfirst into where they think the ball will be.
The “heads up” tackling is indeed being taught at lower levels, and I do believe it’s helping. So is the increased awareness in post-football quality of life. It’s going to take some adjustment for a lot of players and “old-school” analysts who long for the days of Jack Lambert knocking himself unconscious while making a tackle head-first. So be it.
$.03—On another football-related issue, the NFL is changing the kickoff rules once again. It will look a lot more like an intramural flag football game than what most NFL fans are used to seeing when the special teams line up for the kickoff.
Among the new rules:
- No contact for the first 15 yards from the point of the kick until the ball is touched or hits the ground
- No double-team blocking at any time
- No running starts from more than one yard behind the kickoff point (was 5 yards)
- A “setup” zone of 15 yards between 10-25 yards from the kickoff is established for the receiving team, and eight players from the receiving team must remain in that setup zone until the ball either hits the ground or is fielded
- An untouched ball in the end zone is automatically a touchback and dead ball (used to be a live ball for the kicking team to potentially recover)
All the changes are an inevitable lurch to the very near future where the kickoff is no longer part of the game, in the name of player safety. One veteran NFL scout told me earlier this year that his team no longer factored kick return ability into a prospect’s evaluation because “he won’t have a job in 3 years”. I was skeptical when he told me that, but not any longer. There will not be kickoffs in the NFL by the 2020 season. Punt returns will go away soon after.
That’s a terrible blow for a lot of depth players and aspiring prospects from smaller schools. Those guys often make names for themselves on special teams, and now those opportunities will be severely curtailed.
$.04—The Christian Hackenberg era with the New York Jets is over before it ever took off. After two years of never seeing the field despite being a second-round pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, the Jets shipped the quarterback to the Oakland Raiders for the NFL equivalent of a bag of deflated balls, a conditional seventh-round pick.
My guess is they’ll never see that pick, because nothing we’ve seen from Hackenberg after his freshman year at Penn State has ever given any indication that he belongs in the NFL. I wrote extensively about “Hack” in his draft time, including this piece where I tried my best to be fair to the then-PSU starter. I made him my No. 14 QB in that draft class, and while I missed on some of the higher-ups, history thus far has proven my assessments spot-on.
It might seem personal, but my enmity is not with Hackenberg himself. My issue comes from those in what is often referred to as Big Draft Media who shamefully refused to alter their perceptions of him despite mountains of evidence that he was never going to be good. I took a lot of grief for going against the groupthink on Hack, as did others who saw the truth. I hoped the major media guys, the ones you see on the big networks during the draft weekend, would learn from their errant ways with guys like Hackenberg, or Jake Locker, or Zach Mettenberger or Ryan Mallett or any number of wildly inaccurate white QBs they heavily touted as franchise saviors simply because they “look the part”. Then this draft season brought us Josh Allen…
$.05-- It’s always been relatively easy to find someone to put some action on games with if you knew where to look. In my hometown it was obvious; the phone at a certain barbershop rang off the hook every day…and it wasn’t for the quality of the hair styling. The lead barber didn’t afford the shiny red corvette and in the parking lot the silver one at his house for his work with the clippers, either.
Let’s hope he paid cash for the cars, because it’s a matter of when and not if legalized sports gambling will crimp the local bookies. The Supreme Court’s sound 7-2 decision to do away with the federal ban on sports gaming opens the door for states to decide on their own if gambling on professional sports is something allowed. And government entities are generally not against getting a cut of a purported $150 billion-a-year industry.
How much of that the states get, and the individual sports leagues as well, is yet to be determined. New Jersey will begin taking bets on games soon, perhaps before you even read this. Delaware and West Virginia have mechanisms in place to quickly capitalize, too. My home state of Ohio and current domicile of Michigan will have it sooner than later, too, as will places like Louisiana and Mississippi.
There are still many wrinkles to get ironed out, from taxation rates to licensing bureaus and sports gaming commissions in every state that wants a piece of the pie. The leagues themselves will need to come up with plans to deal with the changes, including the creation of what is akin to a game integrity czar that makes sure the gambling experts don’t fix the games.
For the small-time bettors, guys like me who like to wager $50 that the Houston Texans will win more than 7.5 games in 2018 or put $20 on the longshot bet that the Washington Redskins will win the Super Bowl, the odds that more legal access to wagering creates a self-destructive monster is small. My chances of hitting a 20 percent return on my gambling investment are higher than they are at playing the stock market or getting involved in a multi-level marketing business. If those are legal, so too should be sports gambling.