Home » Best of » NFL ‘player safety’ vs. ‘the legal hit.’

NFL ‘player safety’ vs. ‘the legal hit.’

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Image from the Ravens’ official team site. Did they get the memo?
Click for disturbing gif (courtesy KSK).

UPDATE:  KSK is on the job with a post that nails this subject today (2/5).
UPDATE #2:  The Baltimore Ravens team site’s coverage reads:  Jimmy Smith Saves Best For Last.

Decent Super Bowl last night. I had the Ravens and called Flacco playing well.  Yay, I got one right.  (In fairness, I credit to Colin Kaepernick for steering me toward the Ravens because, this.)  My picks overall this year were horrendous so you’ll not hear crowing from here for having a solid pick at the end.

Super Bowl game recap is not on the docket today. But the fact of the Super Bowl and Worlds Most Viewed Sporting Event serves as a perfect setting for today’s theme:

  • The NFL gives no shits ‘the minimum amount of shits required to head-off lawsuits’ about head injuries.
  • Everyone from Obama to Goodell to the $5,700,000,000/year TV networks are conspiring to construct a talk track about awareness and concern but without meaningful action.
  • We hate being spun. It’s the height of disrespect to assume we-the-viewers can’t figure this one out without the help of more (NFL sanctioned) experts inveighing on the subject for us.

Because the solution couldn’t be easier: you can either make targeting heads illegal or require players to sign waivers accepting that they’ll have some level of brain damage after leaving the game.


Here’s the play that jogged my memory of the NFL’s and the networks’ conspiratorial hypocrisy.

Game on the line, 3rd and goal, under two minutes left in the Super Bowl. Swing pass to Michael Crabtree. Jimmy Smith breaks up pass by taking Crabtree’s head off. I’m going to break it down Zapruder film style; sorry that the feed is a little choppy at times; and listen at 0:35 as Kanicki moves into 3rd person without a hint of irony.


Some of our commenters below have added brilliant points (that I’d missed) regarding the screwy nature of the NFL’s rules on this issue:

  1. If he made a ‘football move’ (which he did), why wasn’t it a completed pass and fumble?
  2. Alternatively if it’s an incomplete pass, doesn’t it follow that no ‘football move’ was made and thus it should have been a PF for targeting the head?
  3. If Crabtree had stayed on the ground, this play would have been replayed and replayed and would be front page news… and probably the impetus for a rule change.
  4. But also, had Crabtree stayed on the ground, he would not have been ineligible for the biggest play of his team’s year on fourth down due to the mandatory concussion eval rule.
    1. Was an awareness of the concussion eval rule a factor in Crabtree pulling himself together and getting back to the huddle without delay?


Do we really need to consult a rulebook on this? Will it matter that Crabtree made ‘a football move’ and so ‘was not defenseless’ when he’s a got early onset Alzheimer’s (best case) or a quadriplegic (worst case)?  Doesn’t the fact of this play’s legality in spite of the evidence of its danger point to a willful negligence on behalf of the employer when the employee comes down with CTE after retirement?

I call bullshit.

I call bullshit that targeting heads is ok if the player has the ball.

I call bullshit on one set of rules to protect the QB class player and another set of rules to protect the rest.

I call bullshit on the jive studies the NFL is funding (and that Obama was spinning in the pre-game). Education? What do we need to be educated on? The data from an NFL funded research project was presented in 2005; but look here and the NFL funded a study in 2007 to obfuscate the issue. So… more research study and education is the plan? Really?

I call bullshit on the announcing crews who talk player safety all year long but then ignore a bad a hit as you’ll see when on a stage in front of 111,000,000 US viewers.

And I call bullshit on fans who suspend common sense to parrot the non-sensical talking points of a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

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This subject got on my radar after the James Harrison concussing of Cribbs and MoMass in 2010. Harrison got fined and flagged on MoMass’ hit, nothing on Cribbs’ hit.  Here are the two hits from 2010.


Did you catch the announcer (Wilcots?) in the MoMass clip making a distinction between MoMass being ‘defenseless’ and Cribbs being ‘a runner with the football and thus [per the NFL] not defenseless? That’s what I mean when I say ‘non-nuanced.’ Cribbs does not see Harrison; Harrison lowers his crown and buries it in the side of Cribbs’ head. Cribbs is, in truth, defenseless.  But it’s legal because Cribbs is acting as a runner; Cribbs has the ball, therefore he’s not defenseless.  ?

How Orwellian.

The Cribbs hit prompted me to bake [what I think to be] an effective graphical portrayal of the ridiculous inner dialog of the NFL here.

NFL, you are aware that multiple concussions causes Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy? Individuals with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy may show such symptoms of dementia such as memory loss, aggression, confusion and depression which may appear within months of the trauma or many decades later. This was presented to you in 2005.

Studies ordered by the NFL have uncovered critical data about the incidence of memory problems and dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease among NFL players. The findings showed that memory-related diseases appear to be 19-fold higher rate among men ages 30 through 49.

[Correcting myself:  CTE isn’t specifically about concussions; it is caused by repeated sub-concussive hits to the head.]

Of course the punch line, ‘Cribbs has the ball,’ is laughable in its simplistic thinking but also truthful in representing the lack of nuance surrounding the discussion. It’s like Ralphie when Flick’s tongue is stuck to the pole. I don’t know. The bell rang. Cribbs has the ball.



Here’s a two more clips of head shots.  Both are legal.  Both look likely to produce a concussion or worse.

Frankly, in the first clip, I really thought Cribbs would not get up. And it illustrates that helmet-to-helmet is not the issue: Ellerbe hits him with his shoulder. The issue is deliberately targeting the head.

Having that jackass Mayock inform us ‘Remember folks, he’s not a defenseless player, he’s a punt returner with the ball in his hands…,’ while Cribbs is out cold speaks volumes to the ‘concern’ of the NFL.  Mayock’s ‘concern’ is about sounding knowledgable about asinine football rules.  He was not concerned about the player/family man knocked cold on the field with his 5th, 6th, 7th concussion.  (There’s no end to bad announcing.  Really.)



Depending on time, I may dig deeper into the NFL activities surrounding the issue. For example, in 2007 NFL put out a pamphlet on concussion management:

“We want to make sure all NFL players, coaches and staff members are fully informed and take advantage of the most up-to-date information and resources as we continue to study the long-term impact of concussions,” Commissioner Roger Goodell said. “Because of the unique and complex nature of the brain, our goal is to continue to have concussions managed conservatively by outstanding medical personnel in a way that clearly emphasizes player safety over competitive concerns.”

That’s 2007. If all goes to plan, the NFL will continue to study the long-term impact of concussions for the next 20, 50, 100 years.

While the studies and research are taking place, all the hits above are legal.


Bringing light to the Women’s Soccer concussion issue.

And let not CBS’ and NFLN’s complicity not go unnoticed. The Crabtree hit had only one replay. The talking heads in the post game had lots to say about a created controversy on the 4th down play. (Ack’d:  Jim Harbaugh’s gracelessness contributed to this.)  But I’ve yet to hear anyone comment on the 3rd down play preceding it.  (Edit:  KSK and ESPN/TMQ are out with commentary on this as of 2/5.)

If you think we’re reaching when we use concepts like NFL-TV-conspiracy, note the remarkable comments by Jim Nantz on Face the Nation Sunday morning of the Super Bowl: (h/t redright88.)

Research shows that at the college level, a women’s soccer player is two and half times more likely to suffer a concussion than a college football player. I don’t hear anyone saying right now, ‘should we put our daughter in these soccer programs?

Is he saying women’s soccer has a problem?  Is he saying NFL doesn’t have a problem because someone else has a problem?  If he is trying to say women’s head injuries tend to be more serious and that the problem is not limited to football, ok, but isn’t that simply base obfuscation in defense of an enterprise of which he is a stakeholder with the goal being even more ‘continued research?’

We documented warning signs on Jim Nantz’ tenuous grip on reality just a coule weeks ago.  It’s starting to look like he’s deliberately lobbying for a retirement package so he can spend more time at his new home overlooking the 7th hole at Pebble Beach.


Moving on.


Also.  This.  The clip following was ruled illegal.

Errr. That was a 15 yard penalty. The five video clips above were not penalties.

You can’t reconcile the differing sets of safeguards for QBs and the rest of the players.  If you’re trying to protect players’ heads, protect all of them.  Not just QBs.

I’m with you Rex.



In closing, to the NFL and TV partners:

Spare me the blah blah blah, funded studies, blah blah, legal hit, he had the ball, blah blah blah, football move not a defenseless player, blah blah, they’re really trying to protect the quarterbacks so that’s a good call, blah, but only when he’s in the pocket, blah blah blah, eliminate the kickoff blah blah..


Stop dancing, stop talking, stop assuming we’re imbeciles.

Do you want to do something about head injuries? Then do something. Pick one of these choices:

  1. Make targeting heads illegal;
  2. Require players sign waivers accepting that they’ll have some level of brain damage after leaving the game.

Because it is that binary.


Here’s the clip without my commentary.


Here’s the raw .mov file if you want to download and watch it frame-by-frame.



  1. RXAX says:

    Excellent assessment of the hypocrisy of the NFL and its bullshit attempt at pretending to give a dam about player safety. The fact that this play wasn’t reviewed (as it should be, due to the fact that it was under the 2 minute mark) only serves as a clear and present example that the nfl doesn’t care.

    Thank you for your clear and concise description and discussion.

  2. maxfnmloans says:

    This is excellent work. The whole “pee in my ear and tell me it is raining” done by the NFl and its media partners has grated on me for quite a while. I think I first became hep to it when they let Modell steal our team, and I’ve had a jaundiced view of the NFL ever since. I’m just too lazy to put in the legwork.

    Keep up the good work!

  3. Erik says:

    Thanks for publishing this. I saw this yesterday on my tv recording and had to run it a few times myself and started yelling “Personal Foul! Helmet to Helmet Contact! First down on the one foot line!” The UGLINESS of the blatant, ignorant hypocrisy was shocking! The silence cannot continue. Some must comment today on THAT HIT, how it was missed, and how it will not be missed in the future. Furthermore, the same defensive player was involved in consecutive infractions. His entire performance must be revaluated for infractions.

    • jimkanicki says:

      glad to know i wasnt the only one. it got papered over so fast too, that’s was got me lit me up.
      if crabtree had stayed on the ground longer it would be front page news today.
      of course, if he’d stayed on the ground he’d have had the mandatory concussion review and have been out for the final play of the super bowl.

  4. dan says:

    I’ll repeat a point I’ve made elsewhere — if the receiver is not defenseless in that 3rd down play, he made a football move, and if he made a football move, then the outcome of the play is a catch and fumble. That it was called an incomplete pass is all the evidence you need that the ref thought Crabtree was defenseless — making the failure to throw the flag impossible to justify. At least as I understand the rules. If I’m missing something, let me know.

    • jimkanicki says:

      Superlative point.
      If it’s incomplete, no football move: should be a flag;
      If there’s a football move: completed pass and fumble.

      • dan says:

        Ugh. And then Greg Easterbrook went and made the exact same point. So either he’s been reading the comment section of this blog and plagiarizing ehat he reads here, or there’s a logical flaw in my reasoning.

  5. tmoore94 says:

    The NFL is in a tough situation. They want to try and make an inherently unsafe game as safe as possible, but that may be a task that is impossible to achieve.

    Like you said, though, the rules are extremely contradictory – there really should not be degrees of being defenseless, you either are or you are not defenseless.

    The NFL has evolved over time – no more head slaps from defensive linemen for example (how was that ever legal?) – and I have to think it is in their best interests to get it right; the question is how? Clearly they can’t leave it up to the players or the coaches.

    And I’ve never understood why Harrison’s shot on Cribbs was not penalized. Cribbs had his arms pinned down by the tackler and Harrison intentionally goes in for a free shot at Cribbs’ head. How is that not defenseless?

    FYI: It was Flick who got his tongue stuck to the flagpole, not Slick.

    • jimkanicki says:

      i knew that. i knew it was flick. mustve thought bobby slick from cheddar. fixed, thanks.

      the attempt to make an unsafe game is, as you imply, a fool’s errand. the means employed to make it safe just wreaks of the worst kind of committee-consensus horse trading. ‘ok, we’ll have a penalty on heads hits.. but only if you’re defenseless.. and we’ll define defenseless as whether you’ve made a football move… regardless of whether or not you were, in fact, defenseless.

      it’s the worst kind of gobbledy gook. theyre applying shades of grey to a black/white issue.

      it’s ultimately going to cost them large dollars.

      [i wouldnt be surprised if the building liability was a big factor in lerner’s selling.]

      • tmoore94 says:

        Here’s an interesting story on Jim Nantz appearing on Face the Nation to push the NFL’s agenda: http://tinyurl.com/acxur2q

        While studies (http://tinyurl.com/b38no5y) do show that females and younger athletes more symptoms and take longer to recover from a concussion than athletes who are male or older it is certainly not the way Nantz is trying to spin it.

        Of course, shouldn’t expect quality analysis from someone who thinks Mike Lombardi is a great talent evaluator.

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