Sunday, January 10, 2016

The NFL's Choice: Flopping or Falling Slack

The NFL has a rules problem1. The 2016 Wild Card game between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh shows a league completely without control. The players can’t control themselves. The coaches can’t control their players. Coaches can’t control other coaches. The officials can’t control the game.

Steeler fans may disagree on principle, but Cincinnati/Pittsburgh ended in the worst imaginable way. The officials, waist-deep and drowning fast after a four-quarter deluge of chaos and fighting, gamely tried to scoop the water from their sinking boat with yellow flags.

Which isn’t to say either of the game’s signature penalties weren’t well-earned. I can only lament that they had but 15 yards to penalize for Burfict’s headhunting; it deserved 45. And Adam Jones has no business shoving an opposing coach (even a coach with absolutely no business on the field of play). Ultimately, though, blame rests on the NFL to have let a marquee game deteriorate to the point that two desperate flags in the waning seconds should be the difference between victory and defeat.

Sports fans moan and sneer when Major League Baseball umpires toss batters for seemingly insignificant reasons. Football fans are particularly chuckle and roll their eyes at FIFA soccer players flopping for fouls2

But an MLB Umpshow is far preferable to an NFL Shitshow. And I’d rather see a player flopping to draw a foul than a player going limp after being struck in the head by blunt-force trauma.

As the NFL rules now stand, players fear little in-game retribution from officials. Post-game, NFL Emperor Roger Goodell can hand down fines and suspensions, but what is threat of a fine if it means your team advances toward the Super Bowl? Find me an NFL player who wouldn’t trade 25 large for a win and I’ll find you the lost city of Atlantis.

The word “ejection” appears only once—once!—in the NFL rulebook, in Section 3, Article 1, in describing a player who carries a “foreign object” on the field. “Disqualification” appears 9 times, couched in either hazy or overly extreme language. A flagrant roughing the passer foul can result in ejection (but has it ever?). A player removing their helmet and using it as a weapon results in ejection. “Palpably Unfair Action(s)” can result in ejection.

Cincinnati and Pittsburgh showed the NFL needs to borrow from FIFA and MLB and amend its rulebook.

First, the NFL needs to give its officials the power to issue what in MLB is a “bench warning.” If a pitcher throws over a batter’s head, the MLB umpire can go to each dugout and inform team managers that any subsequent flagrant actions by either team will result in punitive action and player ejection.

The moment Steelers Coach Mike Munchak swung Bengal Reggie Neslon by the hair, the officials should have issued a “bench warning.” Not a sideline warning—where officials warn that coaches and players have crowded too close (or onto) the field of play—but an explicit and strict warning that any ensuing knuckleheadedness would earn players and coaches an all-expenses paid trip to the showers.

These rules need explicitly apply to players and coaches alike. Not to point fingers, but actions during the Wild Card game only continue the recent narrative of Steeler coaches interfering with on-field action. “Accidentally” tripping a player or instigating fights must result immediate in-game retribution for offending coaches.

Subsequent to any “bench warning,” on-field personnel rules must strictly enforced starting yesterday and officials must have power to toss coaches. Steelers coach Joey Porter entered the field of play late in the 4th Quarter fully intending to draw an unsportsmanlike call from out-of-control, hot-headed Bengals players3. There was no logical reason for Porter to be on the field other than Bengal-baiting. The moment his foot crossed the white line, it should have been 15-yards and enjoy your flight home.

In tandem with MLB-style “bench warnings” the NFL must also institute a FIFA-styled Red Card system. NFL rules must specify that repeated personal fouls (perhaps, outside of incidental facemask penalties) will, without question, without bloviation and without further recourse, result in immediate disqualification. Call it the #BurfictRule if you’d like. That way, if Bengals Head Coach Marvin Lewis can’t control his emotionally-challenged linebackers, the officials can step in and do it for him.

College Football already has these rules in place. Take as an example, the Fiesta Bowl pitting Ohio State against Notre Dame. The Buckeyes’ All-World defensive end Joey Bosa led with his helmet in making a tackle late in the first quarter. Because NCAA Football rules explicitly prohibit leading with the crown of the helmet, Bosa was instantly disqualified from the game4. As Walter Sobchak would say, “This isn’t ‘Nam, Smoky. There are Rules.”

If the NFL wants to see Super Bowl 100, rules changes must be made in the interests of decency and player safety. Mothers and fathers are already pushing children toward safer sports. We’re nearing the point that local legislators may have to step in: if the NFL won’t hold needless violence accountable, perhaps civil courts will. Our knowledge of CTE and post-concussion syndrome are only going to grow. Already football fans cry and moan misogyny, equating safety-minded rules changes to skipping through fields and picking posies, but its high time America’s sport and its fans take a look in the mirror.

Would you rather see Antonio Brown flopping for a foul, or Antonio Brown slack and unconscious on the field of play?

1. Actually, it has a number of them. One of the game’s basic actions, completing a catch, is now bogged down in an NFL War and Peace of hazy language and amorphous definition: “Making a football move,” “Becoming a runner,” “Maintaining the catch.” Catches in 2016’s NFL seem to be judged by Supreme Court Justice Stewart Potter’s infamous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” But we digress.
2. Or a flopping NBA player, for that matter.
3. And of course they fell for his trolling like the dopes they are.
4. Which isn’t to say the NCAA’s Targeting rule isn’t fraught with its own problems in language, only that it’s a clear example of promising ejection to bad play and then following through.

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