A popular NFL talking point these days revolves around tackling techniques and targeted changes to its rulebook. The two together make the game safer, much safer, so the party line goes. But on Wednesday, Richard Sherman offered an indirect rebuke of that line of thinking.
In his Week Five press conference, the Seattle Seahawks cornerback said that when the players are on the field, they will do whatever it takes to make the play -- safety be damned.
Sherman was asked specifically whether he and his teammates talk about the hot-button issue of concussions and whether knowledge of the supposedly “proper” or “safer” way to tackle influences their routines once play begins.
Sherman’s answers can be pared down to, in order, no and no.
"I think while you're in this game -- while you're in the NFL -- you can't think about things like that,” Sherman said. “Because it changes the way you play the game. It changes the way you approach it. That's why guys are retiring left and right because they know if you stop playing this game at 100 percent, full-speed, all out -- that's it. That's it. You've lost that step and you're putting yourself in danger. And you're putting your body in danger -- even more so than it already is.”
These words effectively cut at the knees the NFL’s well-publicized recent efforts to educate players on the “better” way to go about some of the more violent aspects of the sport. The league and USA football have continually pushed their “Heads Up” initiative, a central objective of which is to habituate young players to tackling “without involving their heads, thereby avoiding concussive and subconcussive blows,” as Vice reported in May.
Moreover, football officials have been busy as of late spewing the propaganda that programs like “Heads Up” have made a difference. That this kind of youth education has already made the game safer, and that -- in no time at all, surely! -- nagging worries like permanent brain trauma and risk of degenerative disease won’t even be worth discussing.
“By any measure, football has never been safer and we continue to make progress with rule changes, safer tackling techniques at all levels of football, and better equipment, protocols and medical care for players.” Jeff Miller, the NFL senior vice president of health and safety policy, wrote in a statement last March.
“Concussions in NFL games were down 25 percent last year, continuing a three-year downward trend. We continue to make significant investments in independent research to advance the science and understanding of these issues. We are seeing a growing culture of safety.”
So Sherman’s comments on Wednesday don’t just highlight the health risks of the sport, but they unequivocally undermine the look-what-we’ve-done party line that the NFL has blasted from its PR megaphone so persistently in recent months. In fact, the reporter gave him a boon, not asking whether players agree with how the NFL has retaught them to hit and tackle, but asking how much players have embraced the new tackling style.
But Sherman still wouldn’t budge.
You don’t want to lose that step. You can’t stop playing at 100 percent, full-speed, all out. By thinking about these issues -- by focusing on the 'safe' way to tackle -- you’re putting yourself in 'more danger.'"
Sherman likened playing in today’s NFL to driving on the freeway: You know that there are risks, you know that you might crash, that you might flip over, but you do it anyway. “I think the reward outweighs the risk for a lot of us,” he added.
The problem for the NFL is that Sherman isn’t just saying that players know the danger inherent to the sport, but that they will -- and in fact already have -- disregard the NFL’s public image-oriented education initiatives if they interfere with their success on the gridiron. Or, in other words, that players view these new safety measures as fundamentally incongruent with football at the professional level if they make them lose that all-important step -- if the “better” way to tackle gives their opponents the advantage, and thereby the yards.
Asked whether players discuss buzzword-topics like CTE, Sherman responded, “Not at all.” Because, like he said, the reward outweighs the risk, and no matter how the NFL tries to incentivize players to avoid hits to the head and contact with the helmet, the competitive nature of these athletes renders such attempts impotent.
Safety be damned, Sherman seems to be saying, and league PR be damned, too. It’s all about getting the down, the tackle, the advantage. It’s all about making the play.
Also on HuffPost: