Buried somewhere beneath the headlines, the pandering and the screaming about hockey’s headshots and the NFL’s tendency towards brutality is the underlying hypocrisy that rules all industry: the numbers. They never lie, and so long as revenue columns and Nielsen ratings are on the rise, no front office in professional sports will cave to the interests of safety at the expense of profit. There’s simply no need, not when the players keep playing and the fans keep watching. Patch solutions like the NHL’s five-point system or Roger Goodell’s Oscar-nominated performances will keep the wolves at bay and as long as the money keeps piling up so will the bodies.
The fact of the matter is Nielsen ratings—televisions standard for measuring viewership—in both sports are at all-time highs; Superbowl XLV raked in 111 million viewers to become the most watched television event in American history while the 2011 first-round of the NHL playoffs surpassed previous viewing audiences for any first-round by nearly 49 per cent.
What those numbers tell us is that despite countless pleas from fans and players to change the face of these games, their interest and support is unwavering. What it tells commissioners—who inevitably work under the ‘if it ain’t broke’ mentality—is that any dramatic shift in philosophy could damage their sports popularity and in turn, their profits. It’s a case of the devil you know to the devil you don’t, and from the league’s perspective, it’s a mantra that is sworn by.
Which leaves everyone involved in a precarious situation; there’s no question that player safety is an issue that has blazed its way to forefront, but who is responsible for guaranteeing it?
Certainly not Roger Goodell, who from one side of his mouth spins reporters with his concerns about player safety and from the other, pushes for an extended 18-game regular season. Sixteen bone-crunching Sundays already ravage some of the NFL’s thinner line-ups, and two more games are going to do nothing for the well-being of a quarterback who has just spent four months being run over by 300 pound freight-trains. (What two extra games will do is increase the television revenues and ticket sales that line the pockets of the already wealthy owners and assure everyone watching that they honestly do not care about anything that doesn’t have a dollar sign attached to it, including the health of a replaceable cog in the machine.)
But the onus cannot fall on the fans either; we cannot be asked to ignore the sports we love in order to save them. Unfortunately, we are part of this three-pronged problem. With our support at an all-time high, we’ve backed the business-minded owners and executives into a corner, showing them the numbers that say we are happier than ever with their product, but demanding radical change with no guaranteed return. What if the rules are changed and the product is inferior? Would you watch a two-hand touch NFL game? A hitless hockey series? For the leagues’ upper management, the risk simply isn’t worth the reward so long as our TVs stay tuned.
As for the leagues' discinplinarians, the Brendan Shanahan's and the safety czars, there is only so much they can do. Since ascending from the front lines to the front office, Shanahan has upped the number of suspensions by 30 per cent and the severity (length) by 60. Yet violence continues to be sore spot for the league with suspensions seeming only to serve as a slap on the wrist as opposed to a real deterrent; spend any time scrolling the list of suspended and fined players from the past three or four years and you’ll find some commonalities in the names. Save banning a repeat offender for life there is simply no way for them to remove violence from an inherently violent sport. And even then there is no guarentee.
That leaves the player’s health in the player’s hands, right where it should be.
Player’s have a pretty substantial grasp on how the league functions; after all, there wouldn’t be much of a league if the best talent refused to play. From a strategic standpoint, if they were seeking the institution of new rules aimed at preventing these types of injuries, they could have them at the next round of talks and no one would argue because there is no argument to be had. In theory, all sides agree.
But practically, pundits are already proclaiming these playoffs to be the most violent to date. Recidivism rates among the league’s most common offenders are high and after watching the action of the first four games from the first round of this year, can any player really say that they’re looking for a safer game? They do, we see it almost every morning after a teammate is wheeled off the ice on a stretcher, but the next night they’re out there again asking for more. Their actions speak louder than words.
But it is on them. The men who measure their happiness in ratings and revenue have no will to fix what in their eyes isn’t broken. The ones concerned with safety and suspensions have no fix for what in their eyes is and the fans won’t sit back, refusing to watch and let a season slip by all in the name of a safer game. Only the players have the ability to correct the feild of play, the elbows up mentality that has pervaded the game. Excessive violence is a problem embedded in the roots of the culture, a problem that will only be corrected by instilling in the up-and-coming generation of athletes a sense of respect for other players in the game and demanding that the current players set an example. It should be the union’s responsibility to bar players with multiple infractions from play, and a joint effort from every member to eliminate the practices that all too often derail careers.