Monday, October 05, 2009

Equal Justice Under Arthroscopy

Ravens offensive tackle Jared Gaither left the second quarter of yesterday's game with the Patriots on a stretcher. For all anyone knew, he'd been crippled for keeps (fortunately, he was not seriously injured). Gaither was the victim of an accidental collision with his quarterback Joe Flacco, the kind of coincidental mayhem that in my experience creates the overwhelming majority of football's mos frightening and catastrophic injuries -- an unavoidable accident. The refs stopped the clock until Gaither was carted off.

Somewhat later in the quarter, Ravens linebacker Tyrell Suggs stumbled into Tom Brady in a sidelong brush of Brady's knee. In a supermarket aisle, the contact would have drawn an "excuse me" from both parties. Here, it drew a yellow flag from the officials and a 15-yard roughing the passer penalty, one of three such calls in the game (two on the Ravens, one on the Pats' Mike Wright) that appeared to pose no threat to the signal caller's health whatsoever, being close to the common man's definition of "incidental contact" as can be imagined.

Those two paragraphs are why all football players past and present who aren't quarterbacks detest the NFL rules relating to the passer's personal safety. In both the narrowest sense of football legality and on a more cosmic moral level, those rules are unjust. They may be necessary, but they stick in the craw. They are a violation of football's essence.

Sports have rules for two purposes. One is to insure fair competition, the other to protect the participant's safety. As far as purpose one goes, the quarterback protection rules are part of a 40 year trend in which football's laws have been consistently altered to PREVENT fair competition. They are designed to give the offense a competitive advantage over the defense whenever possible. That's contemptible. It shades America's leading sport over towards the WWE corner of the sports-entertainment-celebrity industrial complex.

As a group, defensive players tend to be aggressive by temperament. People who hit other people first for a living aren't always big on authority. They hate the rules, and who can blame them?

More seriously, narrowing the areas of a quarterback's body which can be hit by a defender down to the space of Angel Hernandez's strike zone is an offense against football's moral contract. It's a dangerous game, and accepting and coping with the risk of grievous bodily harm is part of the toll men pay to play the sport. It's one of the most important ways they measure each other as teammates-as men. Risk is the emotional glue that bonds football players long after they've retired with their permanent limps, post-concussion syndromes, and incipient heart conditions that are risk's residue.

If YOU or a teammate can go to the hospital due to a collision with a quarterback and there's no foul involved, but YOU or a teammate can draw a major penalty for accidental, incidental contact with a quarterback's body, then the message is clear. Your sport values that quarterback's life more than your own. He draws the most rewards from the sport while running the fewest risks, and every time an unforeseen risk takes place, and a QB goes down, there's a new rule making the risk illegal. It's business. It stinks. And you'd have to be a pretty saintly individual not to develop a resentment of the rules, the rulemakers, and quarterbacks, even your own.

Then again, without the rules, or some rules anyway quarterbacks would run unacceptable risks. A passer is unable to fulfill the boxing instruction to protect himself at all times. The defenseless are those who most need the law's protection under any system of rules -- from sports to international fisheries law.

A middle way suggests itself. Extend the rules governing roughing the kicker to roughing the passer, and mandate lesser five yard with no automatic first down to collisions judged accidental and of minor import. Yeah, it'd make the refs have to exercise more good judgment, leading to more controversies. Too bad. It'd also give every working stiff of a down lineman something approaching an even break.

An even break. Isn't that the first principle of sports? Of law?


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