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Newton, players have to lead way on player safety, because NFL won’t

It was way back in Week 1 of the NFL season when the Denver Broncos so rudely treated Cam Newton’s head like a piñata, smacking it time and time again, dizzying the Carolina Panthers quarterback and eventually drawing a pair of fines – though only one of the hits resulted in an actual in-game penalty.

At the time, Newton took the high road, spewing nonsense straight from the “Tough Guy Football Bible,” things like “I’m not here to worry about worker’s comp. I’m here to win football games,” and “This is a physical sport, and I play the game for the right reasons.”

NFL owners must have been slapping awkward rich-guy high fives when they heard those comments, because – as I wrote at the time – Newton had an opportunity to hold the league’s feet to the fire on the issue of player safety. Instead, as Dennis Green might have said, he “let ‘em off the hook!”

Things apparently changed this week as Newton, upset at some low hits he took from the Cardinals and tired of the continued lack of protection he receives from referees, finally spoke out. Gone were the football-is-a-rough-game platitudes, replaced by comments he should have made way back in Week 1.

“It’s really taking the fun out of the game for me,” Newton said. “At times I don’t even feel safe. And enough is enough. I plan on talking to commissioner Goodell about this. And I don’t know what I have to do.”

Newton made a point to separate the hits he has taken to the head when he’s on the run from the hits he absorbs in the pocket. He understands he is often bigger than the players hitting him in those cases, and that can be difficult to referee. But he wants to be protected when he’s in the pocket.

Newton has said that referee Ed Hochuli told him last season he was “not old enough” to get some calls. And he said on Sunday that he’s tired of referees apologizing for calls they miss.

“The story of my life ever since I came in is, ‘Oh, oh well, we missed that one. I’m sorry,’” Newton said. “’I’ll try to get it.’ That’s bullcrap.”

Newton’s right about that. It’s about time he – and other players — do something about it. Because in the long run, that’s the only way things will really change.

The NFL might say that player safety is a priority and they might say they are concerned about concussions, but we consistently see actions made by many around the sport – from league officials to team doctors, from coaches to referees – that don’t match up with what is being espoused.

25 September 2016: Carolina Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton (1) [14697] is sacked by Minnesota Vikings Linebacker Anthony Barr (55) [15135] in game action between the Minnesota Vikings and the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

25 September 2016: Carolina Panthers Quarterback Cam Newton (1) [14697] is sacked by Minnesota Vikings Linebacker Anthony Barr (55) [15135] in game action between the Minnesota Vikings and the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

Why else would we consistently see helmet-to-helmet hits that are not flagged? Why else would we see players who have clearly been knocked silly, as Newton was in that Week 1 game against the Broncos, sent right back out onto the field by their own team?

And why else would we see Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith have to take two knee-wobbling hits before the Chiefs sat him down on Sunday? The Chiefs might be saying that Smith passed his tests and that he doesn’t even have a concussion, but what happened with him on Sunday still doesn’t jibe with official league policy, which reportedly has been “when in doubt, leave them out” since way back in 2011.

It’s almost like there are two memos – one espousing an emphasis on player safety that the NFL leaks to the media, and another secret one stressing that teams continue to act just as they always have.

The fact of the matter is that Goodell and his crony owner-bosses don’t really care about player safety. They care about money, and bone-jarring hits sell tickets.

And if somebody gets hurt, big deal. The owners know that Lamar Jackson, Christian McCaffrey, Leonard Fournette, Deshaun Watson and a whole bunch of others will soon be ready to enter the meat grinder, eager to become millionaires and sacrifice their bodies and brains for the almighty Shield.

Since the owners’ stance on player safety is little more than lip service, the players will have to be the ones who lead any change.

Newton saying “it’s taking the fun out of the game for me,” is a good start, because it could be viewed as a veiled hint at early retirement. While there has been a small trend of players retiring young, Patrick Willis might be the biggest name to do so, and he didn’t have anywhere near the cache that Newton does.

But while it’s good that Newton reversed course on his Week 1 comments and finally said what needed to be said, it’s not nearly enough. The Panthers would care if Newton quit, but the rest of the league would rejoice. The movement needs to get much bigger, and Newton can lead the charge.

He can’t stop with his threats from Sunday. He needs to follow through and talk to Goodell, and he needs to speak with other players and get them on board. The players need to get vocal about their own safety because the owners aren’t going to much more than pay lip service to the issue.

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