Dear Commissioner Tagliabue:
I trust you are having a good year as the NFL turns 75.
How could you not be, with 16 of the 28 teams in the league still alive for a playoff spot and with a product that is much improved over last year's. Defenses may hate what your competition committee did in the off-season to put more scoring back in the game, but the fans are thrilled. Scoring is up by almost a touchdown a game over last year, and TV ratings, overall, are up 10%. ESPN's numbers are up an astonishing 28%.
But we would be remiss if we told you that all is well with your game. It is not. There is trouble in the NFL, and you've got to do something about it.
During the '90s an unprecedented viciousness has pervaded the game. The epidemic of brutal hits has led to the premature retirement of a fine wide receiver, Al Toon, who ended an eight-year career with the New York Jets in '92, and of Chicago Bear running back Merril Hoge, who quit in October because his brain was scrambled from two concussions in six weeks. I talked to Hoge eight days after his second concussion, and in mid-conversation he said, "Damn! I forgot again. What were we just talking about?"
Last month wide receiver Don Beebe of the Buffalo Bills was nearly beheaded while going across the middle for a pass in a game against the Jets. He suffered a concussion too and missed three games. His wife has begged him to retire.
Football is all about hard hitting—smart, clean hitting. It would be idiotic to legislate against it. And concussions will happen with or without modifications of rules or equipment. Still, the number and intensity of helmet-to-head licks this year, particularly on quarterbacks, is alarming. Former New York Giant quarterback Phil Simms sits in the ESPN studio every week now, which enables him for the first time to watch all the games on Sundays, and he tells me he can't believe the amount of head-hunting he sees.
Commissioner, football may be about hitting, but it is not about mayhem, It is not about Arizona Cardinal linebacker Wilber Marshall launching himself like a cruise missile into the chin of Dallas Cowboy quarterback Troy Aikman. It is not about Houston Oiler linebacker Lamar Lathon steaming into Giant quarterback Dave Brown's face after a pass, knocking Brown unconscious before he hits the artificial turf. It is not about Los Angeles Ram defensive end Fred Stokes plowing through Atlanta Falcon quarterback Jeff George after he has released the ball. Not one of these hits resulted in a penalty.
The line between hard hitting and mayhem may be a fine one, and you don't want to turn the game into two-hand touch, but you must change the way defensive players behave on the field or a real tragedy could result. Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith once said of pass rushing: "It's an art. It's also a car accident." Nailing the quarterback has always been the goal of defensive players. Stokes, an eight-year veteran, is one of the league's gentlemen, a fellow who, with his team's permission, excused himself from a game last season so that he could be present for the birth of his second son. I asked him what he felt as he homed in on George that day in Atlanta. "It sounds animalistic," he said, "but I got such a rush, I was slobbering. That's the game. It might be crazy, but it goes back to Pop Warner football. At every level, the harder you hit, the more you get patted on the back and the happier you are."
That's the culture you're up against, Commissioner. But you've got to look defensive players in the eye and tell them that enough is enough. It's time to put some tough rules in the book and enforce them. Here's the SI Rx to do just that.
•Punish helmet crimes severely.