The NFL's response to the Stanford Research Institute report and SRI's recommendations on how to minimize injuries was no response at all. The pros made no appreciable rules changes for 1975 and the high injury rate continued. This year, in a grand show of concern for the game, the NFL made two rules changes: it is now possible for blocking linemen to "hold" a little more convincingly (to extend their arms and open their hands), and second "bumps" on receivers, once they are more than five yards down field, are prohibited. Injuries did not bring about these changes, however; according to the league's communique, Commissioner Rozelle was "concerned" that the scoring average in the league was at a 36-year low. The NFL had "to put more offense back in the game."
Nothing was said about putting more people back in the game. People who have been and are going to be injured by the game the way it is played.
The SRI report said a lot of things four years ago, but one of its most damning conclusions was something it did not say, in so many words. According to the SRI findings, only 1.3% of all injuries in the NFL involved acts that were illegal. That drew penalties. Those in the blood bond who excuse the violence cite this as proof that players are basically rules-abiding fellows and ought to be left alone.
There is another way to look at it. If "illegal acts" are not responsible for the injuries but there is an outrageous number of them, then the fault lies within the rules, in things that are happening that ought to be illegal.
Those who say you would "hurt" football by doing something about the rules hurt it infinitely more so by their passivity. It is a rough game. For that reason alone, it must be receptive to contemporary realities.
Football, furthermore, is a complicated game, made even more so by the fact that it is really three different games—high school football, college football, pro football—with differing rules, differing rules interpretations, differing philosophies and styles of play. Things that are not allowed at one level as too dangerous are standard operating procedure at another. The game is not even officiated the same way from level to level or, in some cases, from region to region on the same level.
This series has attempted to analyze what is causing all football to suffer an unacceptable injury rate. To ameliorate it, many changes in the rules, equipment, playing conditions and coaching philosophies have been proposed—some by coaches, some by physicians, some by officials, some by the author. Perhaps not all of these changes would work. But changes must be made, changes that will once again establish football as the prototypical American sport, a game in which skill is matched by physical commitment. Which is to say a game played within civilized boundaries, for if it is a game, you do not maim. On that unarguable basis the following rules—some of which were proposed in previous installments—should be instituted. In some cases, they might already be in effect at one level of football or another, but they should be made oportwide:
1) Outlaw all deliberate helmet hits—if the helmet makes the initial contact in blocking or in tackling, it is wrong.
2) Outlaw blocking below the waist on all downfield plays, or outside the legal "clipping" zone. Ban the "chop block" and its relatives at the line of scrimmage.
3) Instruct officials to enforce more stringently the rulings on late, redundant or unnecessary hits, be they on ballcarriers, receivers or quarterbacks. The criterion at its most rudimentary would be to make tacklers responsible for knowing when a player is stopped, helpless or already going down.