Sports Nut

Helmet-to-helmet hits: Legality vs. morality in the NFL.

Legality vs. morality in the NFL.

Jimmy Graham
The Saints’ Jimmy Graham reacts after a first quarter catch against the New York Giants.

Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images.

It’s easy, Emma, to label Bob Costas a middle-aged grumpster. In the case of Stevie Johnson, his get-off-my-lawn schoolmarmery was compounded by his use of the word “knucklehead,” which was hip in 1942. I’ve known Costas for years. (Not surprisingly, he blurbed one of my books.) He’s one of the smartest and deftest sportspeople on our television screens. In defending purportedly old-time values and behaviors, he also can come off as a nostalgic naif, whether talking about football, baseball, Robert Lipsyte, or the nefarious world of Internet sportswriting. He’s not unaware of this twitch. When I interviewed him 10 years ago for a story about Major League Baseball possibly plastering ads on bases, Costas harrumphed in perfect quotations: “It isn’t a matter of treating the game like it’s religion. But I think people have lost the understanding of what the dignity of something is. Not everything is for sale.” He later called me back to say he was done being the spokesman for baseball traditionalism because it was reducing him, and his opinions, to cliché.

But I think you miss his point. Barry Sanders hosannas aside, Costas wasn’t suggesting that players never celebrate. He was suggesting that players not make asses of themselves and, in the process, damage their teams’ chances of winning. I’m with Tommy, and Elmo Wright (and Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, whose “Funky Chicken” I consider the seminal end-zone dance), and Costas is probably with us, too: Working in the NFL is hell on a player’s body, and his mind. The player’s career is as temporal as they come. Monday through Saturday pretty much sucks. Sunday is the release valve. Celebrate when, and while, you can. Just don’t pantomime a guy shooting himself with a gun and then, because one routine isn’t enough, perform a second show that earns a penalty that contributes to the opposing team scoring on the subsequent possession. If you don’t like Costas’ word choice, we can call it something else. How about “moronic”?

The way players react after touchdowns is relevant in an entertainment sense. An act ends, the curtain falls, the audience applauds, an intermission commences. How they react after other, more routine plays is, I’d argue, far more revealing about the culture of football. There were two moments in the Saints’ 49-24 vivisection of the Giants’ defense on Monday night that exposed the deep moral conundrum for NFL players: You are paid to inflict maximum pain, but maybe it shouldn’t feel right to do it.

In the old days, as Costas might say, there was less moral waffling. Chuck Bednarik didn’t feel the need to apologize to Frank Gifford for the brutal hit in 1960 that banished a concussed Gifford from the league for two years. Until he died, Jack Tatum never apologized for the tragic hit that paralyzed Darryl Stingley in 1978. But the attention being paid now to the health risks of football, and the rules tinkering designed to make the game cosmetically if only marginally safer (it can’t be made safe), is as great as at any time since President Teddy Roosevelt, alarmed by a rash of player deaths, threatened to outlaw the sport. Players are more aware than ever of the fragility of their careers, and their health, as well as of the careers and health of their fellow union members.

Still, what’s “legal” in an NFL rulebook sense isn’t always what’s “moral” in a human sense. Not every player will be working from the same playbook, as two plays in the Superdome on Monday night showed. 

In the third quarter, Giants receiver Hakeem Nicks reached high to catch a downfield pass from Eli Manning and was leveled head on by Saints rookie defensive back Isa Abdul-Quddus. Abdul-Quddus’ shoulder pads struck Nicks in the chest and the crown of his helmet struck the facemask of Nicks’ helmet. Nicks dropped the ball, his head snapped back, and he crumpled on the turf. Abdul-Quddus, meanwhile, skipped and jumped and flexed 10 yards downfield, in spite of the 15-yard penalty he’d just incurred. 

In the fourth quarter, the hit and the response went the other way. Giants defensive back Kenny Phillips flew shoulders-first into Saints receiver Jimmy Graham as he received a pass from Drew Brees. The side of the players’ helmets collided. Graham’s body was bent backward, legs under back, like a contortionist. Instead of preening over the hit, Phillips instantly bent down over Graham in what looked like a gesture of genuine concern.

So whose reaction do we prefer, that of Abdul-Quddus or that of Phillips? If you bemoan the celebration of what sure as hell could have been a serious injury, are you a no-fun dinosaur? Do we want our professional football players to be single-minded destroyers—assassins, to use the name that Tatum apparently gave himself after his career was over—or do we want a little humanity to mask the stench of our weekly bloodlettings?

In my experience, the players are indeed compassionate about the safety of their peers. They know there’s a dude just like themselves inside the other team’s uniform. And they know that the hit they impart could be the one imparted on them the next time. But they are required to play with near disregard for that awareness or they’ll be out of a job. I don’t know Kenny Phillips. But in one play he demonstrated the inner conflict that afflicts every sentient NFL player, whether he wants to admit it or not.

But the compassion will never compensate for the crime. Phillips wasn’t bent over Graham for two seconds when Saints lineman Zach Strief rushed over to push him away. Shoving ensued, more players joined the fray, the refs rushed in, whistles blew. Graham, all the while, was still lying on the ground.

And while both hits correctly drew penalties, the commentariat didn’t like it. In the ESPN booth, Jon Gruden showed no more nuance or sophistication than the raw-meat commenters on Pro Football Talk who are forever bemoaning the sissification of the NFL. “John Lynch used to make some of those plays and they were the highlight of our season,” Gruden, a former Tampa Bay coach, said. “I think that’s a legal play.”

Except it wasn’t. It may be a pointless exercise, but if the NFL is ever going to educate fans that violence has its limits, it should let its mouthpieces know the game plan. I’ll take Costas’ priggishness over Gruden’s loutishness any day.