The NFL has the amazing ability to sit alone as the country’s most popular sports entity while simultaneously being hated by everyone, including its most ardent fans. Reaction to the league’s new “helmet rule” on social media is a useful case study in this duality. The rule, which was approved by team owners in March, calls for a 15-yard penalty if a player lowers his head and uses his helmet to make contact against an opponent. It was drafted out of concern for player safety—which is a good thing!—but the foul itself is vaguely defined and seemingly at odds with the basic geometry of tackling. Watching games this preseason, it’s seemed at times like the NFL has made it illegal to play football. (Which maybe it should be!) Many players and coaches have articulated their confusion and antipathy, among them cornerback Richard Sherman.
In the first two weeks of preseason games, NFL officials called the helmet rule penalty 50 times. The worst of these infractions would have been infractions under pre-existing rules, like unnecessary roughness. But what about the rest of the flags, many of which are perplexing calls on normal-looking tackles? When one of those penalties drops, Twitter becomes a group therapy session for disillusioned NFL-lovers. Whether they have access to professional-grade video capture software or are simply holding their phones up to their television sets, these amateur ombudsmen often reach the same conclusion: The league is “going soft.” That’s not true, as players still, uh, hit each other super hard, but referees do seem to be doling out penalties based on some sort of lottery system, like on this play in a Vikings-Jaguars game.
The complaining makes for a cacophonous Greek chorus, but fans have a right to vent their frustration at legitimately bad calls. This tackle from a Cardinals-Chargers preseason contest was flagged, even though it appeared to be totally innocuous (based on the lone overhead angle that was excerpted for the tweet):
The NFL’s competition committee scheduled a Wednesday conference call to discuss and review the new helmet rule. According to Troy Vincent, the NFL’s vice president of football operations, “the committee resolved there would be no changes to the rule.” He also noted that the conference call was held to “review feedback … from players, coaches, and game officials.” Vincent’s statement makes no mention of people on Twitter, but it probably wouldn’t have made a difference even if he offered a personalized apology to everyone who’s tweeted about “the league becoming flag football!!!!!,,!!<,!” No one seems to be able to tweet about anything other than the helmet rule during games anymore, a fact Dan Katz of “Pardon My Take” satirized in tweeting an old video of Cleveland Browns offensive tackle Joe Thomas flopping in a 2012 game against the Ravens.
Until referees master the vagaries of the new helmet rule (or decide to ignore it completely, which may happen), game-day Twitter will be a cascade of videos showing wrongly flagged form tackles. And why shouldn’t it be? Disagreeing with bad calls is fun. An NFL game only features 11 minutes of actual football action. Fans need something to occupy their time during that slog. Go into any sports bar on a Sunday and you’ll hear shouts of, “Where’s the hold?” and “Interference!” The helmet rule, like all things introduced during these cursed modern times, was bound to be picked apart in a medium that happens to treat the act of griping as if it were itself a sport. Unlike shouting in a bar, a tweeted complaint can at least earn you some retweets and the accompanying endorphin rush. If you’re watching a Bears-Broncos preseason game, you deserve each and every one of those 82 likes.
The NFL could certainly start issuing copyright notices to people who post these videos. (I have reached out to NFL PR about its current social media policy but have not received a reply.) The league has been overly strict with media rights before, like in 2016 when it banned its own teams from posting highlights on their official Twitter accounts. (That policy was reversed after clubs cleverly mocked the league office’s stupidity.) But the NFL should leave these amateur replay reviewers be. They may tweet like they’re incensed at bad calls, but, deep down, they’re having a blast. Don’t rob them of the satisfaction of being right. If this helmet rule ever gets sorted out, the NFL competition committee might get to experience that feeling, too.