By Michael Tunison
As part of the NFL's ongoing quest to make its bloodsport more gentlemanly, the league late last week revealed that it would begin fining players who don't leave the immediate area on the field where a fight breaks out. That means players don't even have to throw a punch or push anyone to get dinged with a fine. They can lose money for merely standing around and being in the vicinity of the chaos. What's more, this new rule includes players who might be trying to defuse a volatile situation. According to the NFL, there are no peacemakers, only potential participants. No word yet if it also pertains to players lying injured on the ground adjacent to a brawl, so I guess we'll just find out when the fines get issued.
While it's doubtful that the NFL can ever make football safe without changing fundamental aspects of the game, the league can do things to make it appear safer. After all, it's been determined that the accumulation of routine head collisions that linemen experience on every play can lead to CTE. But fans can't see that sort of thing develop in real time. What fans can easily see is two players shoving one another after a play. And that's the sort of intellectual remove the NFL hopes its audience maintains. Long-term health effects? Crippling injuries? Whatever. Just part of the game. A couple guys engaging in a shoving match after the play? My stars! How brutish! So Roger Goodell and the owners can crack down on fights in the guise of promoting player safety when it's really more about paying lip service to sportsmanship and keeping games orderly while running at an acceptable amount of time.
The NFL made headlines in early 2014 by floating the idea of banning players from using the N-word on the field. While this certainly made sense in some contexts (like, y'know, white players using it), there was pushback from players. The most vocal was Richard Sherman, who described the proposed universal ban "almost racist." The ban was eventually tabled, though the league hasn't abandoned its efforts to scrub the foul language heard on the field. The same NFL video that discussed the new rule about fights also made it clear that the NFL intends to police "language" on the field this season, whatever that means.
Last week, Dallas Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant and cornerback Tyler Patmon took part in a widely seen training-camp fight. So widely seen, in fact, that the Cowboys' Twitter account and website were comfortable making the fight into content.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones even weighed in, saying he was happy to see the teammates go at it. Obviously, training-camp fights aren't the same thing as a brawl in the middle of a regular-season game. Jones probably wouldn't be as thrilled to see Dez throwing punches and possibly getting ejected from an actual game.
That said, it's ridiculous to assume the locker room culture of toughness and camaraderie is something that goes away once the season begins. If players see a teammate being attacked after a play, they're going to intercede on his behalf, fines be damned. If they don't, they're likely to be branded as poor teammates -- or have the media wonder why that teammate didn't have anyone come to his aide. If you don't believe me, recall that the media tried to make a big deal about teammates not helping Robert Griffin III to his feet a few years ago. Imagine the reaction if a defensive player starts messing with a quarterback after a play and the rest of the offensive players just let it slide.
The NFL once again seeks to change the culture of the league for reasons that might seem positive with a cursory reading but are ultimately self-serving. The latest threat of fine might get a few players to scramble away from the scrum once a fight breaks out, but it serves as no deterrent for the fights themselves.
So how should players hoping to navigate the NFL's rules behave? Here's one piece of advice:
Get your checkbook ready.
Mike Tunison is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va. He is the former editor of the popular NFL humor blog Kissing Suzy Kolber, for which he created a lifetime's supply of fabricated and wildly profane Philip Rivers dialogues. A graduate of the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, he was once on track for a career in newspapers until in 2008 he was fired from The Washington Post for blogging on the side. He is the author of the book, "The Football Fan's Manifesto". You can follow him on Twitter at @xmasape.