Jarring Changes for NFL Hits and Washington Debt

Our debt has reached the tipping point and voters as well as politicians are adapting to a new reality.

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Changing a culture takes time.

The NFL is about to find that out the hard way. The impetus for the change was an especially violent weekend in football. Rutgers’s player Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down after a vicious hit on a kickoff return. Several NFL players, including Eagles star wide receiver DeSean Jackson, were injured after bone-rattling hits.

The league, which obviously has an interest in protecting not only its on-the-field product but its brand, announced on Monday that it would tweak the rules to prevent such violence. For a league that once promoted, even glorified, such aggression, going so far as to sell a video series entitled “NFL’s Greatest Hits,” such change is surprising.

But as Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon explains, stopping injuries will require much more than a simple rule change. It will require a cultural overhaul that begins at Pop Warner and extends to the NFL. It will require reprogramming players “who have been taught the same violent tactics since age 8.” In short, it may take a new generation of players.

Some current players took the rule change as an attack on their livelihood. Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison, who was fined after a hit on Sunday, said he was “going to sit down and have a serious conversation with my coach tomorrow and see if I can actually play by NFL rules and still be effective … If not, I may have to give up playing football." New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather took a much different approach, saying he was "sorry for the hit" and promising to “play within the rules.”

The same cultural change is being played out in this year’s elections. Politicians are playing under a new set of rules, one that to them seemed to arise as abruptly as the NFL’s sudden concern over player safety. The new rules in Washington are focused on a concern over our national debt and a desire for smaller government. They are the result of a perfect storm of factors such as the financial crisis, the perceived failure of big-spending measures such as the stimulus, and the collapse of Greece. 

Americans are worried about the national debt and the potential crowding out effect it is having on private sector growth. That concern is translating into a powerful voting cue that could spell tough times for incumbents from both parties.

[Read more about the 2010 elections.]

Just as the NFL once celebrated big hits, constituents once celebrated pork barrel spending. When the national debt appeared under control voters cheered the thought of their representative bringing big money projects back to their districts. No longer. Under the new rules, debt and deficit trumps all. 

Can the old guard in Washington play under the new rulebook? Some are taking the James Harrison approach, wondering if they can play under new rules that they believe will actually hurt rather than help the economy. Take Illinois Democratic Rep. Phil Hare, who argues that there is a “terrible price” to pay for pulling back on spending now because of “the myth that this country’s in debt and we just can’t spend.” Others are taking the Brandon Meriweather approach and atoning for their fiscal sins. CBS News called it the rise of the “no new debt Democrats,” such as Dutch Ruppersberger, who voted against the tax extenders bill because “our country is weakened by the deficit.”

[See where Ruppersberger gets his campaign money.]

Some voters aren’t buying it. They understand that changing a culture from within takes time. And time is something we may not have. Instead, they’re pushing for new blood. They’re voting for candidates like Chris Christie or Marco Rubio, who grew out of the modern conservative movement. Candidates who can bring a fresh perspective to the financial challenges our nation will face without having to reprogram what has been ingrained in them after years in Washington.  

Spending, like violence in the NFL, is a trait deeply embedded in the psyche of Washington. Historically it was celebrated as voters focused on the short-term gains rather than the long-term costs. Our debt has reached the tipping point and voters as well as politicians are adapting to the new reality. Achieving a fiscally sustainable course will require much more than a rule change. It will require a complete cultural revolution.

Will the public be willing to live with the inevitable cuts to popular government programs? Will football fans watch an NFL with fewer big hits? Those questions have yet to be answered, but in both cases, the new rules must be tried.

  • Check out our editorial cartoons on the economy.
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  • See a slide show of 5 key issues in the 2010 elections.