September offers us two notable returns: Congress, back from its August recess, and professional football, starting its 2011-12 season. And this is a year when the folks in suits can learn something about how to behave from the men in helmets and pads.
Like Congress, professional football players show up ready for a fight. And the stakes are high, or at least, they always seem high. But teams on Sunday managed to come together to share in what were truly moving and powerfully uniting ceremonies to honor the victims of the 9/11 attacks and the first responders who risked their lives to save the lives of others. Congress bickers about flag-burning and uses non-issues such as that to taint their colleagues in campaigns. Big guys in gridiron battle gear presided over the display of an enormous American flag on the field, and it wasn't meant to impugn anyone's patriotism. It was just a nice tribute.
And sure, there are some troublesome characters in Congress who encourage a combative atmosphere, that doesn't have to dictate the group mood. The NFL brought Marv Albert back as an announcer, and it didn't destroy opening weekend.
While there's often a presumption that you can't put the toothpaste back in the tube—in Congress, meaning you can't go back to days of greater comity and cooperation—the NFL has in fact done so, a bit. Rightly concerned about player injuries, the NFL instituted a new rule this year that has teams kicking off from the 35-yard line, instead of the 30-yard line. Offensive players will also not be able to get the same running start to tackle players on the receiving team. That may not sound like much, but it stands to have a substantial impact on, well, the impact the receiving team members might endure as they try to move the ball down the field. Yes, there will be more touchbacks, wherein the ball goes into the end zone and the receiving team takes it at the 20. Is that so terrible? A lot of players think so. And their grousing is sort of understandable; they worry that players whose strength is in the kickoff return will have their skills marginalized. But that hardly justifies the added risk. Coaches say the kickoff presents the single biggest injury threat to players. Is it not worth losing a little drama for more safety? Ask Kevin Everett, a former Buffalo Bill whose personal story was beautifully recounted recently in the Buffalo News.
On Sept. 9, 2007, Everett was doing his job—running through the "wedge" the Denver Broncos has created to clear a path for their receiver to get through. Everett ducked his head, hit a Bronco at the wrong angle, fell to the ground and almost died on the field, his spinal cord twisted and his neck broken. Through remarkable and courageous medicine—involving a cutting-edge hypothermia technique—Everett was saved, and he was not paralyzed. It's a lovely and inspiring story, except that years after the book and the media attention and the Oprah appearance, Everett is still injured, unable to run and lacking fine motor skills. His dream was to play in the NFL, and he'll never play again. He never caught the touchdown pass he'd dreamed of getting.
Is that not enough of a warning to the players who don't want to change the rules for safety?
The NFL has also instituted new rules to crack down on hits on defenseless players. Again, the rule change doesn't make the game less exciting; it just makes it a little safer. It's not true that because football has gotten so intense and full of trash talk and violent hits that it can't go back to a saner time. The same goes for Congress, which does not have to continue on a path of nonstop bickering and scheming against the other party, worried more about the next election than the work they were sent to Washington to do. Perhaps they could all watch a little football. Even better—they should watch it together.