Rhetorical Lesson No.2: Punishment

In a game and culture that promotes hard knocks, punishment comes on the heels of safety and player best-interests.

Author’s Note: I thought the post was slightly draconian until I heard and read about this in Michigan.

This week the NFL began its rule enforcement against helmet to helmet hits. Commissioner Roger Goodell directed each team to review information and a video about the illegal blows. Unfortunately some of the very ones the rule is designed to protect are crying foul over it saying that goes against the very culture of the game. Steelers linebacker James Harrison summed up the dilemma rather well,

“”How can I continue to play this game the way that I’ve been taught to play this game since I was 10 years old? And now you’re telling me that everything that they’ve taught me from that time on, for the last 20-plus years, is not the way you’re supposed to play the game any more. If that’s the case, I can’t play by those rules. You’re handicapping me.“”

Harrison was fined $75,000.00 for a helmet to helmet hit Sunday against the Cleveland Browns. Outraged at the discipline Harrison also spoke about possibly retiring from the sport. Other players have drawn the same conclusions about the new rule, how it goes against the grain of what the sport is and what the fans expect. Redskins’s defensive end Phillips Daniels commented,

Have we become a cupcake league? We already have better helmets and gear. Wonder how the old school players feel about this. Not in the back of minds when talking about 18 game season so let’s play football please….Even guys using shoulders to hit are getting flagged for helmet-to-helmet. Defense is getting sloppy because guys are avoiding fines and will get worse if suspending comes into play….There has been a warning sticker on the back of every helmet since pee wee league. When u put that helmet on you know you will hit or be hit. We still choose to play. Parents are asked to sign forms for their kids to play because of the dangers of the sport. Nothing is different.

The dilemma is clear to the NFL and its players. A sport that is built upon aggression both defensively and offensively is having its culture challenged by facing punishment for said aggression. How it relates to the fire service is the way that the NFL is working to reduce the number of head injuries and long term brain damage to its players – safety by punishment. The fire service has a culture within it that encourages, supports and justifies certain acts that skirt various safety issues in the name of aggression, or rather aggressive firefighting. This is most commonly seen in vehicle operations and training, where safety measures can be deliberately and generously applied but are not. Firefighters have continued, and will continue, to die in large part due to their own shortcomings. Failure to wear a seatbelt; failure to properly operate and maintain fire apparatus; failure to conduct training properly; failure to go to the doctor regularly; failure to eat healthy and exercise regularly, all have been addressed by numerous fire service organizations.

Just a few months ago, the IAFC, FireRescue Magazine and Paul Coombs released two Rules of Engagement posters at Fire-Rescue International, addressing many safety concerns and initiatives. Despite past, present and future efforts, we will still see firefighters “killing themselves” by shortchanging safety. Perhaps the fire service and the federal government should begin enacting tougher penalties (are there lesser ones now?) on fire departments that are proven to have disregarded safety issues. We have certainly seen that surviving widows and family members are able to set a course for change, as in the case of Buffalo’s latest line of duty deaths.

Should fire departments pay more than OSHA fines and lawsuit damages when they are found to have disregarded safety issues?

Can greater line of duty death reductions be made if financial consequences are established?

Is our culture much like that of NFL players, where we should expect to perform in ways that greatly contribute to injury and death?

Likewise, if we punish those who are found to have done wrong, how about rewarding those who do good?

Helmet blows the hot button issue, Boston Herald
NFL’s new enforcement of rules against illegal hits is not a hit with players, Washington Post
Get Your Rules of Engagement Poster!, FireRescue Magazine/FirefighterNation.com
Widow Of Buffalo Firefighter Files Lawsuit For Change, FirefighterNation.com

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  • ChiefReason says:

    Fining departments for “policy defects” is a concept worthy of further review and discussion.
    However; many of the pro football players that have been interviewed have indicated that fines don’t really get their attention. Suspensions get their attention.
    In the National Hockey League, illegal hits are generally rewarded with game suspensions.
    I don’t know; it seems like our society is moving more towards Ultimate Fighting and away from “Little House on the Prairie”.
    And as long as fire departments are using 1980 tactics on newer, lightweight construction, serious injuries and death will continue. I like the quick attack concept, but the time that the building has been under fire load must be considered before committing to interior.
    Oops; here we go again!

  • Bill Carey says:

    Thanks Art.

    Suspensions would most likely be seen the same way mandatory yearly physicals are seen, “you’ll shut us down!” But when you follow the money, changes can occur. There are plenty of departments and municipalities that can’t afford fines. Think back to the confined space mishaps, where OSHA threatened a fine unless changes were made.

    It’s something, maybe, with more leverage than a ‘pledge’.


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