A former Pro Bowl safety, VP of football operations Merton Hanks is the NFL's point person for the mandate requiring players to wear knee and thigh pads in 2013
JENNY VRENTAS: For the first time since 1994, thigh and knee pads will be mandatory in the NFL this season. Why now?
HANKS: Under the direction of Commissioner Roger Goodell, well over four years ago, we did a top-to-bottom review of how we can affect the game to make a safer game. So looking at our padding for the players, it was clear that mandating lower-leg padding probably would be the way the NFL would go. So we began negotiations with the NFLPA, talking through different options on how that would work; we worked with our equipment manufacturers and suppliers, and gave the players, our clubs, our coaches and our ownership ample time to digest the issue. We certainly want to mitigate thigh and knee contusions, bruises that can cause lost days, lost playing time, lost practice time, and add that extra layer of protection. Unlike other sports, our players hit the ground, so any layer of protection that can be light and strong, and that a player can feel good about wearing, and be comfortable in, we feel it’s necessary we make that available to them.
VRENTAS: Some players have strong opinions about these pads becoming mandatory. Did you expect this resistance?
HANKS: Absolutely. I think we would be naïve to not acknowledge that when a player goes from wearing nothing to being made to wear something—as grown human beings, we tend to be resistant to change. This change is uniform, there is equity, and we certainly believe that it will provide certain protections for the lower leg that, quite frankly, were not there before. We’ve been in partnership with the players’ association from the very beginning, and that’s why the rule was passed in 2012, with implementation in 2013, to give players an opportunity to get used to carrying pads once again. The ultimate example I can give—not only for offensive players who are in position to be hit, like our MVP in Adrian Peterson—but also you have Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard at the safety position in the Super Bowl, wearing knee pads when they were not mandated and they did not have to do it. That tells you everything you need to know. That padding did not stop those players from making plays in the biggest game of the year, that did not stop them from winning a Lombardi Trophy, and hopefully added to the protection we are all seeking for all of our players.
VRENTAS: By the league’s estimate, only about 30% of players were wearing thigh and knee pads. Are you surprised that number was so low?