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Back in early September, we predicted that the new leading-with-the-helmet rule could be a thread that pulls away at the wavering portion of the NFL’s fan base in 2018. Some people forget that Donald Trump’s September 2017 rally speech about Colin Kaepernick and the league wasn’t just about the national anthem; he also blasted the NFL for what he considered the softening of a violent game. (“Today if you hit too hard—15 yards! Throw him out of the game! ... They’re ruining the game!”) And when the President speaks at his rallies, he has a captive audience that the league is worried about losing. 

Turns out it wasn’t the helmet rule that has become a lightning rod this season but a slight rewording and new emphasis on the rule against a player landing on a quarterback with his full body weight. Costly roughing the passer calls have been a sharp red line in a handful of pivotal games so far. Coaches and players are speaking out.

Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, typically attuned to the current president’s rhetoric and conscious of his own fan base, on Tuesday dismissed the idea that pro football is a finesse game, and said the NFL had to set itself apart from high school and college football in that regard. “You're paid a lot of money to go out and incur those type situations that have more risks in them," he said, via 105.3 The Fan in Dallas.

It was fascinating to see Monday Night Football color commentator Jason Witten, longtime tight end for Jones’s Cowboys, make a Freudian slip during this week’s broadcast, calling the new focus on the rule “left wing,” though an ESPN spokesman said Witten’s comment had nothing to do with politics.

Of course, as the NFL attempts to address the uproar over the calls while continuing to place the burden on officiating crews still trying to figure out how to apply the new emphasis, it’s difficult to separate this particular controversy from the wider context in which it’s taking place. The point of the new rule was to provide further protection for quarterbacks—the big stars, the ticket-sellers, the ones who drive ratings. There’s pushback from players who have lobbied for a safer NFL, newly concerned about their own long-term health, but who are divided on the route to get there. There’s frustration from coaches who are losing games due to this rule change, and confusion and dissatisfaction from fans who see yet another instance of a league stumbling over itself. All of it comes against a backdrop of strong, divisive voices reminding us—not necessarily for purely sporting reasons—of how great it used to be.

It will take the skills of a surgeon to pluck the league’s current infighting over these contact rules from the political attachments that are mixing everything together. Maybe, like the anthem policy, the NFL just stuffs the rule emphasis back under the bed and hopes that a few great games make people forget the strange undertones of this season’s first month. It’s worked before. As far as the politics goes, we’ve seen that strategy win a few times already.   

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Apropos of nothing, I just want to let everyone know that I think about this video at least twice a week. Is there hope for the future after all?

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