NFL putting image ahead of reality with injury dialogue
In a league where injuries are a logical consequence of playing tough — and legally — why is the NFL vilifying those who admit as much?
Times NFL reporter
Do you know what the Gator truck is?
I didn't. Not until this week, anyway, when the NFL's grammar police came calling after Jerry Gray, the Titans' defensive coordinator, made a reference to the vehicle used to cart an injured player off the field.
"You have to say, 'This is my territory between the numbers,' " Gray said, according to The Tennessean. "And if you throw the football, you better bring the Gator truck. And that's how you have to play. You can't play timid in the NFL."
That's the cue to get indignant. How can he say something like that given the concern about concussions and the emphasis on player safety? How can he reference the possibility of injury as a way to make opponents reluctant to throw down the middle?
It's football — that's why he says something like that.
And when the NFL announced it was looking into Gray's statement, it underscored the hypocrisy in the way that the league and the reporters who cover it are approaching injuries.
There was nothing Gray said this week that hasn't been uttered by football coaches for generations. He didn't advocate playing outside the rules in any way. He simply pointed to the possible consequence of throwing the ball down the middle of the field, referencing the kind of hits that coaches have encouraged and players have executed forever.
But you can't say that anymore. Not with the NFL being sued by thousands of former players, and head injuries becoming a public-health issue.
But here's the problem with governing the language that players and coaches use: It's about managing the image, not about addressing the reality of this sport.
You can't divorce the intent of hitting an opponent as hard as legally permitted from the logical outcome of doing so — which is an injury to that opponent.
Make no mistake, the desire to knock an opponent out of the game is a big part of the mindset of football players, and that sentiment that Gray expressed — don't come over the middle because you'll get clobbered — is the M.O. for any secondary worth its salt.
If that's a mindset that should be vilified, we should just come out and say it. That goes for the reporters who cover this league as well as the men who govern it.
If we've reached the point in professional football where hard, legal hits are condemned because they can result in injury, then the league would be better off stopping all these fines and start rewriting the most fundamental rules of the game and change it from tackle football.
Governing the way coaches and players talk about the game is at best disingenuous and at worst outright misleading. Not only does it fail to address any of the underlying issues, it seeks to hide them by creating an environment where there are things you just can't say.
Gray admitted as much to ESPN when he made a statement after his quote was published this week.
"If I could take that part of it back, I would," Gray said to ESPN's Ed Werder. "I don't want guys thinking about injuring people, and when you say 'Gator truck,' that's probably what comes up. I just want our guys to be tougher."
Score one for the grammar police, but we're all losing if the desire to manage what is said eliminates honest dialogue about the nature of the game.
Danny O'Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dannyoneil.