Hardesty: Do they really care about player safety?

Head shot of Tom Hardesty, a white man with short hair in a grey golf polo with the caption "Round Two with Tom Hardesty"

We live in an era when we’re fed a steady diet of the “for player safety” narrative.

Collisions at the plate were legislated out of Major League Baseball “for player safety.”

The NBA has its Flagrant 1 and Flagrant 2 foul tier “for player safety.”

And, of course, we have everyone’s favorite “for player safety” initiative, the targeting penalty in football.

Well, we’re being fed something all right, and it’s far more than a narrative.

Just a few weeks ago, I was sitting in the comfort of my family room getting ready to watch a University of Nebraska football game. The camera was right there at the entrance to the tunnel at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln as the Cornhuskers charged onto the field just prior to kickoff.

“What are those shorts things they’re wearing?” my wife, Kim, asked me as the players raced past the camera.

I said, “Oh, those are the injured players who aren’t playing today. So they’re just wearing shorts.”

“No,” my wife responded. “I’m talking about the players wearing uniforms. What are those shorts they have on?”

I looked closer, and sure enough, the Huskers were wearing their customary white helmets, red jerseys – and not-so-customary white shorts. I mean, a lot of these guys were showing leg from mid-thigh on down.

“Those are supposed to be football pants,” I told her.

“Well, those aren’t pants,” she said. “Those are shorts.”

Yes, they were. And it seems every team in college football has swapped pants for shorts these days. And not only are a lot of players wearing shorts, they’re wearing shorts with little to no padding in them.

Tell me more about player safety.

And that Nebraska game was played before the Miami Dolphins let quarterback Tua Tagovailoa return to their game against the Buffalo Bills on Sept. 25 despite the fact he was stumbling around after hitting his head on the ground.

More on that later. But first, back to the football shorts. I know the game has been sanitized to within an inch of its life and is nowhere near as physical as it used to be. I know that shoulder pads that look too small to be legal at the Pee Wee level are worn even by hulking 300-pounders. I know that mouthpieces are hanging off face masks and flapping in the breeze on just about every play.

And every bit of it jeopardizes player safety yet, oddly, is not enforced by the football safety police.

But … shorts? Knees uncovered. Players showing more and more thigh by the week. Basketball players wearing longer and more protective legwear than their football brethren.

I’m half expecting to turn on a college football game and watch some team take the field in Speedos.

There is nothing safe about leaving your knees unprotected. There is nothing safe about leaving your thighs largely unprotected. There is nothing safe about leaving your lips, teeth and tongue unprotected.

Yet, all of it is allowed. Why? Because our brains aren’t in our knees, thighs or teeth.

Our brains are in our heads— at least, they’re supposed to be. But that’s not where the Dolphins organization seemed to have its brains located when it allowed Tua to go back into the game against the Bills after the quarterback clearly had motor-skill issues involving his legs. The Dolphins have denied that Tua received a concussion on the play and that his injury had to do with his ankle and back.

Sorry, but that doesn’t pass the smell test. That has more of a “CYA” feel to it than anything else.

Apparently, the NFL isn’t buying it either, because the league immediately took steps to alter its concussion protocol for players. It’s doubtful the NFL would react so quickly to address neurological issues based on bad ankles.

But the Tua debacle is just the latest example of sports leagues being completely full of it when preaching to us about player safety.

Let’s go back to baseball. Plate collisions are a thing of the past because they’re, you know, too dangerous. Yet, it’s not dangerous at all to step into the batter’s box and face someone standing roughly 60 feet away throwing a hard object upwards of 90 miles an hour at you. Catchers wear a face mask. Umpires wear a face mask. But, for some reason, the batter is exempt from wearing a mask.

Makes absolutely no sense.

Softball has it right. Face masks are common among players in the field, particularly pitchers, and helmets with masks are becoming increasingly common as well.

But not in baseball. One argument against masks for baseball hitters comes from hitters themselves: If a pitcher isn’t afraid of hitting a batter in the face because the face is protected, he’ll throw chin music all the time. Of course, pitchers counter with the argument that if a batter isn’t worried about having his face rearranged, he’ll hang over the plate on every pitch and own the strike zone.

So, no masks.

Which takes us to the NBA’s flagrant foul system. The idea behind it is to protect players from receiving forearm shivers to the head on drives to the basket. You know, player safety.

It also applies to elbows to the face on rebounds and any other kind of 1980s Detroit Pistons-style cheap shots that might be delivered.

But here’s how it has actually evolved: With NBA officiating being what it is— awful— players too often get nailed with a Flagrant 2 on little more than a love tap. The way a player sees it, he got ejected from the game for nothing. So, human nature being what it is— vindictive— he figures if he’s going to get tossed, he’s at least going to get his money’s worth next time.

So the flagrant foul system has unwittingly made the painted area more unsafe than it already was. This wouldn’t be the case if flagrant calls were applied correctly by the officials.

And that brings us to targeting.

I’ve made my feelings about this rule abundantly clear, but quick and dirty: It’s vague, has too many moving parts, is applied unevenly, over-penalizes players, changes constantly (as in, from one play to the next), and you can’t even get officials to agree with each other on what exactly constitutes targeting.

The targeting penalty would be fine if it actually made sense. Hitting a player in the head and/or leading with the helmet was already illegal. It was called “spearing.” The spirit of the targeting rule isn’t new at all. The confusion among coaches, players, fans, officials and the media is new. Everyone knew spearing when they saw it. No one knows what targeting is.

All they know is that it’s “for player safety.” And maybe, after you cut through all the confusion in its application, it is.

But so are pants, yet what we see instead are shorts.

And now we’re dangerously close to Speedos.

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Tom Hardesty is a Portager sports columnist. He was formerly assistant sports editor at the Record-Courier and author of the book Glimpses of Heaven.