NFL officiating risking players’ safety

Dallas Cowboys strong safety Barry Church (42) is helped from the field during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Tim Sharp)

Let me get straight to the point. The NFL needs to fix its officiating situation before someone gets seriously hurt.

For a moment, let’s ignore Monday night’s debacle in Seattle. Skip the comparisons of the NFL to World Wrestling Entertainment or NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to Vince McMahon.

As an avid football fan, I’m angry about the mistakes by replacement officials. As an orthopaedic surgeon, I am concerned that a player could be critically injured or killed in this environment.

In the first three weeks of the regular season, I’ve seen more cheap shots and dangerous plays than I can remember. Tackles of players 30 yards from the play, blows to the head, hits delivered well after players are down. The replacement officials have largely allowed it to happen.

I’m not saying that players are using the situation to try to hurt their opponents. However, rough play could create tactical advantages.

For example, football analysts point out that one of the few ways to slow down New England quarterback Tom Brady is to hit him. Supposedly, Brady doesn’t like to be hit. Hit him early and often and maybe you can slow him and the Patriots down. If replacement refs won’t penalize it, then why wouldn’t a defensive end or linebacker hit Brady after he throws the ball?

It’s only a matter of time before something catastrophic happens. Today’s NFL players are as big, strong, and fast as any athletes we’ve ever seen. Is it so hard to imagine a 300-pound freight train clobbering a defenseless wide receiver when he isn’t looking and breaking his neck?

Bringing back the regular officials might not even be necessary to solve this problem. Who the referees are seems less important than actually stopping these plays. Throw flags. Better yet, eject players. It wouldn’t take long to send a message.

And players arguing that the replacement refs are risking their safety rings a little hollow. They are the ones fighting, pushing and delivering late hits. If you want to protect the safety of your fellow players, don’t hit your opponents like there are no officials on the field.

I understand that this is a business. I stood on NFL sidelines for a year. I remember people patrolling the sidelines specifically to ensure that sponsors’ ads were not obstructed from the views of television cameras. I remember stories of players being fined for claiming to drink Pedialyte to prevent cramps instead of the official NFL sports drink. The NFL is a business, and a very profitable one.

And fans will keep watching these games. The popularity of the sport is incredibly high. Calls that affect the outcome and even the integrity of the game probably won’t diminish our enthusiasm. It is basic supply and demand.

But it should also be about injuries and injury prevention. If there are simple changes that could protect players while still preserving the nature of the sport, it seems to be common sense to make them. The NFL has very publicly promoted its efforts to protect player safety. Then why does it risk the players’ health now?

From a medical standpoint, it seems to me that the NFL could be approaching a tipping point. More and more data points to long-term brain damage from repeated blows to the head. Hundreds of former players are suing the league over concussion risks. Parents are increasingly questioning whether their kids should play football at all.

I don’t know if Monday’s “Fail Mary” or “Inaccurate Reception” will hasten a resolution between owners and officials. But I really hope that a catastrophic injury isn’t the catalyst for an agreement either.

Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and Director of MUSC Sports Medicine. For more information about football injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to Dr. Geier’s blog at