Lowell Cohn: NFL fight against individualism puts players at risk

  • Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Robert Mathis (98) adjust his face mask during practice at the NFL team's football training camp Monday, Aug. 5, 2013, in Anderson, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

A controversy about face masks is raging through the National Football League. You may not know about it, but the controversy rages, and it's significant.

Several defensive players have worn newly-designed, highly-protective face masks to practice. They want to wear them in games. The league told them no.

The Colts' Robert Mathis, a premier pass rusher, a five-time Pro Bowler, was wearing a model that looks like a grill with crisscrossed bars across his face. The league forbade him to wear it in games because it is not traditional football equipment. Mathis tweeted: "I will return to my run-of-the-mill grill."

Why do players, especially men who do their work at the line of scrimmage, want to wear the newfangled face masks?

To protect their eyes. They don't want opposing players to get a hand in their face or eyes. These customized face masks make it harder — not impossible — to put a hand or finger in an eye.

A finger in the eye ended Don Mosebar's career in 1995. He played center for the Raiders, started every game from 1990 to 1995. But in a training camp scrimmage in 1995, Dallas defensive tackle Chad Hennings stuck his finger — probably by accident — in Mosebar's left eye. Mosebar went blind in the eye and his career was over. Current players have experimented with the grill face masks to protect their eyesight.

It is reasonable to want to see. But the league has banned the protective face masks. It will make an exception only for medical reasons, to protect a broken nose, a broken cheekbone, a neck injury, etc.

Commissioner Roger Goodell talks about player safety, says it's the league's No. 1 priority, as it should be.

He is working hard to cut down on concussions in the face of a multibillion-dollar lawsuit from former players. He should work just as hard to protect eyes.

But he isn't doing that. He needs to re-examine his position.

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