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Lowell Cohn: NFL fight against individualism puts players at risk


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.

Say a D-lineman comes up with a facial or eye injury that is more than just a "normal" injury. The league might be to blame in the long run because it specifically rejected the new face masks. We're talking potential lawsuits.

Why would the NFL take a strong stand on player safety but not see the merit in a better form of face protection? Makes no sense.

Well, in a way, it does make sense. Bear with me here. I'm proposing a theory.

The NFL is a war league and football is a war game. You march through the other team's territory. You invade and capture the "enemy's" end zone (the castle, the palace, the city center — you get the idea). You blitz, you sack, you throw the bomb. You wear uniforms that look like armor with hard helmets that protect you and hit the other guys like guided missiles.

We take all that for granted. We accept it. We love it.

Teams have taken on this war mentality.

They are highly secretive — they conduct closed practices, head coaches speak in code or clich? or non-words so they don't lose a shred of competitive advantage to the opponents. NFL teams are like warring nation states. Can you imagine Bill Belichick, so closed-mouth you wonder if his mouth actually moves, being as open as, say, the A's Bob Melvin? Impossible.

Even the league office assumes a warlike mentality. Those NFL executives on Park Avenue in Manhattan, including Goodell, are like heads of state.

They see players as soldiers in a war game. In the army soldiers are not individuals. They are part of the squad or the platoon. They must function as part of the group. Of course, they must. It's war. Football is a game.

A spokesman for the league explained to me the NFL's reluctance to allow the new face masks: "You see, players want to wear the face mask as a statement. Ronnie Lott, Ray Nitschke, Mike Singletary were certainly able to play without that type of face mask."

The words are revealing. The implication is that players who want to wear a grill face mask are not as tough as players from another era. And there's this: "They wear the face mask as a statement."

The people who run football discourage individuality. They want all the players to look the same, just as soldiers must look the same. The league fines players who wear the wrong socks. It fines players who wear the wrong-colored cleats.

Compare that attitude to baseball. Some players wear their uniform pants down to their shoes. Others wear the pants up to their knees. They express themselves.

In the NFL it's a sin to express yourself through your uniform, to have a unique style, to be an individual.

I am not even arguing that point.

The league is successful and wealthy and it has a philosophy. It's just that the new, customized face mask is not about style or bravado or rebellion. It's about common-sense safety.

And that should be the NFL's highest priority. And in this case it isn't.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.