(The Root) — Considering the speed and violence of NFL football and the size and strength of players, it's amazing that many participants eschew certain pads. You might think that players would protect their bodies through every available means. But that's not the case, particularly at the so-called skill positions like halfback, wide receiver and defensive back.
Look at the San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore, among the league's top runners. His knees are totally exposed during games, not even covered by his pants. (If he wears any thigh pads at all, they must be paper-thin.) The NFL doesn't like that and did something about it Tuesday, when team owners approved a rule change that makes knee and thigh pads mandatory, beginning in the 2013 season.
Players across the country immediately spoke out in protest.
"Personally, I won't be wearing them," Oakland Raiders cornerback Ron Bartell told the Contra Costa Times. "So I'd better put some fine money away. It takes away from the speed of the game. Hip pads, knee pads, thigh pads. They're not going to stop you from tearing an ACL. It may stop a couple of soft-tissue injuries, but a knee pad isn't going to stop a guy from blowing out a knee."
The players union isn't quite on board yet, either. It challenged the league's ability to impose the new rule unilaterally, arguing that changes in working conditions must be collectively bargained.
"While the NFL is focused on one element of health and safety today, the NFLPA believes that health and safety requires a comprehensive approach and commitment," the union said in a statement. "We always look forward to meeting with the NFL to discuss any and all matters related to player health and safety."
The union might find itself in a tough spot here. It has to consider its members' feelings, even though the members seem to go against their own self-interests at times. Many players have criticized new safety procedures, with some admitting that they'd lie about having a concussion in order to stay in a game.
The league argues that knee and thigh pads are mandatory at every level of football except the NFL, and players should be good role models for youths. Opposing a measure that's intended to improve player safety doesn't send the right message.
"Our players," NFL lawyer Jeff Pash told SportingNews.com, "should be wearing the pads, setting the example, showing young players and athletes at other levels of the game that 'Hey, this is the right thing to do.' "
Sometimes the players have to be protected from themselves. If everyone is forced to wear more pads and consequently run a little bit slower, so what? There shouldn't be an appreciable difference, and the rate of injuries just might decrease. More pads certainly can't hurt. Helmets became mandatory NFL equipment in 1943 (1939 in college), and I bet some players objected then, too.
San Diego Chargers cornerback Quentin Jammer probably wouldn't play without a helmet. But he has no interest in pads below the waist. "It's dumb," Jammer told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "Ridiculous to me. I don't think anybody should be required to wear [them]. I don't get hit, so I don't need to worry about pads. Offensive players should wear them because we hit them, but I don't think it should be mandatory.
"You play this game because you want to play this game, and the risks you take are the risks you take," he said. "If you don't want to wear hip pads, knee pads or thigh pads, you shouldn't have to. It should be a choice."
It will be interesting to see if the union fights this. I think the players would be better off accepting this move and saving their battles for more important matters. Especially matters that aren't designed to protect them.