JENNY VRENTAS: For the first time since 1994, thigh and knee pads will be mandatory in the NFL this season. Why now?
HANKS: Under the direction of Commissioner Roger Goodell, well over four years ago, we did a top-to-bottom review of how we can affect the game to make a safer game. So looking at our padding for the players, it was clear that mandating lower-leg padding probably would be the way the NFL would go. So we began negotiations with the NFLPA, talking through different options on how that would work; we worked with our equipment manufacturers and suppliers, and gave the players, our clubs, our coaches and our ownership ample time to digest the issue. We certainly want to mitigate thigh and knee contusions, bruises that can cause lost days, lost playing time, lost practice time, and add that extra layer of protection. Unlike other sports, our players hit the ground, so any layer of protection that can be light and strong, and that a player can feel good about wearing, and be comfortable in, we feel it’s necessary we make that available to them.
VRENTAS: Some players have strong opinions about these pads becoming mandatory. Did you expect this resistance?
HANKS: Absolutely. I think we would be naïve to not acknowledge that when a player goes from wearing nothing to being made to wear something—as grown human beings, we tend to be resistant to change. This change is uniform, there is equity, and we certainly believe that it will provide certain protections for the lower leg that, quite frankly, were not there before. We’ve been in partnership with the players’ association from the very beginning, and that’s why the rule was passed in 2012, with implementation in 2013, to give players an opportunity to get used to carrying pads once again. The ultimate example I can give—not only for offensive players who are in position to be hit, like our MVP in Adrian Peterson—but also you have Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard at the safety position in the Super Bowl, wearing knee pads when they were not mandated and they did not have to do it. That tells you everything you need to know. That padding did not stop those players from making plays in the biggest game of the year, that did not stop them from winning a Lombardi Trophy, and hopefully added to the protection we are all seeking for all of our players.
VRENTAS: By the league’s estimate, only about 30% of players were wearing thigh and knee pads. Are you surprised that number was so low?
HANKS: No. Because players, as most human beings, will only do as much as they need to. In regard to lower-leg padding, it was not mandatory in the mid-90s, and as players during that time, of which I was one, you were always looking for ways to be lighter and faster, so many players eschewed the use of lower-leg padding at that time. The primary point of contention has now been solved. Every player except for the kicker and the punter will have lower-leg padding, so there is no advantage. Early in my career, I wore thigh and knee pads; later, the thigh pads. You couldn’t risk having your legs hurt, especially as a defensive back. When you can’t run, you can’t play, and certainly as a defensive back, where you are running maybe two to four miles a day, you can’t afford to have your thighs bruised or any contusions or that type of thing. I certainly wore thigh pads; Deion Sanders wore thigh pads, so it certainly won’t affect the speed of the athlete, by any stretch.