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SHIPLEY: For NFL, controlling the message no longer possible

Minnesota Vikings safety Andrew Sendejo (34) tackles Atlanta Falcons running back Devonta Freeman (24) during a game last season. Jason Getz / USA TODAY Sports

The NFL's new "helmet rule" made an uneasy debut during the Hall of Fame Game between the Chicago Bears and Baltimore Ravens on Saturday, Aug. 4, officially killing professional tackle football.

With the world increasingly wise to the existence, dangers and bad publicity of sports-related head injuries, the NFL is trying to outlaw tackles that begin and end with the crown of a player's helmet, which seems reasonable.

Unfortunately, turning oneself to be a human torpedo is: 1) the way players have been taught to tackle for years; and 2) such tackles often result in the kinds of dangerous plays that make guys in backwards baseball caps rise from the couch with fists raised.

Anyway, the helmet rule was quickly deemed the controversy of the year, well before a single regular-season game has been played. Wrong.

The biggest issue facing the NFL remains players' right to free expression and where that right becomes the business of teams, fans and, as it was last fall, the President of the United States. But it's not all about the national anthem, and this is where the NFL's new tackling rules, free expression and Andrew Sendejo meet in the Venn diagram.

The Vikings safety weighed in last Friday, Aug. 3, with a fashion statement that left no room for misinterpretation, leaving the morning walk-through in a hat that read "Make Football Violent Again." Before afternoon practice began, Sendejo had doubled down by tweeting a photo of himself wearing a helmet with a facemask on the crown of his helmet.

The gag would have held more merit if players, like in the old days, played both ways. But that's beside the point.

What matters is that Sendejo chose to speak out on the day the NFL sent an officiating crew to the Vikings' Eagan, Minn., training facility to clarify the new tackling rules, and the Vikings took a crack at pretending it never happened by omitting all references from the daily media roundup they sent out Saturday morning.

This, of course, is not of great importance, but it gives us an idea of how badly the NFL wants to change the accepted narrative about how it treats its players.

Sendejo's gag seems to indicate that even the players don't care, but that would hold more weight if he was made to play a game as a wide receiver.

When it comes to NFL messaging, everyone is confused. With players declining to ignore what they see with their own eyes—and social media providing dozens of platforms beyond the media outlets that cover them daily—the NFL is struggling against the wind to keep its message from blowing back onto its pants.

Friday was a funny day. It ended with the Vikings trying to low-key expunge the actions of a player from the record, and started with the head coach reacting to fake news.

Mike Zimmer altered his schedule to meet reporters in the morning so he could tamp down a report that the Vikings were trying to trade linebacker Anthony Barr, which seemed newsworthy until no one could find a report of the Vikings trying to trade Anthony Barr.

Zimmer's defense of his first draft pick was swift and definitive but he was swinging at shadows. One likes to imagine it was the work of Wisconsin troll farms nefariously trying to divide and conquer Vikings Nation from the grass roots, but if that were the case, their work would be much more accessible.

This could be a great season for the Vikings on the field, but outside the lines, things promise to be even more out of control than last season, when the league found itself the subject of free speech debate and barely coded racism.

It's going to be a long one.

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