By MARK KNUDSON     @MarkKnudson41     Special to

The National Football League is in a quandary.

Ratings are down. Injuries are up. What used to be a “must-see” highlight reel hit is now grounds for a penalty…or worse. The players are confused…and so are the fans.

The league office is under the microscope. The PC police are asking the league to further legislate violence out of a game that’s based on territorial acquisition…through the use of violence.

These things do not mesh.

Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell, agitated by what he deems unfair criticism for his style of play, looked into TV cameras this week and said what a whole lot of players are thinking.

“At the end of the day this is football,” he said. “You wanna see flag football, then let’s take our pads off. That would make it easier for me. Because now I don’t gotta wear heavy s—. But give us flags for me to pull off, because that way I know what we’re playing. I signed up to play full-speed, contact football, and we’re not doing that. I feel like I gotta ask a guy, ‘Hey, are you ready for me to hit you right now?’ before I hit you.”

It’s been a few years now since the NFL outlawed – and rightfully so – hits to the head. “Helmet to helmet” contact was blamed for the league’s growing concussion issue and the costly lawsuits that followed. Any blow to the head was going to be a penalty. Those “big hits” videos the league asked fans to buy a decade ago? Sorry. They didn’t bring in enough cash to cover the expense of the legal settlements. So now that’s now a personal foul.

No one has ever argued the need to make head shots illegal. Back in the day, the penalty was called “spearing” when a player hit another player with the crown of his helmet. It wasn’t called that often even while players were launching themselves – helmet first – like short range missiles. So the league, with pretty much unanimous support, made the new rule that any and all blows to the head, with a shoulder, forearm or helmet, a personal foul. As it should be.

But that’s where most football fans wanted to see it end. Penalize blows to the head, period. But the league – and the college game as well – acted in panic mode. The large number of lawsuits and bad PR from the publicity surrounding concussions caused them to overreact. They decided to broaden the interpretation of what was a “safe” tackle, and mandated officials to err on the side of over-penalizing. They extended the “no hit zone” to most parts of the upper body, not just the concussion prone head and neck. For that reason, a direct hit from a defender’s shoulder to a receiver’s chest became a penalty on the same level as a blow to the head, even though such a body blow has little to do with concussions and was/is pretty much considered textbook tackling technique by coaches who’ve taught it for decades.

Meanwhile, players were pointing out that the new interpretation of what is a good tackle and what isn’t began forcing them to go after the opposing player’s lower body, making career-threatening knee injuries more likely. Many offensive players voiced the opinion that they’d rather take a shot to the head (while wearing ever-improving helmets) than a shot to a lightly padded knee. Those concerns have gone unaddressed for the most part.

College football took this over reaction it a step further – and in the eyes of most football observers, a step well out of bounds. When a college player is penalized for “targeting” he is ejected from the game. There is replay review involved in order for a slow motion evaluation to determine if the hit was a) intentional and b) avoidable, but in the end there’s no gray area, no option for a player who makes what his coach would deem a good clean hit to stay in the game – even if the receiver or ball carrier ducked his head at the last minute and caused helmet to helmet contact. Any player penalized for targeting is ejected and subject to missing game time the following week as well, period.

The college rule is ridiculous. Players are going full speed. They have to make a split-second decision as to whether or not use a shoulder or forearm to strike a body blow against an opposing player who is trying to make a catch and/or gain valuable yardage. They’re doing what they’re taught and what the fans want to see. As fans we lament the poor tackling we see every week. As players, they are hesitant – even at the last second. Is the tackle they’re trying to make legal?

Now, the NFL is said to be considering adopting the college targeting rule, complete with ejections. That report is what set Mitchell off.

No one – fans, players and coaches included – want to see blows to the head, or players tackling helmet first. Serious, life changing injuries happen that way. Injuries are playing a significant role in the declining popularity of the sport in general. But fans also do not want to see players ejected for a hit to the body that the league deemed a highlight reel play a few years ago.

All this has left the NFL between a rock and a hard place. There’s not going to be a way to make the players, the fans and the PC police all happy.