Watching football, especially college football, is one of my greatest pleasures. I plan my weekends in the fall around the Nebraska Cornhuskers football schedule. I love almost everything about the game! The one thing I don’t like, and I haven’t liked for years, is what is the gratuitous attempts by someplayers (and coaches) to inflict injury on opposing players. I personally remember the night that Jack Tatum of the Oakland Raiders launched himself like a missile at Daryl Stingley, a receiver for the Patriots. Stingley never took another step in his life as he lived the rest of it in a wheelchair. The game was always rough, but after that it seemed that defenders recognized that they could intimidate offensive players with the threat of blasting them to Kingdom Come. That’s also how you could get on Sports Center. And, it was with this that players started talking publicly about inflicting injury or harm on other players.
With better equipment came more fearless players and more physical play. Back when they first emerged, helmets were soft and used with the purpose of protecting the players head, not to be used as a weapon. Bigger, stronger, faster players have become capable of delivering incredibly hard hits. The result of this has been the discovery of CTE and the incredible number of concussions and head injuries suffered by players. The crazy thing is that there was a time in the history of professional football that the game was so violent that President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to end the sport in the country unless rules were implemented to bring about more humane play. At all levels today, rules have changed, but from what I read, they are not resolving the problems they were designed to prevent. Of course, Roosevelt was responding to players dying on the playing field, but I would argue that what is happening to players today is only slightly less serious when one takes into consideration that some ultimately end up taking their own lives or dying well before their time.
Participation numbers at the high school level have been on a downward trend for the past few years. In some states there has been as much as a 10% drop in the past decade. Participation in youth football has declined across the country. In the past two years over 35 players under the age of 30 have retired from playing in the NFL, giving concern about head injuries and CTE as the reason. From my perspective as a school leader, I do not blame parents or students at all if they choose not to play. The risks are there, and each year despite the efforts of our coaches to teach safe technique, we have multiple players experience concussions. So what can happen to make this sport more safe without doing too much to change the integrity of the game? Is there anything that can be done?
Rule-makers at various levels are heeding the concerns and are making some changes. For instance, at all levels new rules in recent years against targeting, or a defensive player leading with his head, have been put into place. Referees have been diligent in making the calls in spite of some players, coaches, and fans disagreeing with some of the calls that are made. The point is, the officials are cognizant of the potential harm that might come from these blows. Some argue that it has changed the game and at times defensive players are being unfairly punished. Along with these changes, the NFL is putting a couple of new rules in place this season, one being a change to kickoffs, where they report a large number of damaging hits take place, and another more specifically defining what leading with the head looks like, including from the perspective of an offensive player. It will be interesting to see if these rule changes have the impact they expect.
While the rule changes may have an impact, there are changes to the game otherwise that have some traditionalists frustrated. The game has become more wide-open with a lot more passing and reliance on speed over brute force and power. For many, it is more exciting than watching teams run the ball between the tackles. Regardless, the physical play still exits among linemen, banging heads each time the ball is snapped. And, with the speed at which they are playing, collisions in the open field are still physical. The vast majority of coaches are doing a good job of teaching technique for tackling and blocking that lessens the risk of head injuries, but the reality is that one cannot eliminate it.
I want the game to remain, and I want it to be safe. My primary idea seems radical, and usually people instantly dismiss it when I share it. What I propose is to take the helmets and shoulder pads off the players. As soon as I say that I get one of three responses. The first is, “Oh, you want to turn it into rugby." The second one is usually along the line of “Then it wouldn’t be football.” And the third is, “So you want them to play touch or flag football?” No, I am suggesting that you keep the vast majority of the rules of the game in place, but players do not wear helmets or shoulder pads. I wouldn’t’ be opposed to using some soft padding to protect a bruise, sprain, or contusion, but nothing that is hard that can be used as a weapon to injure an opposing player. The helmet gives a sense of invincibility and some players simply believe that they will be protected. They don’t give a thought to colliding with another player, or leading with their head. Take the helmet off and it won’t take long before they change their ways. They will not play with the reckless abandon risking a hard lick to their head. The reality is that we as humans by our nature avoid situations that hurt!
Yes, the game will look different, and it may be even more wide-open than it is now. I don’t think it will look like rugby, other than the players may be outfitted the same. And even if it does, fans in many countries are as fanatical about their sport of rugby as we are with football. The current game looks a lot different than it did back in the early 1900’s, and I am sure if we could bring back some of those old players they may not be fans of the way the game is played today. But that said, I believe it is a way to save the game. Let youth players go back to playing flag football where they learn the fundamentals. Put more running into the game so that players are healthier and fit. It can still be a tough, physical game, just safer.