The Root of Football’s Violence Problem

Best of luck to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, NCAA president Mark Emmert and all the other powers that be who are trying to figure out ways to eliminate, or at least diminish the number of serious injuries that occur in football every season. Unfortunately, the dye was cast before the 20th century and the best efforts at reform are bound to come up short.

As Michael Oriard details in his marvelous book Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle, the game we now recognize largely took shape in the 1880s when the rules that govern rugby were overhauled. First, continuous play was replaced by scrimmage and soon after down and distance. Then blockers were allowed to escort the runner. And finally in 1888 defenders were permitted to target any part of the ballcarriers body while making tackles. It is important to note that all of these changes were interrelated. Starting plays from scrimmage necessitated down & distance, then blocking, which in turn meant that tacklers had to be given more latitude lest the ballcarriers run wild. Imagine how hard it would be to stop RG3 or Adrian Peterson if defenders could not tackle below the waist.

The significance of these changes cannot be overstated. There is a big difference between the strenuous physical contact that characterizes rugby and the violent collisions that are part and parcel of football.

The bodies that have governed football have been trying to come to terms with this problem since 1890. The forward pass was legalized to encourage more open play; Mass momentum plays, such as flying wedges, piling on, clothesline tackling, and ‘targeting’ have all been outlawed; players started wearing helmets, quarterback were given extra protection, defensive lineman were prohibited from slapping offensive lineman in the head; coaching and medical staffs started taking concussions seriously; the NFL fines and suspends players regularly; ESPN’s Tom Jackson has stopped giving ‘Jacked Up’ awards for Sunday’s best hits and I can’t remember the last time I heard an announcer joke about a player having ‘his bell rung’ or not knowing where he is.

We all get it, finally, but that does not mean that the core problem can be addressed, at least not sufficiently. The first major problem is that a lot of long-term brain damage comes from the helmet-to-helmet contact that occurs between linemen on most running plays. It is the repetitive minor collisions rather than being jacked up that often causes medical problems years later. The second is that physical intimidation is an integral part of the game. It makes quarterbacks throw the ball a split second earlier, running backs scoot out of bounds, and receivers get alligator arms. Third, the value of rules changes, better equipment and education is at least partially offset by physics; collisions are still dangerous because players are much bigger and much faster than they used to be. Finally, we may not like to admit it, but the entertainment value would decline dramatically without the ‘auto accidents’, which is the term players use, that occur every play.

Rule changes may eliminate a lot of the savagery, but not the ubiquitous brutality that usually determines who wins.

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