With so much emphasis on making football safer, it’s worth looking back at how the game developed and why change won’t come easy. The dye was cast before the 20th
century and the best efforts at reform are bound to be challenging..
As Michael Oriard details in his marvelous book, Reading Football: How the Popular Press Created an American Spectacle (Cultural Studies of the United States), 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 the scrimmage line and later down and distance. Then blockers were allowed to escort the runner. And finally in 1888 defenders were permitted to tackle between the waist and knees. It is important to note that all of these changes were interrelated. Starting plays from scrimmage necessitated 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 Chris Johnson or LaMichael James 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 NFL and the NCAA (and its earlier incarnations) have been trying to come to terms with this problem ever since. 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 easily, 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 lineman on most running plays. It is the repetitive minor collisions rather than being jacked up that often leads to trouble years later. And 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.
Rule changes may eliminate a lot of the savagery, but not the ubiquitous brutality that usually determines who wins. This will take a lot of science, research, innovation, collaboration, and patience.