Tuesday, October 30, 2012

A MODEST PROPOSAL



Despite the advanced protective equipment, the super-scientific training methods, and the revision of the rules to make football safer, it seems that horrific acute injuries are occurring more and more, and that long-term, chronic injuries are rendering once-strong men into invalids. Physical injury has been a part of football since the first game was played. Thousands of players each year knowingly and eagerly assume such risks. When I first went out for football back in the early 1960’s, I realized that I ran the risk of injury but my desire to play trumped any fear of injury. When my remarkably unspectacular football career ended in 1970, I had never suffered a major injury. One thing I remember looking back on my career was how injuries increased as the years passed. In junior high, serious injuries were relatively rare. By high school they were becoming more common, and in college they became all-too-common. I vividly remember one spring practice when they carted so many players off the field with serious injuries that the coach severely limited contact drills at practice.
The rules were different back then, and hits which would today garner 15 yard penalties, game ejections, and massive fines were then applauded as good hits. It is a good thing that such hits are now illegal, but I don’t think vicious hits are the sole cause of injuries. They may not even be the major cause of injuries. We made those same kinds of hits in high school and junior high with much less devastating results; there had to be other factors at work. I think I know what those factors were, and I don’t believe the game as it is now played at the highest levels can do anything to neutralize those factors without making football something other than football—unless. . . . But we’ll talk about my idea for a sweeping rule change which would keep football recognizable as football after we talk about the other significant factors causing injuries.
The major differences between my junior high teammates and my college teammates were size and athleticism. A head-on collision between two Volkswagens is not going to do as much damage as a head-on collision between two Mack trucks, and no amount of padding is going to reduce the shock of that second collision to a safe level. Not only were the college athletes bigger, they were stronger, they were more talented, and they delivered their blows with much greater skill. I can well-remember the day I got the scar on my chin. The biggest offensive lineman on the team flattened me with a forearm blow, broke my facemask, split my chin, and made me swallow my chewing tobacco. I think he weighed 250 pounds. He certainly didn’t go over 275. And I was playing on (more accurately, practicing with) a Division 1, major college football team. There are running backs that size today, and modern linemen are considered small unless they weigh over 300 pounds.
I would say that modern college football players exceed my college teammates in size, strength, and athleticism by about the same magnitude that my college teammates exceeded my junior high teammates. When players that size collide, catastrophic injury is not just possible, it’s inevitable, and no amount of padding or softening of the rules will make any difference. It may well be that superior padding contributes to blunt force trauma rather than protecting against it. When encased in armor, players feel much safer and are much more willing to turn their bodies into projectiles. I remember one venerable coach instructing me and my fellow linemen that our shiny new cage facemasks were not intended for protection, they were to be used as weapons. I think that every lineman from that team carries a scar across the bridge of his nose which was caused by using our cages as battering rams when making hits.
What to do? They’ve made the equipment much safer, they’ve outlawed all manner of hits, and we still have injuries such as the one suffered by Marcus Lattimore this past Saturday.  They can’t decrease the athleticism of the players, they can’t decrease the increased strength of the players, they can’t decrease the size of the players. Or can they? I believe the size of the players can be decreased, and I believe that is the best avenue to go down if they’re really looking for a significant reduction of injuries. I also believe I know a simple way to accomplish this end without coercion.
Look at professional rugby players or professional Australian rules football players. They’re good sized men, they’re strong and athletic, but they aren’t the behemoths that you encounter on a football team. And they don’t appear to get injured as often or as horrifically as football players. Well now, they don’t wear pads and consequently don’t launch their bodies like hellfire missiles to make hits, and that makes a huge difference, but there is another factor at work which I believe is even more significant. They don’t two platoon. They don’t have an offense and a defense, they have a team. If we played football like they played rugby or Australian rules football, a player could expect to run out on the field for the opening kickoff and stay there until the final whistle. The best conditioned modern football lineman couldn’t possibly make it from kickoff to final whistle because he would be too big. His body would overheat, he would become exhausted hauling his huge frame up and down the field, and he would probably collapse by halftime.
Confronted with such a prospect, the lineman would do what any sane person would do. He’d either take up Sumo wrestling or lose weight. Even the backs would be smaller. Injuries would plummet. They would never go away because that is the nature of the sport and everyone who plays football knows and accepts that. We would not, however, be subject to such a steady stream of serious injury as we are today. As the title of this piece says, it’s just a modest proposal. I’m relatively sure it will never gain the assent of the football establishment.