It goes without saying, football is a violent game. Every year we hear of a high school player who has been paralyzed or worse and his hometown left shocked and devastated. Every year we hear from the family of a legendary player who suddenly lost his mind at age 60 and his life at age 61. And every year we tell ourselves that these tragedies are a necessary consequence of the game we love. But with the recent record-setting start to the NFL season that left 15% of the league injured after two weeks, compounded by the upcoming release of the film “Concussion” in late December, we naturally begin to think: how inevitable are these injuries really?
The natural fix is to add more protective rules to the ever-expanding rule book. With stricter penalties surrounding when and where you can hit a kicker, quarterback or receiver, the problem should be solved, right? Not quite, and I don’t think the problem lies in the rule book. I think the biggest contributing factor to contact injuries in the NFL today is the equipment designed to keep the players safe.
I know it sounds crazy, but hear me out. When I used to play high school football, putting on that helmet and those shoulder pads made me feel like a gladiator putting on his armour. With each layer of padding I became more and more invincible, until there I stood, a knight in a suit of plastic armour. I felt like nothing could hurt me, like I could run into a brick wall head-on and just shrug it off. I remember freshman year during weighs our senior running back, Andre Ward, asked me who my favorite wide receiver was. I said Luke Norica, cause no matter what he always found a way to catch the ball. Andre told me that if I wanted to be any good, I had to play like Norica did; with no regard for my own personal safety. He told me I had to get in that mindset and think “I’m catching this ball. No. Matter. What.” He told me I don’t even need to be that worried about getting hurt, that’s what the pads were there for. That mindset earned me four concussions in three years, and my parents forced me into a very early retirement as I spent more time in the emergency room more than I did on the field.
It’s this exact feeling of invincibility that lies at the heart of the problem today. If you take away the state of the art helmet and shoulder pads I promise you players will start thinking twice before diving full speed at 220lb running back from two yards away. Back in the old days of the NFL, when players were running around with little scraps of cowhide strapped to their melons you wouldn’t see these insane, injury creating hits nearly as often as you do today.
Sit and watch any rugby game and pay special attention to the way they tackle. Now do the same with any given football game from this season. You should notice two key differences; one will be obvious, and the other less so. The first and most obvious difference is these guys aren’t wearing pads. This lack of protective gear leads to the second difference, they have to wrap up to tackle, and any player who throws himself full on into another without making an attempt to wrap and drive will be thrown out of the game. This provides a stark contrast to football where you’ll see defenders fling their bodies around like missiles in an attempt to bring opposing players to the ground.
It’s time we ditch the pads and the ballistic missile style tackling. If we do away with the equipment that allows players to believe themselves to be invincible, then they’ll stop playing like they can’t get hurt only to find that, despite their plastic hats and shoulder pads, they are still human. The defender's job will get much more difficult, and I’m sure we’ll see a distinct change in defensive schemes as a ball carrier in the open field has a huge advantage to the defender who has to wrap him up, but hey, this will only force the defense to get better, which will force the offense to get better, which means better, more entertaining football.
I know what you’re thinking, this will spell the end of football as we know it, and you’re not wrong. But consider this; football as we know it is causing far more injuries than it has to, and it’s time to make a change. American football has to be altered and this will change the way the game is played in ways we can’t foresee, but if we don’t act radically and quickly, then those who want to see football forever banned might finish their work before we have time to save the game we love. With two radical changes we can decrease injury and protect our players, and even if making players wrap up and getting rid of their pads doesn’t work, isn’t at least worth a shot? Think about that the next time a 18-year-old kid dies on a football field.