Midnight Musings: Leatherheads

This Thanksgiving, while watching the Packers V. Lions game I was talking with my Dad about the state of football and the NFL, in light of the recent controversies and safety issues that have been brought to light.

My father loves the game of football. He played college football at U-Conn then played semi-professionally, but ultimately declined offers from both the Cincinnati Bengals and the Seattle Seahawks to join their practice squads of because of the toll the sport had already taken on his body.  Offensive linemen don’t have particularly healthy post-career experiences, so he decided to focus on finding a career that would let him still be able to walk with his children when he hit retirement age.

In talking about concussions and brain damage in particular, my father’s knee jerk response was to say, “I think they should bring back leather helmets.” Which I initially took as sarcasm, but then he insisted it was a serious statement. His argument being that  players would be forced to have proper form when tackling and it’d make them more aware of helmet-to-helemt hits because they wouldn’t feel like their heads are battering rams.  Football would then evolve into a sport reminiscent of Rugby. While leather helmets admittedly might not be the answer I think there’s something to be said for protection being detrimental. Or rather, the perception of protection being detrimental. It might be time to start thinking about teaching better technique rather than creating better equipment.

For example, the winningest coach in college football (currently coaching at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota) is John Gagliardi who runs unconnventional ‘no tackle’ practices, during which he has his players run drills and play up to the point of hitting, then break down into form and just wrap up without making full, potentially injury causing, contact. In games his team has incredibly few missed or broken tackles because footwork, wrapping up, and correct head placement have become muscle memory. Not only does his coaching keep his players healthier, but it makes them more precise and less lazy with their hitting when they compete. Coaching strategies such as Gagliardi’s are the start of new ways of  thinking about the game and of incorporating player safety into winning records.

I wonder what the future of football will look like if these health problems aren’t properly addressed. Perhaps the league will take on a WWE (or WWF depending on your prefernce)-esque appearance and we’ll see the return of something akin to the XFL.  Where football becomes more about theatrics and less about the thrill of competition a live sporting event provides an audience. To quote a recent Grantland article Man-Up, “We love pregame flyovers that culminate in actual airstrikes.” There is undeniably a spectacle aspect to football, more exaggerated than other sports, from the field sized America flags to the close-ups of cheerleader’s boobs and maybe this spectacle quality will be played up to an extreme and start blending into gameplay to compensate for the potential injuries players now face whenever they step onto the field.

Personally, I hope this isn’t the case. I want the sport of football to continue and I want to continue watching it for the simple reason that it’s an amazing sport. Competition is exciting, in fact it’s probably the most exhilariting thing we, as humans, can experience. But it’s high time we start considering the cost of it.


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