When you expect to grow your business from ten to twenty billion dollars a year in less than a decade, as the NFL plans to do, you must be doing a lot of things right.
NBA action, college basketball, horse racing, auto racing, golf and tennis all clear their decks when the NFL comes on the television. Enriched by a continuing stream of participants from Pee-Wee leagues through college, playing and learning the game, the pool of talent is seemingly endless.
And yet professional football is in big trouble, from within. Players from twenty or thirty or forty years ago are dying, some by their own hand, and clinical discoveries of their donated brains for research are showing that a high number of them suffered a deleterious later life because of concussion damage caused by hard hits on the gridiron.
Like the tobacco industry before it, the NFL was slow in trying to find the cause and a solution to a problem. To its credit, the league did settle for a large amount of money to former players, not all, who could show documented cause of their being effected.
But cases still surface, the latest being former Oakland Raider quarterback Kenny Stabler whose donated brain showed chilling deterioration upon his death a few months ago.
The NFL, trying to rein in this runaway problem while still embracing its growth, is coming to a crossroads, nay, perhaps a cliff.
Why is football in general and the NFL in particular so popular? I think the answer is speed.
Speed on the gridiron generally means shifty running, accurate passing, and acrobatic catching. People watching their team execute well in these three areas literally feel as one in helping their players advance towards the goal. They care little as to how linemen protected their quarterback, just that they must’ve, in order to let speed take over the completion of the play.
Speed on defense is by the nature of the game always a step or two behind the offense because teams with the ball know where they are going and defenses don’t.
Accurate long range place kickers and punters have neutralized returns so much so that the fair catch and the successful field goal have become the norm. Boring to watch and difficult to cheer.
Speed, however, perhaps even as much as the avoidance of turnovers, determines outcomes of games. Accurately run short routes with effective receiver faking and pinpoint passing results in first downs, which result in both controlling the clock and gaining field position.
Fans can see speed. They can’t see, or care to see, the action in the trenches. They know the four men on both sides of the line of scrimmage must sumo-wrestle for 2.6 seconds to achieve defensive detente.
I do not mean to suggest football as we know it will change radically from its present form but introduction to playing the sport by young children should change.
Instead of young boys age eight to fourteen playing tackle football, I think seven-on-seven flag football offers an attractive alternative. It combines the skills of speed, agility, team work and leadership necessary for the transition to tackle football. And with far fewer chances of injuries.
Girls flag football has also become a popular sport in schools and recreational leagues.
Costs could be lessened considerably as well. Instead of spending $300 per participant in tackle football, a pair of shorts, a Tee-shirt, and shoes would cost but a third of that. Two, not three, referees would be needed. Without blocking and tackling, injuries would be far fewer.
I think the kicking game, both punting and kick-offs, where most injuries occur, should be absent until the transition to tackle football is made. After scores, teams should start at their twenty-yard line and punts are dead where they are first caught or touched by either team.
Further Rules Change: I would also suggest a rules change that would give the offended team a choice of half the distance to the goal line or banking the penalty yards to be used later in the game. There are excessive fully intended unnecessary roughness penalties (notably face mask violations) at the sideline close to the goal line where penalties are only a few yards to make up half the distance to the goal line.
A second rules change: If a major penalty is coincidentally seen on a scoring review, it should be enforced. Now it is not. It’s like seeing a robbery taking place when CCTV is reviewing traffic violations. If it’s a penalty, penalize!