Fixing football

This is a repost of an article that originally appeared at The Paltry Sapien on 10 August 2012.

American football. Not proper football. We already fixed that once. We call it rugby.

Speaking of which, we were at a dinner party when the subject of my rugby career was brought up (not by me). A discussion about surviving a full contact sport without padding (don’t hit with your head and hit with forces below the physiological limits of the human body) transitioned into a discussion of how to reduce debilitating injuries in American football.

In the presence of a rugger, people like to suggest getting rid of the helmets and pads. It is the pads that allow American football to be so violent1. You could reduce the violence and, therefore, the injuries by getting rid of pads; but that’s not going to happen. American football is a violent sport. The fans like the violence. The players like the violence.

And, helmets and pads are necessary for the single most important element of modern American football: the forward pass.

Whatever it once was, American football is now all about the forward pass. Sending receivers “over the middle” is the lifeblood of modern, prolific NFL offenses that are the lifeblood of the NFL. Going “over the middle” means running through the middle of the defense while focusing on catching a pass in front of freakishly athletic linebackers and safeties, rather than focusing on taking a hit from those freakishly athletic linebackers and safeties. Receivers focusing on catching a pass in the middle of the defense are vulnerable to big hits by linebackers and safeties. I’ve delivered those hits both with and without pads. While there is a limit to how hard you can hit another human being without injuring yourself without pads, that limit is very high when the other human being is a defenseless wide receiver focused on catching a pass. As the supply of NFL-caliber receivers is very finite, it is neither ethical nor practical to regularly send receivers over the middle without protective padding, especially helmets2.

You could get rid of the pads. You could also reduce the revenue, the fame, and the excitement. I don’t think the owners, players, or fans are interested in that kind of solution. Owners want to keep making money. Fans want to keep watching exciting football and, I suspect, not have to feel guilty about enjoying the damage the players take. Players suffer a tremendous amount of physical punishment for our entertainment and the NFL’s profit. In return, they want compensated for the long term consequences of those injuries.

Here is my solution:

1. NFL substantially subsidizes lifetime, high-quality medical insurance for anyone who plays in a threshold number of NFL regular season or playoff games. This is a large, long-term, financial commitment to the health of NFL players.

2. Prior to the NFL draft, pre-season training camp, and a player’s return after a concussion3 (see #3), NFL doctors will determine the medical eligibility of a player. Essentially, this has the NFL set the list of players that are available for teams to employ. The NFL has an economic incentive to declare players at risk of long-term issues from repetitive injuries (especially concussions) ineligible.

3. A concussion diagnosis will be made by an NFL employed physician with appropriate expertise, who will be present on the sideline of all games. The doctor has final say on whether a player needs to be examined for a concussion and if they are able to return to play.

4. Allow players to be placed on injured reserve for only portions of the season. Currently, players on injured reserve are out for the rest of the season. This will allow injured, but not devastatingly so, players to get necessary rest and recovery while their team is able to add a back-up player to the roster. Current personnel rules encourage players to play before injuries are fully recovered.

5. Mandate a maximum amount of padding for all positions that is line with the relatively light padding currently worn by wide receivers and corner backs.

The strength of this plan is that it uses the financial incentives of players and owners to reduce the risk of repetitive injury. It also means that successful college coaches will have to protect the medical eligibility of star players. College coaches that have a bad injury reputation will be at a recruiting disadvantage. If we are very lucky, football techniques will be modified at the college and professional level to make play safer (eg, less stupid tackling methods), which will work their way down to high school and youth programs.

I can see some possibility for abuse of “medical eligibility” as leverage in contract renegotiation, but my intuition is that savvy agents will be able to deal with this via contract clauses. I can’t see any other glaring weaknesses in this plan, because it is, well, my plan.

Now, tell me why it won’t work.

1. During my time playing rugby in Bath, my teammates asked whether football or rugby was a tougher sport. My answer was that rugby was “tougher”, but football was more “violent”.
2. Quarterbacks also have a strong argument for protective gear. Don’t let anyone tell you there aren’t any monsters in the world. There are. They play defensive end in the NFL.
3. I’ve left off mandating medical eligibility review after a player comes off the injured reserve listing (or other injury designation) to avoid giving teams an incentive to not report injuries or play injured players in order to keep players medically eligible.

Author: Josh Witten

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