How to Bring Pro Football Into the 21st Century
A hundred years ago, the National Football League curtailed on-field deaths and unnecessary brutality with a game-changing set of rules. It's time to institute some new ones.
On the afternoon of November 25, 1905, a sophomore on the Union College football team named Harold Moore plunged headlong into New York University’s offensive wedge in an effort to “buck the line” and stop NYU’s running back. If Moore wore any protective equipment at all, it was likely a nose guard or a padded hat. Players did wear “wedge belts,” which allowed teammates to hold on to each other and plow forward as a unit.
The football played in 1905 would be nearly unrecognizable today. The distance required for a first down was five yards, making just about every play a “mass” play, in which the entire offense tried to inch forward by any means necessary. Forward passes were illegal. Dropkicks and punches, while considered ungentlemanly, were not. Falling on the ball didn’t stop a play, but rather initiated a prolonged pileup underneath which lawlessness reigned.
As Moore attempted to tackle the ball carrier, his head was hit by the knee of one of his teammates, knocking him unconscious. Though he was seen at Fordham Hospital that afternoon, they had no means of detecting the cerebral hemorrhage he had suffered. Moore died that evening. He was one of an estimated twenty college football players to die that season—and one of three to die that day.
A flurry of emergency meetings took place among college presidents and coaches. President Theodore Roosevelt got involved, gathering football coaches and officials at the White House to discuss “[s]uch modifications of the rules as would eliminate its brutal features,” as The Washington Post reported at the time.
In September of 1906, the new rules were published. They included the forward pass, three plays to achieve a first down, a neutral zone between the offense and the defense at the beginning of each play, and penalties for unnecessary roughness. (Less noted, but equally important, the new rules also recommended “football armor,” including knee pads, and thigh pads “sewn inside the trousers.”) George H. Brooke, Swarthmore’s coach, summarized the new rules thusly: “There will certainly be a great deal more kicking, flukes, passing, tricks, open field running and general hurry scurry.”
Despite opinions like Remington’s, however, the new rules went into effect. The National Football League was founded in 1920, playing the game under those new rules. Today, that “hurry scurry” has made professional football the most popular sport in America for thirty straight years.
The safer game thrived. A century later, many fewer players are dying on the field. But many more, due largely to the effects of repeated concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), are dying—and, it appears, killing—because of it. It is time to once again make significant changes to the way the game is played and the way the league is governed. Just as the game was radically reimagined in the early twentieth century, it needs to be reimagined for the twenty-first.
Here are three changes that would do just that.
Do Away With the Three-Point Stance
In 1994, when Ralph Isernia was coaching at Methodist University in North Carolina, he came to a realization. If he took his lineman out of the traditional three-point stance, in which the player starts in a squatting position with his hand on the ground, it opened up a number of options. For starters, according to Isernia, “[i]n a three point stance, they’re looking [up] through their eyebrows or just seeing feet.” In his version of a two-point stance, which he calls the “attack two-point stance,” his offensive linemen could see where they’d have to make a block and where blitzes were coming from.
Because of the rules of football, the two-point stance confers another advantage. Once a lineman puts his hand to the ground, the rules require that he remain motionless until the ball is snapped and the play begins. Defenses are not required to do this, and thus can alter their positioning at any point. With two-point stances, offensive players are allowed to adjust their distance from each other (their “splits”) so long as they stand still for one second before the play begins—which makes it easier to change plays in response to the defense.
In the two decades since making his discovery, Coach Isernia has developed a reputation as someone who can turn lackluster offenses into scoring machines. Isernia has just completed his second season at RPI. Previously, as the offensive coordinator at Ferrum College, he helped mold two different quarterbacks into conference players of the year. Prior to that, at the University of Charleston, he led an offense that was a league leader in scoring, rushing, and passing efficiency. He compares the three-point stance to a Nolan Ryan fastball—all power—and the two-point stance to a Mariano Rivera cutter—fast but with movement. When his teams began using the two-point stance exclusively (many teams employ it in clear passing situations), people would ask him after games what his philosophy was, and he would outline the advantages as he saw them.
Today, it’s becoming clear that the two-point stance confers perhaps an even more meaningful advantage. In all of the discussions about concussions and CTE, one of the statistics most frequently trotted out by the NFL is that a woman soccer player is two and a half times more likely to suffer what researchers call a “frank” concussion—a concussion caused by a single blow to the head—than a college football player. While this may be true, what this statistic and several others of its ilk conveniently neglect is that frank concussions are only one piece of the larger CTE problem. The most recent science indicates that the accumulation of separate sub-concussive hits is as damaging as a single frank concussion. And the vast majority of those hits take place in the trenches, between offensive and defensive linemen who start in a low stance and fire up and at each other when the ball is snapped. For most linemen, this fierce helmet-to-helmet collision takes place on nearly every play.
However, when linemen begin plays upright, in a two-point stance, they engage each other’s hands, arms, and shoulders first, and helmet-to-helmet contact is often incidental. Watch Coach Isernia’s teams and you see fast, nimble linemen who behave more like running backs, seeking openings in the defense and using speed, positioning, and leverage to open holes. What were once called the trenches become yet another series of finesse positions. Starting from a two-point stance not only reduces helmet-to-helmet contact, but it also values speed and agility over pure mass, both of which make the game safer for those who play it.
Demand Better Helmets
Football fans of a certain age will remember Don Beebe. A wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills in their heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he was an inspiration to five-foot-eleven white kids like me. Beebe was fast and tenacious. He was also a magnet for ferocious hits. After sustaining several concussions, he and teammate Mark Kelso began wearing their helmets with a special covering that was fitted onto the existing helmet, called a ProCap. This technology put padding on the outside of the helmet, giving the helmets a puffy, inflated look (they were frequently referred to as “Gazoo” helmets, after the Flintstones character The Great Gazoo). But the covering also served to dissipate the energy of helmet-to-helmet hits by 30 percent. A small study of the technology, conducted at St. Alban’s High School in Washington, D.C. by George Washington University’s sports medicine department, had half the players wear ProCap coverings and half stick with their traditional helmets. There were no concussions among ProCap users, and six among those who didn’t use it. Kelso never had another concussion after he started to use a ProCap. Other players began using the helmets as well.
This is where NFL helmet politics come into play. The NFL claims to be a helmet democracy, in which players are allowed to choose any helmet they like. In practice, this means that an overwhelming number of them choose helmets made by Riddell, the NFL’s official helmet sponsor. Because Riddell has the imprimatur of the NFL, younger players tend to choose their helmets and stick with them as they rise through the football ranks. And many players admit they choose helmets for aesthetic reasons, assuming safety to be equal among them. But the major flaw with today’s NFL helmets is that their design is a vestige of a time in which skull fractures were a greater concern than concussions.
In 1996, Riddell effectively signed the ProCap’s death warrant, stating that Riddell’s warranty would be negated if their helmets were modified with the use of the ProCap. Riddell maintained that wearers of the ProCap were at a greater risk for neck and spinal injuries, because of the concern that two padded helmets hitting one another would maintain contact long enough to put players in danger of “axial loading,” spinal damage caused by a blow to the top of the head. Despite studies showing that this was not the case, the warning went to youth sports equipment dealers and college customers, and the ProCap all but disappeared. Other helmet innovations met similar fates, as the league, Riddell, and the league’s then-laughable concussion committee disparaged and denigrated these new models.
More recently, as helmet-testing regimes have improved, results show that Riddell is the maker of some of the best and worst models in terms of concussion prevention. Players at all levels need to know which helmets are the best, and the worst, irrespective of brand. For the league to regain credibility with players and make players safer, it should cease to have a helmet sponsor. Taking self-interest out of the equation would allow the league to conduct unbiased helmet safety and impact ratings, and make those ratings available to all players. If one model of helmet proves to be clearly superior in protecting against injury and concussion (as the ProCap might), the league could even mandate use of that helmet.
Would future helmets look different than today’s? Perhaps. Would they even seem silly, by today’s standards? Quite possibly. Would the more flexible helmets that seem to fare better in safety tests diminish the satisfying crack of a big hit? Likely. But could they represent a change that would make the game safer for players at all levels? Without a doubt.
Make Guaranteed Contracts the Norm
In 2012, the New England Patriots signed a tight end named Aaron Hernandez to a five-year, $40 million contract. Hernandez had a troubled history. In 2007, during his first year in college, he was involved in a brawl that required a police response and later that year was questioned in a shooting. Two weeks before signing that $40 million contract, he was involved in a double homicide for which he is now being investigated. After signing the contract, he was involved in another shooting for which he is now being sued. And then in June 2013, he was arrested in the fatal shooting of a man named Odin Lloyd, with whom he was acquainted. Ninety minutes after that arrest, the Patriots released Hernandez, and owed him nothing on the $40 million contract beyond what had already been paid.
NFL contracts aren’t true contracts, at least not by any standard definition of a the word. Players can be cut at any time, for virtually any reason—including injury. Clearly, this is bad for players. But what the NFL needs to realize is that it creates a serious incentive misalignment that is hurting the league and its players. First, it encourages teams to push players to and through injury, rather than investing in their long-term health. Additionally, it allows teams to sign “riskier” players and then jettison them if things don’t go well.
If the Patriots knew they’d be on the hook for the full $40 million no matter what, would they have signed Hernandez? Not without looking more deeply into his background. If a team is going to sign someone with a history of domestic abuse with the knowledge that they’ll have to pay out the full contract, you can bet they’ll make sure that player gets counseling and support. And if a team signs any player to a long-term contract, they’re going to be much more committed to that player’s long-term physical and mental health.
When the Minnesota Vikings announced they would start star running back Adrian Peterson despite his indictment on charges of child abuse, they were acting in their own interest: They wanted their best player on the field. Guaranteed contracts can serve a forcing function to get teams to operate in the league’s interest, by policing their own players, treating or reforming them where necessary, and working to keep them healthy.
Yes, football remains a giant athwart the American professional sporting scene. But there are cracks in the NFL’s vaunted shield. According to Jeetendr Sehdev, a professor at the University of Southern California and the author of Superstar: The Art and Science of Celebrity Branding, the NFL’s brand now performs in the lowest 10 percent of 200 brands across four of the seven most important factors of trust: openness, acceptance, compassion, and consistency. Its appeal is particularly suffering among women and millennials, and youth football participation is down. Significantly, these trends were all apparent even before a season that has brought us a glaring case of domestic violence (which led to the belated publicity of several other cases of domestic violence among league players), one of the league’s biggest stars being suspended for child abuse, and the arrest of more than thirty NFL players on a variety of charges (as of mid-December).
In June 1904, speaking on the subject of “higher ideals” to Harvard’s graduating class, Teddy Roosevelt turned to the topic of injuries in football: “When these injuries are inflicted wantonly, or of set design,” he said, “we are confronted by a question not of damage to one man’s body, but of another man’s character.”
The injuries suffered by today’s NFL are injuries inflicted by set design: an unwillingness on the part of the league to honestly confront the challenges that its own rules, structures, and customs have put in place. But if league officials are willing to embrace changes like the three outlined above, teams of the future won’t have to brag that they were playing the best football when the last football was played, but rather that they were able to help evolve the game to become a permanently sustainable activity.
This post appears courtesy of The Washington Monthly.