Monday, October 19, 2009

On the Evolution of Football

I've said this before, but it bears repeating: I love football, and I don't imagine my opinion will change anytime soon. And yet I also know--and I've known for quite some time--that every time I watch a football game, I am essentially throwing my wholehearted support behind an act of barbarism. Football is brutal, and football tears men to pieces, and that is one reason why we love it, and I could get onto some extended meditation about the marginalization of masculinity in modern society and how it relates to the selection of the All-Madden squad, but I won't, because that's not my point. My point is that it's never been more confusing to be a football fan, and if you're not convinced, take a few minutes to read Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker piece about the parallels between football and dogfighting; even if you don't buy completely into his thesis, it would be delusional to admit that he doesn't have a pretty solid point here.

Gladwell summarizes what you already know, if you've read pretty much any publication in America these past few years: That all those posthumous studies are essentially proving what we all suspected--football actually destroys your brain. So how are we supposed to get around that? We can build a better helmet, but we're still dealing with collisions that occur with the force of a three-car collision on the Schuykill Expressway.* We can ban tackling altogether, which probably makes the most sense intellectually, but would essentially neuter the game and trigger the emotional destruction of millions of Americans like me. So somehow we have to find a middle ground; somehow, we have to find a way to allow the game itself to subtly evolve to the point where the intricate strategies and formations and techniques of the game itself come to overshadow the brute violence. Somehow we have to find a way to make violence a secondary element of football. That's not an easy thing to do, but you could argue that it's already happening: Look at the NFL in the 1960's compared with the NFL today. A couple of years ago, I interviewed Conrad Dobler, the "dirtiest player in the league" in the 1970's, an offensive lineman for the Cardinals who engaged in unspeakable acts of violence in the name of self-preservation. Many of Dobler's tactics are now blatantly illegal, and so the game itself has cleaned up; the problem is that the players themselves have evolved, too, so that they are bigger and stronger and faster than they've ever been.**

So that's where we find ourselves. I think football is at a true crossroads. We're faced with a moment when the game itself seems to be embracing its own evolution, stretching out to the edges of the field, to three- and four-receiver sets, to the Wildcat, to a game of finesse and strategy. And I think those who oversee it are trying to encourage it in that direction, and it's not always going to seem very smooth. We are in an adjustment period. I have no scientific proof here, but I think I've seen more questionable pass interference calls this year than I've ever seen before; I presume that's partly because teams are throwing more than they ever have, but also because we're trying to facilitate evolution by streamlining the physicality, by eliminating any unnecessary contact, by muting the brutality. And yes, it does seem that any marginally late hit, or any blow anywhere near the vicinity of a player's head evokes a personal foul call; this, too, seems extreme (and occasionally ridiculous) within the moment, and will no doubt evoke accusations that game is already neutering itself--and Arkansas fans have a legitimate argument on both these counts during Saturday's loss to Florida--but maybe this is just how it has to be. It seems like a short-term annoyance, but it is a long-term necessity. For football to survive, it has to evolve.

*Which is, unquestionably, the most frightening highway on which I've ever traveled. I remember all the locals I knew used to call it the "Surekill Expressway," yet another example of the inherent coarseness of Philadelphians.
**In my new book (available for pre-order today!), I write a section about William "Refrigerator" Perry, who was, in his time, considered a shining example of American gluttony. The Fridge, of course, weighed approximately 300 pounds; this weekend, during Penn State's game against Minnesota, I learned of Jeff Wills, an offensive tackle for the Gophers, who is 6-feet, 7 inches tall, and weighs 365 pounds. In other words, there are no longer appliances large enough to serve as appropriate nicknames.

(Photo: Bill Frakes/SI/Getty)

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