Saving America's Sport

Football can be saved by borrowing the trauma-reduction practices of combat sports.

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  • Today I’m stepping a bit outside our traditional topics to look at how football can save itself and its players by borrowing from combat sports.


The reason baseball exists is because, in the 19th century, Protestantism was the only other entertainment option. Whatever use it served then, it doesn’t match the interest of modern culture. The games are too long, there are 32 teams playing 162 games each, and any activity where players need the ongoing threat of mouth cancer to stay engaged can’t really be called a “sport.” 

9 of the Most Significant Items in Baseball's Early History | Mental Floss
It’s 1868. You’ve spent all week breaking your back building a railroad. The guy next to your keeps saying ‘the South was just asking questions.’ You’re 8 hours into a game that’s only in the 4th inning. This is the high point of your life.

Football, on the other hand, is awesome. It’s fast, fun, and if it can evolve to survive the physical and reputational harms of chronic brain damage, we’ll soon bestow it its rightful place as America’s Sport. 

(That’s right folks, it’s a sports-ball article! Don’t worry, next week I’ll be back to nerdy politics talk.)

A Rough Year

2005 saw three morbid developments:

1. YouTube, 

2. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, 

3. Conclusive evidence linking football and the degenerative brain disease known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. 

While it’s hard to say which of the three is the most disturbing, only #3 shook the foundation of one of America’s most hallowed institutions.

Ever since Dr. Bennet Omalu published his findings on contact sports and chronic brain injuries, football was under attack. While fans still watched with glee, the questions of “will you let your kid play football?” circled the country. Many parents, some of who’ve had decorated football careers themselves, answered a resolute “No.” As a result, youth participation in football has matched the brain function of a retired linebacker — it’s been on a decade-long decline.

Seeing a cherished sport fade into obscurity would be disappointing, but this conversation can’t be had without consideration of the men and boys who literally LOSE THEIR MINDS pushing themselves to the limit. CTE has been found in players who still can’t buy beer, and as someone who had to move back in with his parents after a debilitating head injury, I can attest to how we should be doing everything we can to reduce head trauma  — tradition be damned.

Nothing New

To save football (and, you know, lives), the sport must learn from it’s pugilistic counterparts. Ever since the first cavemen raised fisticuffs to escape boredom, recreational combatants have known that getting hit in the head is very bad. While Dr. Omalu’s study shook football fandom, fight aficionados responded with a collective: “Yea, no shit.”

While “CTE” is only a decade old, dementia pugilistica (“punch drunk” in the colloquial term) was a documented medical phenomenon over a century ago. And even then the medical world was lagging behind what combat sports already knew.

Spanning centuries and civilizations, from the boxers of Ancient Greece to the MMA fighters of Las Vegas, a historic culture of smart training to mitigate damage has helped generations of hand-to-hand combatants preserve as much of their mentality as possible. And while some fighters don’t subscribe to this practice, it’s certainly saved many combatants from leaving their last whits in the ring. A few examples are:

  • Reduced hard sparring, often none unless a fighter is “in camp.” The Muay Thai fighters of Thailand, who fight every week, employ a soft-touch sparring practice that looks more like play than fight.

  • Brutal fights = time off. Manny Pacquiao’s legendary trainer Freddie Roach didn’t allow Pacquiao to spar for a full year after he was KO’ed.

  • If fighters do spar, they spar in their weight class. Napoleon syndrome drives atomweights to prove their grit in gym wars with heavyweights. Fortunately, many trainers have implemented hard rules about who can spar who, sparing fighters unnecessary damage.

Alongside this culture, competition rules have stayed flexible and adjusted to keep fighters as healthy as possible: 

  • Boxing and MMA prohibit punches to the back of the head, where the skull tapers down and the brain is especially exposed.

  • State-run commissions and referees act in the interest of fighter safety, not for TV ratings or business profits. Unlike the NFL, UFC referees aren’t employed by the promotion, freeing them from the promotion’s undue influence.

  • While the UFC’s early days had fighters fighting back-to-back in a one-night tournament, that format has been sunset for one-bout matchups. Similarly, post-fight medical suspensions are doled out by governing bodies, preventing fighters from competing faster than their brains can heal.

Evolution

While football can’t copy-and-paste the rules of modern boxing and MMA, it can follow their lead by shifting its mindset and remaining open to adjusting the rules 

  • More bye weeks will give players time to heal and identify concussions, which sometimes aren’t felt until days after impact. It’ll also lengthen the season, increasing merchandise sales and viewership of the NFL commentariat. 

  • Banning the three-point stance will eliminate the lifelong head-to-head clashing of lineman in favor of more dynamic line play that rewards technique and skill. Given the increasingly mobile modern offensive, ala Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson, many O-linemen are already starting upright, so a codified rule change wouldn’t be a far departure.

  • Start with the ball on the 20-yard line. 90% of kickoffs are touchbacks, and the other 10% are a collection of car crash-level impacts that usually end with the ball no more than 5 yards from where it would’ve been placed had the returner taken a knee. Given the high physical toll of special teams, I don’t see the point.

  • Think of practicing like sparring. There’s no need to go full-contact all week long. Thankfully, football players’ unions are curtailing violent practices, but it’d be even more effective if football’s old school culture was replaced with a more thoughtful, brain-over-brawn ideology.

Despite the lamenting of the old guard, structural changes are not novel to football. You used to not be able to pass forward, only white people could play, and the goal post was in the middle of the fucking field. 

Given the sport is no stranger to excessive rules on formations, motions, and taunting, it’s a no-brainer to make simple changes to prevent players from having no brain. Even better, combat sports have a ready-made blueprint on how football can do it.

Do you think football can adapt to save itself and its players? Let me know in the comments!

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Next week it’s back to serious stuff as we look at the Superman Fallacy of American foreign policy.