In theory, football is a great game, which is why millions play it and millions more watch it obsessively. Americans are so devoted to the game that they watch it almost every night of the week, and accept public funding for stadiums and tax-free status for professional football teams; they cheer when the local university makes the coach the highest paid public employee in the state.
Americans love football, but it has one glaring flaw: The human body wasn’t meant to play the game. It’s football’s one big defect (OK, two, if you count Roger Goodell and three if you count the NCAA and four if you count the Cleveland Browns). This defect was obvious more than 100 years ago, but the game played on anyway.
Knees are built for forward — not lateral — movement. Brains are not meant to be sloshed around inside the skull like eggs in a shell. Shoulders are not meant to have 350-pound linemen push them into the ground.
Cartilage, ligaments, tendons and joints come with a lifetime limited warranty of about 75 years, tops. Football pretty much voids the deal.
Rule No. 1 in football: Players get hurt. Lots of them. It’s not if, it’s when. Rule No. 2: All the usual protections — helmets, pads, rules, fines — do little to change Rule No. 1. Come to think of it, if you have to encase your head in a hard plastic shell, and then wrap the rest of your body in pads and tape to play a game, that’s probably your first indication it’s a bad idea.
“None of the body was designed to play football,” Joe Namath once told CBS.
Last spring, Doug Whaley, the general manager of the Buffalo Bills, made an admission that was obvious but largely unstated by football people: "This is the game of football," Whaley told WGR 550 radio. "Injuries are part of it. It's a violent game that I personally don't think humans are supposed to play."
Humans aren’t built for the game. They are built to do a lot other things, such as sit in a chair, watch TV, watch others play football, surf the internet, read, play board games, walk/run straight ahead (to make a plane flight). Here’s a checklist of things you can and cannot do with your head:
• Think — yes.
• Rest it on a pillow — yes
• Use as a hat rack — yes
• Use it for a battering ram — no.
The human neck bears a lot the trauma to the head, and yet everyone knows necks are made for other things, such as holding a Hermes tie in place.
The NFL has a vested interest in protecting its No. 1 commodity — players — but drastic rule changes have had little effect, except to create a lot of confusion and frustration.
They outlawed head hits, but a study reveals the concussion rate is unchanged and, meanwhile, lower-body injuries are on the rise. Quarterbacks — the most valuable position in the game — have the shelf life of bananas. Cam Newton (Panthers), Teddy Bridgewater (Vikings), Tony Romo (Cowboys), Trevor Siemian (Broncos), Alex Smith (Chiefs), Ben Roethlisberger (Steelers), Tyrod Taylor (Buffalo), Jim Garoppolo (Patriots), Carson Palmer (Cardinals), Brian Hoyer (Bears), Jay Cutler (Bears) — they’ve all missed games because of injuries. The Browns had four injured starting quarterbacks the first five weeks of the season.
Last winter the NFL released an injury report for the 2015 season; it included 271 concussions, 56 ACL injuries and 170 MCL injuries — all increases.
The game is prone to injuries at every level. The University of Utah’s 11th-ranked football team has lost five starters for the season to injuries — and 17 starters have missed at least one game. BYU’s Jamaal Williams was headed for a historic season, but has missed two games because of an ankle injury.
Football injuries are the topic du jour in the sports world, but they were at the outset of the last century, too. According to the Washington Post, at least 45 football players died from injuries from 1900 through 2005. John Miller, author of “The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football,” recalled that era in an interview with the Post, saying, “There’s this social and political movement that rises up to outlaw the sport … They equate football with homicide and think it has no place in civilized society and they just want to get rid of it.”
In 1905, President Roosevelt called for a meeting of coaches in Washington, which ultimately led to reform — among other things, the forward pass was allowed as a way to spread out a game that had been mired in brutal scrums that resulted from a run-only game.
One hundred and eleven years later, the nation is again trying to fix the game that it loves but that the human body was never meant to play.