America is concerned about the safety of its most popular sport. Public opinion polls show that parents are increasingly squeamish about their children playing football, and that large swathes of the country think that whatever enjoyment comes from the game isn’t worth the damage that it does to players’ brains.
At the same time, football fans are increasingly frustrated by what they see as the NFL watering down the sport they love. That’s been easy to see this week, after the NFL passed its new rule banning lowering the head to initiate contact with the helmet. On social media, fans are outraged that the league would make what it calls a “significant” change to the sport. Even NFL players, the very people whose brains the NFL is trying to protect with this new rule, have largely reacted negatively.
That points to what may be the biggest conflict facing the NFL right now: Is it even possible to make football safer while still remaining the sport of football that America knows and loves?
There’s a reason that NFL Films used to produce videos with titles like “Crunch Course,” celebrating the most brutal hits on the field. There’s a reason ESPN used to do a “Jacked Up!” segment showing players getting knocked senseless. That reason is that a lot of fans love those hits. The NFL stopped celebrating hits like that because the league thought it would be harder to defend against concussion litigation while simultaneously celebrating the violence on the field, not because there wasn’t a market for those videos.
Perhaps the leadership on making football safer needs to come from the bottom, not the top. Maybe rules changes like this new rule against lowering the head need to start at the Pop Warner level, then filter up to high school and college and only reach the NFL when all of the league’s players grew up playing football that way — and when the fans show they’re ready for it.
The situation with football is not unlike martial arts. When you sign your kids up for martial arts, you want them going to a karate school where they learn the techniques without ever getting hit in the face. But when you watch martial arts on TV, you want a UFC fight where two jacked dudes throw haymakers at each other until one of them gets knocked out.
If the NFL isn’t careful, this new rule against lowering the head could be the perfect marketing ploy for a rival league, such as the Alliance of American Football, which plans to begin play in 2019, or the second coming of the XFL, which plans to start in 2020. A rival league could say that it still plays football the way football was meant to be played, while the NFL has fundamentally changed the game.
A fundamental change to the game is something millions of Americans want to see at the youth level — and millions of Americans don’t want to see at the professional level.