Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Are You Not Entertained?

Once upon a time, Sports Illustrated ran a cover (seen here) that now looks comical in the rear view mirror.

Yeah. Thank God, we as a nation figured out how to "save" the National Football League. I put that, right up next to the Moon Landing on our national resume.

Sarcasm aside, I will admit that okay, sure this was following several years of decreased scoring, league wide. There were a particularly high number of gawd-awful-looking 6-3 games, including the Jets v. Redskins ode to incompetence, a 3-0 assault on the eyeballs on December 12th of that year.

And yeah, the league tweaked up the rules, a new batch of great QBs and teams rose like cream in coffee, and the supposed perils of a "boring" NFL are now nothing more than an archived punchline.

But the American appetite for professional, high impact, neatly packaged, tackle football just keeps growing like a hurricane over warm water.

Prime evidence of this hunger, is the logic defying TV rating garnered by the Pro Bowl last Sunday. Just when the game itself, took a dramatic slip further down the ladder into pitty-pat, grab-ass "football" on the field, the TV rating spiked by almost 35%.

I had figured the Colts objections to players having to be there when they weren't going to play, along with Bryant McKinnie's seemingly impossible trick of getting booted from the roster for missing practice, along with a move away from tradition, was going to signal a death knell for this game.


It is here to stay, more than ever. Because if it's football, and NFL football, then people are going to watch.

It doesn't mean that there won't be contrarians every now and then, who breathlessly opine that deep, deep TROUBLE lies ahead for the league.

Take for example, the very compelling Gregg Easterbrook of's Page 2 and Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

I pulled this little nugget from his column in the aftermath of the Patriots Spygate scandal. (Note: Put down the milk, and finish drinking first.)

Why is the situation worse than people think? Because the NFL is on the precipice of blowing its status as the country's favorite sport. The whole NFL enterprise is in jeopardy from that single word: cheating. It's the most distasteful word in sports. And now the Patriots have brought the word into the NFL.

Think the NFL can't decline? Fifteen years ago, the National Basketball Association was going up, up, up by every measure and was widely considered the gold-plated can't-miss "sport of the next century." Since then, NBA popularity and ratings have plummeted while NBA-based teams have floundered in international competition. At the moment of its maximum success, the NBA became overconfident and arrogant in ways that need not be recounted here. Key point: There was no law of nature that said the NBA had to stay popular, and it did not.

Today the NFL is king of the hill in sports status, ratings, merchandising and association with the American psyche. There is no law of nature that says the NFL has to stay popular. Overconfidence and arrogance could be the downfall of the NFL, too – and we might be on that precipice. People will always watch and play football, of course. But nothing guarantees that the NFL's version of football must remain the super-successful money machine that it is today. There could be autumn Sunday afternoons in the near future in which the overwhelming majority of Americans couldn't care less what NFL games are being shown. Fifteen years ago, sports-marketing types would have said "impossible!" to the notion that only 11 percent of American households would watch the NBA Finals, which is what happened this June.

Plummeting popularity for NFL broadcasts seems "impossible!" right now, but might happen fast enough to make your head swim.

Sorry Greg, there is no precipice, and my head is still bone dry sitting on a beach chair.

It doesn't mean that the NFL in particular, or tackle football in general, doesn't face some daunting issues right now.

One of the big issues, is of course, the undeniable fact that football is not very healthy for you.

At all.

Now this doesn't come as any surprise to many of us, but remember that we are living in an age where there is a push to eliminate anything and everything that could be of harm to us, no matter if the enjoyment from that thing is immense and greatly desired by many.

Today, trans-fats, smoking, helmets for kids on bikes. Tomorrow, tackle football?

I won't go so far as to say the sport faces an actual "ban" in some localities (hell, we've still got boxing, right?) but you just never know where the current road might lead.

Time Magazine has a twin pair of stories devoted to the issue, along with its cover.

In it, you can read about how some coaches and organizations are advocating some pretty radical things to improve player safety. Among the ideas being tossed around...

- Automatic 3 month layoff for every concussion
- Prohibiting running backs from lowering their helmet upon impact
- Eliminate the 3 point stance for all lineman, offense and defense
- Dramatically cut back on all off-season contact work
- Mandating more equipment to lessen the effectiveness of the helmet-as-weapon.

Says Rich McKay of the Falcons: "You start with the premise that nothing is off the table."

Hmmm. Okay.

The key problem I see, is that the NFL's "smash-em-up" factor has gone hyperspace in the last 30 years. Athletes are simply bigger, stronger, faster (ahem, and not all because of wind sprints and skinless chicken... ahem..) and as such the body-to-body explosions are wreaking more havoc.

Yes, equipment has played a part. Yes, the highlight culture has played a part. Yes, poor technique has played a part.

But at its most basic level, the 22 cars on the field are smashing each other to pieces because of the better-and-better-horsepower under their hoods.

So while "nothing" may be off the table, let me throw one little idea out there for everybody to shoot down as idiotic and unworkable, remembering that I only want to somehow "dial back" the product on the field, not change it irreparably.

What about strict weight limits for certain positions?

Unfair? Not really. Lose a few pounds, bubba. Or change position. If you kept lineman under 300, linebackers under 250, and DB's under 225, then you might just keep guys from getting demolished.

You could replicate similar limits on offense, for each position.

There would not only be no need for a wideout to "bulk up" in a sort of muscular arms race with defenders, it would actually be prohibited.

Look, I am of the firm belief that we can't make everything in life perfectly safe, and perfectly consequence free. I hate so much of what is going on right now, it makes me crazy. And I certainly would never want to hurt this great game will love so much.

But part of me does wonder: "What happens, the day that an NFL player gets blown up on a hit, and there's a funeral on Monday."

I hope that day never comes.


  1. Better equipment and more padding is the only solution.

    Weight limits won't work. The fans want to see the best and it will be a PR nightmare if the best aren't allowed to play because they weigh too much. When would the players get weighed? Right before the game? This would cause all sorts of issues. A team thinks player A will be available and then at the last second they discover they can't play. Players will starve themselves during the week and blame poor performance on them being weak. Football players aren't boxers or wrestlers.

    The NFL has always been king and even when the Bulls were on top, the NBA was never as popular as the NFL. This can change. I don't see MLB, NBA or NHL passing the NFL, but maybe in 10 or 20 years something like MMA may be a real threat. I doubt it, but it's possible.

  2. There are ways to affect players weight without a strict weight limit, and better equiptment is far from the only solution. A simple idea is to look north to the CFL and their larger playing fields.
    Think about it, the players have gotten bigger, but the field has remained the same. If you widen the field, you give incentive to speed versus size. Not only does this lessen the likelyhood of injury, but has the added benefit of higher scoring and a more wide open game.

  3. 3 Simple steps to make it less dangerous

    1. Lower horse power - how about do Olympic level drug testing? Better yet do the Passport idea from bike racing. (This is basically scan a guy's vital signs and blood chemistry. If there is a significant unexplained change, your out.) HGH works and can't be detected by current NFL testing measures.

    2. Mandate new helmets and mouth gaurds. These things also work, but you want to be a man and not switch due to peer presure. The League needs to just make a rule. If they can mandate how socks are worn, I think they can pick the helmet.

    3. Suspened players for reckless play. (No fines, it's all tip money to them.) Then track teams and if some team is way over average, it costs them the equivalent of ticket sales for a home game. Make it hurt in the pocket book for both players and teams, and make it hurt on the field with the loss of players. (Note - Suspended players need to be part of the active rooster ... no replacements.)

  4. Player weight doesn't matter as much as speed. The relevant physics equation is F = MA; where F = force, M = mass, and A = acceleration.

    Acceleration is measured in meters per second Squared. This is key.

    Mass only adds to force in a linear fashion. A player's acceleration adds much more to force than adding mass.

    Not sure i'd want to force all players to be really slow. But they would be a lot safer.

  5. Eric,
    You're conclusion is correct, but your physics isn't exactly right.

    Sorry to be such a nerd, but...
    Energy is transferred from the hitter to the hittee. In this case we're talking about kinetic energy. Kinetic energy is 0.5*M*V^2. This is the relevant physics equation. Doubling the mass doubles the energy, but doubling the velocity increases the energy 4x.

  6. Its all going to come to a head - we want to see Gladiators and dangerous situations. Look at what happened in NASCAR - they tried to make it more "mainstream" and not let the cars bumb and grind, ratings went down, now they are back to saying "rubbing is racing". We like to see the tackles and hits, take it away and ratings will go down. Why is America's Funniest Home Video's still one of the more popular shows on TV, not because some idiot has a talking dog - but becaue we want to see dad get nailed in the nads by his kid swinging a golf club. That's Entertainment!

  7. Would that mean that Jamarcus Russell would have retire, immediately? If so, I'm on board...

  8. I'm glad Czabe isn't too chicken to put actual ideas into his articles, rather than being one of these "we gotta fix it" guys who offer no solutions. I actually heard someone on television suggest softer helmets at some point...interesting...sure couldn't use your head as a weapon then.