One of James’ clients had subscribed to Sports Illustrated but when she died the publication now arrives in our mailbox. It was only because the cover had a photo and cover story which intrigued me that I picked it up and read the article. A portion is posted below. This is a topic that I find interesting when written about in the newspapers, and found the same here which turned out to be a very well-written piece. I was struck, over-all, with the quality of the magazine, both in terms of writing and presentation. The story “Fists of Fury” was also well done–concerning athletes and political protests.
But now to the issue which is just not one for sports fans to ponder–but society as a whole.
The tension between the NFL and bodily preservation goes back decades, to an era when football players were only somewhat bigger, faster and stronger than normal men—before the outsized humans who play the game today, flesh-and-blood cyborgs created by multiple generations of weight and speed training, nutrition and, in some cases, chemical enhancement (not just for success, but also for survival). The more meager size and potency of those old-school athletes was offset by devastating tactics: clothesline tackles, knee-level crackback blocks, head slaps—with a defender smacking a massive mitt against the thin plastic wall of his blocker’s helmet. Imagine the concussions.
Yes, all of these methods were eventually deemed illegal (the head slap wasn’t outlawed until 1977, three years after the retirement of its chief practitioner, Hall of Famer Deacon Jones), but these were obligatory tweaks to obviously barbaric and dangerous practices that only marginally altered the game.
In the late 2000s, such tweaks became insufficient. A confluence of research, outrage and the visceral imagery of strong men being repeatedly rag-dolled and carted off, dazed or unconscious, changed the direction of the sport. Former players were discovered to have been living—and dying—in extraordinary pain. Science came forward with studies showing a connection between head blows and brain damage; fans learned about (and some learned to hate) chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Faced with an existential threat, the NFL, and eventually all levels of football, instituted rules configured to salvage both its players and its business. (Or its business and its players. The priority is up for interpretation.) A new vocabulary was introduced. Receivers became defenseless. Tacklers were described as finding their aiming point. Brutal hits, once such a part of the culture that ESPN devoted a popular weekly segment to them called “Jacked Up,” became taboo, an indulgence that fans embraced like teenagers illicitly vaping in the school parking lot. It was no longer socially acceptable to publicly support the blood lust.
This offseason, the league’s rules committee quietly—at least in comparison to the helmet rule—decreed that officials would more aggressively enforce a “body weight” rider to that age-old roughing-the-passer rule, which was tweaked in a subtle yet substantial manner, with a single word change. The original rider, added in 1995, states: “When tackling a passer during or just after throwing a pass, a defensive player is prohibited from unnecessarily and violently throwing him down and landing on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.” For 2018, the last part reads, “a defensive player is prohibited from unnecessarily and violently throwing him down or landing on top of him with all or most of the defender’s weight.”
The football ecosystem is impossibly complex. Its dangers have never been more apparent, yet it remains the most popular spectator sport in America, by a significant margin. Participation numbers are declining everywhere, even as the keepers of the sport at all levels have made changes to try to stop the bleeding. “It’s going to be crazy what [football] is going to look like,” says Giants safety Curtis Riley, in his fourth year. “Five years from now . . . I don’t know.”
No one knows for sure. But we have a good idea because the NFL’s fiscal plan is thinly veiled. Big hits are bad business. Touchdowns and healthy quarterbacks are good business. The eye of the needle grows smaller, and societal pressure to protect the performers while also protecting the bottom line grows more urgent. This is the new football.