Sunday, October 24, 2010

Football Is Cruelty, You Cannot Refine It

The NFL Network is running a series in which it selects the 100 best players in NFL history. It's a terrific program for football fans, and the series is getting up to the top of the top, the real immortals.

Checking in at number 30, and he could have been higher was 50s and 60s defensive back Night Train Lane, by common consent history's best DB. His segment started, naturally, with some grainy old black and white football film. In it, Lane goes full speed into a defenseless receiver coming across the middle and delivers a head, shoulder and bicep blow to the guy's head and neck. The receiver drops to the ground a limp sack of flesh.

Every segment has the player discussed by a presented, a talking head who extols the immortal's virtues (for Tom Brady, number 21, it was Derek Jeter, which at least I thought was pretty funny). For Lane, it was former coach Jerry Glanville. Glanville saw Lane as a pioneer of the sport.

"He was the first guy to realize you could tackle a man with his face mask," said Glanville, accompanied by film showing Lane doing just that. "So they passed a rule against it."

"He invented the necktie tackle," Glanville continued, again accompanied by a film of Lane committing another war crime. "So they passed a rule against that."

The segment then went on to show Lane demolishing runners with extreme prejudice and making some of his 68 career interceptions. There were never any receivers near him in the film clips. Wonder why.

All of this mayhem was presented in a wholly approving manner. And really, it should have been. Night Train Lane was a great defensive player because he was very good at hurting offensive players. That's what defense is. You get to hit first. It's your one advantage over the offense. Take that away, and NFL games would have higher scores than NBA games.

This little television segment, which took maybe three-four minutes, made several points very clear about the current controversy over dangerous collisions and undue violence in pro football. One is that, hard as is this may be to believe, the NFL is LESS dangerous and violent than it once was -- very much so. Over the last 50 years, the league has, fitfully and not always intelligently, made the sport cleaner than it once was. It LOOKS dirtier because we see more. There are a dozen TV cameras and endless replays to show us the sport as it truly is. Back in Night Train's day, there was a camera at the 50 yard line (not to mention one less official to watch for rules violations). It followed the ball. Off the ball was never shown.

I believe, although I cannot prove, that football is marginally less dangerous than it once was, too, for basically the same reason. We believe more players are getting hurt because we KNOW more, infinitely more, about sports medicine and the damage done to the body, and notably to the brain, by what football does to the human body. In my youth in '60s, I don't believe I ever heard the word "concussion" on a football broadcast. Guys who were knocked cold were revived and sent back out to battle.

Apocryphal story I heard decades ago: Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle is sacked hard and gets up woozy. Over on the bench, the team doctor asks him a few questions.

"Y.A., who am I?"

Tittle correctly answers.

"What day is it?"

"Sunday." Another right answer.

"Where are we?"

"Pittsburgh," Tittle answers.

"Well, it's Cleveland, but that's close enough. We need you back in there."

I don't think anyone wants to go back to medicine of that caliber. I don't think anyone, fans included, wants the NFL to go back to the carefree chaos in which Lane flourished. Fans want it both ways, as people always do. We want to see big collisions in which no gets hurt in any permanent way. Fans accept the reality that playing football is a cinch ticket to major health problems in later life, but we don't see the players' later lives, so it's easy to wipe out that reality from our minds.

(I have seen a lot of football players my age and older. It's a sobering vision. They almost all have this peculiar rolling gait, an exaggerated version of the sailor's uncertain steps on dry land after a voyage around Cape Horn in a small vessel. The gait says there's a lot of plastic replacement parts in the knees and hips of the legs of the man who's walking).

So, on balance, it's a good thing the NFL is once again trying to take more fitful steps towards greater safety. The principles are simple enough. Don't hit a man who can't defend himself. Don't anyone in the head. These principles are very difficult to encode in formal rules, and the increasing speed of the collisions of NFL action mean they won't eliminate catastrophic hits. But if enforced, they will lead to another incremental reduction in the sport's danger level.

I have a suggestion for another rule, or rather, the removal of some rules, that I believe would also lead to an incremental reduction in catastrophic hits. The idea came when watching the Night Train Lane tribute. Glanville also credited Lane with inventing bump-and-run coverage. Nobody uses that anymore, because it's a sure invitation to a penalty.

For over 30 years, the NFL has tweaked its rules to limit contact between defenders and receivers on pass plays before and when the ball is in the air. I submit that this is a direct cause of the catastrophic, concussion-causing collisions that got the league's knickers in a twist last week. It's the law of unintended consequences in action. If it becomes more difficult to prevent a receiver from catching the ball, defenders are naturally going to focus on separating that receiver from the ball the moment he touches it -- by hitting him with maximum force at the exact instant the receiver is most defenseless.

If defenders were allowed to do a little more manhandling of receivers down the field before catches, scoring would go down. I think concussions would go down as well. Getting grabbed and pushed is annoying. It's not quite so dangerous as a 30 mph helmet-helmet collision.

But my proposal would also only amount to an incremental improvement in player safety. That's the only kind of improvement there can ever be. The nature of football can't be changed by its rules, anymore than the nature of war can be changed by smart bombs. The sport is built on people hitting people as hard as they can. As a wise man once said, "the only defense a football player has is hitting back." The players must, for their own safety, show reckless disregard for the very idea of personal safety. That contradiction is at the heart of football's violence, its danger, indeed, at the heart of the sport itself.

Maximum effort at all times by all players insures that players will get hurt and insures that many players will be walking with that sailor's gait by the time they're 60 -- or maybe 45. But without maximum effort, football is a farce.

I love football. I loved playing (got cold-cocked once, too), I loved covering it, I love watching it. I don't the love the contradiction at the sport's core. Who could? All I can do is keep on loving football and hope that incremental progress someday leads to old football players walking like the rest of us.


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