3 Ways to Save Football

With more evidence that the game is prematurely killing players, it's time for football to evolve.

In a 1905 article in McClure’s Magazine, investigative reporter Henry Beach Needham, wrote a sensational article detailing the excesses of college athletics. Among them were a win-at-all-costs attitude, payments made to players, institutional profiteering and a cavalier attitude toward rules that resulted in the serious injury and sometimes death of its participants.

Within the article, Needham recounted a conversation between two Phillips Andover alumni, one of whom who played football at Princeton, and the other at Harvard. The Harvard man, an African-American, was angry at his fellow Andover grad because a Dartmouth player, also an African-American, had suffered a broken collarbone against the Tigers. Needham recounted the conversation (as printed in John Sayle Watterson’s College Football: History, Spectacle, Controversy):

Harvard Man: At Andover, you used to say that race or color does not count; it is the stuff in the man.

Princeton Man: I stand by that now.

HM: No, you don’t, Princeton doesn’t believe it, and I’m afraid you have absorbed Princeton ideas. You put him out because he is a black man.

PM: We didn’t put him out because he is a black man. We’re coached to pick out the most dangerous man on the opposing side and put him out in the first five minutes of the game.

It’s unlikely the Princeton player who sidelined his Dartmouth rival received a Saints-style bounty payment for the hit, but the exchange has eerie parallels to today’s football climate. Then, as now, there was a problem with the brutality of football. In 1905, the Chicago Tribune reported 18 deaths and 159 serious gridiron injuries for the year, most caused by punches, heals of the hand applied violently to the head and other deliberate attempts to maim that might have made even New Orleans coaches cringe.

Today, as we all know, the sport is suffering from the long-term menace of early-onset dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy brought about by concussive blows to the head. And, just as there were those shouting in the early 1900s for the abolition of football, so too today there are people calling for its eradication. Instead of succumbing to those who wish football’s end, we must follow the example of the men who came together in 1905 and ’06 to reform the game. If NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and team owners are willing to show the fortitude necessary to create a safer environment for players, football can thrive for another 100 years, just as it has in the century after the last radical reforms.

Then, the elimination of mass-momentum plays (particularly the flying wedge and V-trick), the legalization of the forward pass, the creation of a neutral zone between rival lines and the increase of yards necessary for a first down from five to 10 yards were key measures that made football safer. And they were pretty radical. Before 1906, there was no passing in the game. Teams moved up and down the field in tightly packed phalanxes that forced defenders to launch themselves at the bundle of humanity, in the hopes of cracking its armor.

The changes implemented were radical but necessary. And if the NFL wants to protect itself against a future in which advertisers and sponsors flee, rather than become accessories to the early deaths of a multitude of retired players, it will undertake some extreme measures, just as its predecessors did at the beginning of the 20th century.

The first is to outlaw any hits to the head or by the head. Zero. No tackler may lead with his head. No blocker may initiate contact with a defender with his head. Anybody who hits someone in the head is automatically penalized 15 yards. Two hits bring ejection. Repeat offenders will be suspended. Granted, the first several weeks of a season with this rule will be flag-filled frustration fests. And, then, the players will adjust, and the game will go on.

Second, expand the playing field. Football has been played on the same 100-by-53 1/3-yard field for more than 100 years. During that time, players have become bigger, faster and stronger. The opportunity for brain-rattling collisions increases almost every year. It’s a matter of physics so simple even a sportswriter can understand it. Don’t whine about the record books. If you want the game to continue, there must be some sacrifice.

Finally, get rid of kickoffs. Every team starts on the 25-yard line. Or the 30. It doesn’t matter. With the wider, longer field, teams will have more opportunity to thrive offensively, making up for the statistical evidence that indicates offenses that start that far way from the enemy goal line have more trouble scoring.

Now, there are those who will decry these measures, stating that the masculinity will be stripped from the sport, arguing that players know–perhaps more than ever–that the game they choose to play is dangerous and believing (not entirely falsely) that over-diagnosis of concussions creates hysteria. These are not points without merit, but they are overwhelmed by the growing evidence that football is becoming ever more dangerous, and something must be done before the game consumes itself. I would recommend those who consider any changes as unfaithful to the game read the 2009 New Yorker magazine article by Malcolm Gladwell that outlines just how dangerous football is to the cranium.

This is not a call for football’s end, rather a hope that the game can be saved. In closing, I quote then-U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1907 speech at the Harvard Union. At the time, there was a growing outcry against college football’s existence. (There was no organized pro ball then.) Roosevelt, a man of action who favored activities that strengthened America’s intellectual and physical fabric, spoke out in favor of the sport. But he did understand that the game’s violent immoderation had to be quelled.

“If necessary, let the college authorities interfere or stop any excess or perversion, making their interference as little officious as possible, and yet as rigorous as is necessary to achieve the end. But there is no justification for stopping a thoroughly manly sport because it is sometimes abused.”

Roosevelt was right. Reform saved football at the beginning of the last century, and reform can preserve it today.


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