My friends in other places think we Americans are nuts to love our football — as opposed to soccer. Soccer is too subtle for us, they insist, too slow-moving and intricate.
Americans, they mock, have such short attention spans that we need constant stimulation, big scores and at least a little blood left on the field.
I don’t think they’re completely off-kilter. One could argue that Americans get plenty of refinement from our “national pastime” of baseball, leaving us with a hunger for controlled chaos spiced with mayhem and dominance.
With some minor exceptions, American football has not caught on with the rest of the sports-crazed world, due in part, I think, to the fact that it uniquely reflects our unique national character (well, maybe the same case could be made for NASCAR).
What it means to be an American is certainly evolving as more people from further reaches take a hand in tossing the national salad. However, the traditional portrait of American masculinity is painted with shades of the warrior — football exemplifies the image of soldiers, armed and armored, clashing in battle, getting down and dirty and doing what it takes to win. Football is true American grit.
All might be fair in love and war but apparently not in between, where football resides. When the Patriots’ Brandon Meriweather and others across the league were fined for last week’s helmet-to-helmet hits, most people applauded the NFL’s shamefully slow but eventual acknowledgment of the danger of head injuries and the need to find ways to minimize them, even when the injury is unintended.
However, football is a physical game, more brute than most, a fact that should come as no surprise to anybody – player, fan or critic. And signing that generally lucrative contract implies the awareness that one is prepared to take that risk.
Maybe old soldiers simply fade away but nobody wants to see former (or even current) heroes of the gridiron wobbling into the sunset with early-onset Parkinson’s. Unless you’re in pre-school, games are primarily about winning. When sports are a business, games are absolutely played to win.
Recurring contact is an intrinsic characteristic (and common strategy of tiring out the opposing defense) of American football – over-legislating that aspect would fundamentally change how the game is played. Players, coaches and the league have a fine line to navigate: how to maintain the physicality of the game while making some actions out of bounds.
This won’t be easy since “go out there and smash ’em but … be nice” really won’t suffice. The new rules about when players can return to combat post-concussion, as well as increased penalties for helmet-to-helmet hits, are steps in the direction of minimizing these injuries and their long-term effects.
However, that still puts players in the tough position of having to figure out, in the heat of the moment, when to go full tilt when a major play is on the line, and when to pull their punches – or even, how.
Maybe one answer is for coaches to develop new, lethal (in the football sense) but less damaging techniques. Football will never be injury-free as long as it remains football, but maybe we need to take a page from the soccer playbook and try a little finesse.