Tuesday, March 01, 2016

The Ivy League Bans Tackling in Football Practice

And now the evolution begins. 

Football faces a choice -- evolve or become extinct.  Clayton Christensen wrote of how companies atop their industries made decisions while going great that contributed to their extinction.  Football is atop the sports world, but years ago so were boxing and horse racing.  The former suffered from corruption and decline from the charisma of the Ali-Frazier and Sugar Ray Leonard Olympics; the latter suffered from the legalization of gambling almost everywhere.  At one time, a horse race was the only place outside Las Vegas where one could place a legal bet.

Football has violence, it has action, it has pageantry and, well, it is an event because there are so few games.  Basketball, ice hockey and baseball are games; football games are events because each game means so much in the standings.  That gives football an advantage -- scarcity in a sports world that suffers from gluts sometimes as pronounced as the current one facing the oil industry.  Just go on your cable network and find how many college basketball games each night -- five, six, eight?  But there are still only very few pro football games on Sundays.  Yes, there are as many college games on a weekend as there are basketball games in a night -- but they are limited for the most part to weekend.

Football eclipsed baseball as the national pastime years ago.  In a very recent post, I wrote how baseball lost its lead -- labor strife, steroids, specialization and the length of games.  I don't know what might eclipse football, but the collateral damage that it creates for the young men playing it is too hard to ignore.  The game is violent, collisions happen, the men are oversized to begin with, and having oversized men bang into each other constantly in practice and in games is not good for their long-term health.  There have been too many reports about orthopedic injuries, neurological injuries and mental health problems for football not to evolve.

It has been said that innovation can come from FCS and DIII schools because their coaches have less to lose than say those at the DI category, FBS or whatever they call it today.  You can see offensive variations, defense schemes, what have you, but the latest innovation from a league comes from the Ivies of all places.  The football there is not all that good, although the money and attention spent on it is rather disproportional to the mission of the average school in the league.   But the problems are the same -- short- and long-term injuries.  And today the Ivies took the brave step of banning tackling in practices

The reason, of course, is to cut down on injuries.  And it's just a start.  Perhaps their scientists are trying to create a bodysuit that combines the breathing of UnderArmour with the resistance of Kevlar and the cushion of an airbag so that any player can take a good hit in a game and have the bodysuit absorb it, as opposed to their bodies, all the while being fast, mobile, what have you.  Or, they'll try to evolve the game using flag football's and fencing's technology, having touches replace tackling.  Which would turn football into a Greco-Roman style of lacrosse, where maneuvering your opponent with upper body wrestling moves will replace tackling.  That still doesn't solve the problem of heads bumping into each other, but there are innovators out there working on better helmets.

Football has been a great game to watch, but it is at a similar crisis point to the one it faced around the turn of the twentieth century when President Teddy Roosevelt compelled reforms because too many players were dying in games or from injuries sustained in games.  Today's crisis is that too many players suffer long-term consequences from the evolution of the game as a hitting game that could end up in a violent, early death. 

The pros and colleges need to examine this innovation carefully (the legendary coach at St. John's College in Minnesota had banned hitting in practice years ago, saying "players have mothers, too.") and figure out how to follow it and innovate the game further.  For if they don't, more and more young men will walk away from the game and find other things to do that will not have them hobbled and forgetful in their thirties, like Antawn Randle-El.

First, hitting in practice.  Second, much better equipment.  Third, hitting in games.  Fourth, a transformed game that will be fun to watch but that won't risk the long-term health of the young men playing it.

Is that too much to ask from the most innovative society on earth?

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