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Violence is not what’s special about football

Getty / Graphics by Tyson Whiting

Football is not defined by violence.

Look at this gorgeous throw-and-catch, which ends in little more than a shove to the ground:

Of course, this happened elsewhere on that play:

The play is both beautiful and disturbing, making it an extreme example of just about any play in football.

Every football play involves violence.

But the same is true for one-on-one combat sports and other team sports. Are those football? That means violence alone can’t be what makes football unique, no matter how much we’re told that the screaming soul of the game is being ripped from its body whenever a league edits a rulebook so that players get hurt less.

Football is unique among major team sports not because of its violence — hockey and rugby are violent, basketball is a contact sport, and baseball players can get rocked in the eye socket by a 101-mph weapon — but because of its specialization. Most football players focus on distinct groups of football skills.

SB Nation Illustration

In contrast, almost every player in almost every other major team sport has to be at least competent at almost everything.

  • In soccer and hockey, almost everyone can do every job — passing, defending, shooting, and so forth — at some point in each game. Goalies usually don’t shoot, but they do pass.
  • Lacrosse players are a little more restricted, but ideally, everyone does at least a little attacking and defending.
  • In baseball, most players bat, run, and field. Pitchers and catchers have unique duties, but they usually do normal player stuff, too. Traffic stops when Bartolo Colon is at the plate.
  • In basketball, every player is tasked with the same basic duties, though they approach certain skills differently.
  • The same often goes for rugby, the sport that most directly influenced football.

Imagine if 346-pound defensive tackle Dontari Poe, whose primary job is caving in a wall of dense flesh, had to also be capable of throwing and running the ball. OK, he’s a bad example because he can do that, but he’s also a good example because of how big a deal it is that he can. We’re stunned whenever a football player does something outside the bounds of his position (SB Nation even hands out a trophy for it) because everyone on the field works in wildly different offices.

Football isn’t a sport. It’s a series of interlocking sports, all happening at the same time.

  • In the middle of each play, nine or so large people have an MMA chess ballet. Some linemen might outweigh the smallest players on the field by 150 pounds; only basketball has such drastic size differences. Nothing the big dudes are doing looks anything like what the quarterback is doing at the same time. An organized brawl between two groups of linemen is an entire sport all by itself. If you don’t believe me, watch players cheer their teammates through line drills.
  • Out wide, the two fastest athletes race through an invisible obstacle course. They both want the ball, but only one knows where it’s supposed to appear. Four more of these races might be going on at the same time, making the WRs-vs.-DBs battle look like dueling geometry problems. Take away line play, and what’s left is something like a seven-on-seven game. We know seven-on-seven is a sport because seven-on teams all across the country play each other in seven-on tournaments.
  • The quarterback plays a related sport. We know it’s a sport because coaches call it “the passing game,” sometimes breaking that down into “the deep game” or “the quick game.” No other player on the field has to pass, hand off, or scramble, and no other player on offense is tasked with calling and modifying the play. The best thrower on the field also has to be the best leader and communicator, and he has to do all this while eight to 16 people battle over the rights to his physical safety. The quarterback’s job is some combination of fighter pilot squad leader, martial artist, and YouTube trick-shot video creator.
  • Running backs do a little of everything, including take part in “the run game,” as do linebackers. So let’s say these players can sometimes only guess which sport they’ll be playing from down to down, just like in Mario Party or The Price Is Right, both of which are sports.
  • Kickers and punters have one job each. Specialists sometimes have to be emergency defenders, and a kicker who can throw is a valuable weapon once a year or so, but those skills aren’t integral. In Morten Andersen’s 25 NFL seasons, the Hall of Fame kicker had two tackles and zero carries, catches, or passes. He’s rich because he swung his leg correctly forever.
  • Kick coverage is a sport. Kick returns are a sport. Coaches, again: “We’ve got to improve in the kick game and the punt game.”
  • Long snapping is a sport. If you can make trick shot videos while doing an athletic activity, you’re doing a sport.

Imagine how ridiculous other sports would look if they were as specialized as football.

You can break basketball up into a bunch of events — from a free throw contest, to a ball-handling contest, to a dunk contest — but every player on the floor has to know how to dribble, pass, defend, and shoot.

A football version of basketball would require designated rebounders who do nothing but step on the floor, fight for the board, and then leave as soon as someone has the ball. Dennis Rodman was the greatest football-basketball player of all time.

In the football version of baseball, every baserunner would be replaced by a series of pinch runners, each lined up next to guys who’d spent every day practicing to be decoy pinch runners.

In football-volleyball, once the ball has been set, only a player within 50 inches of the second neutral zone could spike it, but only after declaring ultimate eligibility to the apprentice judge’s apprentice during the pre-haggling period (if not: personal foul), unless more than two minutes remain on the secondary clock, in which case: see Sub-Appendix 3-R. (One other thing about football is that it has the most complicated rules, but that’s because everyone’s doing different jobs. Gotta have a whole damn OSHA catalog for all this.)

But you know what? This complexity and specialization works in football. It’s the most beautiful part of the game.

Football’s complexity has been in conflict with its violence since the beginning.

Walter Camp, the Yale legend who popularized so much of what we think of when we think about football — he helped invent the line of scrimmage, the gridiron, scrimmages, play calls, game film, the center-QB snap, the All-America team, and making money for institutions off of amateurs — fought simultaneously to evolve the game and keep it primal.

In the early 1880s, rules allowed players to hit un-helmeted opponents with closed fists three times. In 1892, the introduction of the "flying wedge" — in which an entire line smashed into just one defensive player — so appalled critics that Camp, as chairman of the rules committee, was forced to outlaw it.

He then headed a blue-ribbon commission investigating football brutality and reported that ‘Harvard, Yale, and Princeton players during the previous 18 years had an almost unanimous opinion that football has been a marked benefit, both physically and mentally.’

Camp refused to define football as “primal,” even though he argued for years that football’s destructiveness was essential. He believed American superiority boiled down to pain tolerance. He made concessions, however, and was criticized for taking football out of its Cro-Magnon era.

“Camp, you are not going to civilize the only real thing we have left, are you? It is the only game left for a man to play,” his former teammate Frederic Remington said to him years later, sounding like a fan in 2017 whose team has just been hit with a targeting call. Remington would become a famous Frontier artist, painting manly men doing manly violence.

Even while making the game less destructive, Camp downplayed fears and insisted football was turning boys into vigorous men. He collected data and surveys to argue that all this eye-gouging was producing better students.

In 1905, on-field deaths led football fan President Theodore Roosevelt to huddle Ivy League powers. Camp was one of the few who preferred the game the way it was, and only begrudgingly accepted reforms, including the forward pass (which Camp had tried in a game 30 years earlier, semi-illegally).

By assigning virtue to unarmed trench warfare, part of Camp’s legacy is football’s evolution into a pseudo-military masculinity cult befitting his 19th-century worldview. But by also trying to appease those who wanted a safer game, he did something that’ll prove more lasting.

Camp, more than anyone else, made football intricate. He turned it from a 30-man Royal Rumble into a 22-player sport with distinct roles for distinct types of athletes, coining many of the position names we still use. Through innovations, collaboration, and concessions to a worried public, he’s responsible for the foundation of the puzzle of mini-games that we call football.

When we talk about the future of football, let’s not obsess over violence as if it’s the heart of the game, something we can’t possibly bargain away.

We’ve been surrendering pieces of violence from the sport for well over a century now, and the game remains intact, no matter how loudly we’ve howled about it on the internet and pre-internet. I don’t believe there’s a single piece of violence that functions as football’s cornerstone, and I don’t believe there’s an evolutionary step we could take in the name of safety that’d destroy what truly defines football.

The beauty of football is how many different parts it has working together. Strength, big hits, and physical intimidation are integral to most of these jobs, but they are not what amounts to football.

Football is so many differing pieces — like a heist movie, a bee hive, or a web of Fallout side quests — all building toward one thing.