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The Future of Football

By Spencer Hall

Published May 1, 2017

Football as we know it is done, because the lawyers are here. When the lawyers arrive, things as you know them are over. After making an initial beachhead with concussion lawsuits in the NFL, The Lawyers (capital letters necessary) are pushing inland and making great, great gains. There are lawsuits against helmet manufacturers, against the NFL, the NCAA … anyone with a finger on the game at this point, in the year 2017, will be liable for the game’s excesses, violences, and lasting damage.

Do not for one second read that as “blame The Lawyers.” You can if you like. It’s fun, and no one wants to stand in the way of fun as long as you don’t actually mean blame The Lawyers. Like foot soldiers in a war, lawyers are merely rubber ducks on a great tidal swell of football-related backlash, doing what they are told, and being pushed by currents sweeping back from a century of American football’s flailing about with no regard for itself or fellow swimmers.

Football is not under attack from anything other than football. Football declared war on itself long ago, and advanced the campaign in a thousand small steps. In 1905 it outlawed the Flying Wedge and legalized the forward pass, but stopped short of further liberating linemen and backs from constant impact by loosening the rules on eligible linemen. In the 1970s player size followed the national obesity curve upward, increasing the m in F=ma to unprecedented and increasingly dangerous levels, making the F (force) involved in the game greater than ever.

When the 2000s rolled around and CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) emerged as a real correlation with the game of football, the NFL and others followed the noble example of tobacco companies by falsifying research, denying all charges, and focusing on selling the product to children.

That is what sent the lawyers to football’s shores in the first place, and now deep into its heartland and beyond. Not a sense of aggrieved offense by coastal elites at the uncompromising game of the American interior. Not the allure of potential settlement money hitting the nostrils of the American legal community.

What sent them was the slow realization by parents that Pop Warner football could be the gateway drug that leads their promising, unblemished child to an adulthood with a degenerative brain condition. What sent them was the understanding that over time, American schools from middle school up had institutionalized and venerated a game capable of seriously harming those who played it — and even protected it in law and beyond in the form of societal and cultural protections no court order could budge from good standing.

Football asked for this to happen. It asked for liability insurance to become so expensive it might price out substantial numbers of high school teams from even having programs. It encouraged its own violence and actively discouraged research on that violence’s long-term effects. At the highest levels of the game in particular — the NFL — those in charge encouraged a game of head-first violence, and made that violence an inseparable and often explicit part of their brand.

Yes, other sports have concussion problems — hockey, most notably, followed by soccer and wrestling. But The Lawyers aren’t here to talk to you about them. They are here to talk about football. And if The Lawyers are here, then football as we know it is already dead, or at the very least obsolete.

The Lawyers are not the people you want to rebuild or evolve the game. Neither are the corporate overlords of the NFL, who will only embrace innovation and a real honesty about the game’s potential long-term consequences at what may be non-figurative gunpoint. They cannot and should not be relied on because they are too invested in the current system to have any incentive to change.

Players, coaches, stakeholders, fans, and other invested parties cannot rely on the NFL for other reasons.

One is simple math: To make the biggest impact possible on the game, those who want football to survive must target the largest slice of the game. Football remains the number one participation sport in the country in high schools, with over a million players in 2015-16. For most of the people who play football in the United States, their exposure to the game in a serious and organized fashion begins and ends there. Football is not owned by anyone. If it were, though, the largest shareholders would be the ones playing on Friday nights.

Another reason to not wait for the NFL or college football to change first: The game of football can’t afford to wait, and needs to thrive where it lives, not where it is most monetized and commodified. Interventions suggested to improve the game at the highest levels tend to rely on expensive equipment, increasingly elaborate rulebooks, and advanced medical technology.

Using those as a stopgap to patch over the glaring issues in football’s foundations is only that: a stopgap, and an expensive one that won’t work for the game as a whole over time. Your high school, unlike St. Thomas Aquinas in Fort Lauderdale, cannot afford a squad of robot tackling dummies at $8,295 a pop. A rural high school in Utah will not have the mythical handheld medical equipment needed to diagnose a concussion instantly, nor have officials with the resources and support needed to parse out the complexities of the latest targeting rules.

In this future, the game of the American people — its most popular sport — will become something only available to those who can afford the resources to play it, much less watch it.

The game needs to change. It has changed once before, when football was a smaller pastime largely limited to colleges and universities. It still took a standing president of the United States’ intervention to temper the violence of the sport — and only then, after actual deaths occurred on the field. The game wasn’t the heavily leveraged, culturally embedded, and highly lucrative billion-dollar industry it is today. The odds of significant change happening now without legal intervention, given what the sport is and who profits most from it, are very, very long.

If — and it is a huge if — football will survive, then its revamp should start simple. Those who want football to continue in one form or another should think of the basic building blocks of football itself as changeable, updatable programming. They should start at the grassroots of the sport to affect the largest number of possible teams and games and leagues playing the sport. They should think about the nature of the game itself, and how to keep as much of it as possible without leaning into the excesses of football as it is currently played.

It should start now. Football 3.0 is coming, and this is what it will look like if it wants to survive.

Part 1: F=ma

The chief variable affecting any and all discussions of football and its risks is force: Force applied through hitting, tackling, and the random collisions of any game. Force causes concussions; Concussions are strongly correlated with degenerative brain diseases like CTE; CTE and other associated long-term neurological disasters are the chief reason youth participation in football has been down or flat recently, and also the thing driving the current wave of lawsuits and legal drama surrounding the NFL and other leagues.

Force is at the core of football, and it is also what could kill football. Curbing the game’s plague of force-related issues — without creating an entirely new sport and burying the old one completely — means dealing with force as a necessary evil at worst, and as a prohibited but inevitable ghost in the machine at best.

The future of football will be about reducing force wherever possible, redirecting it, or eliminating it altogether.

The bad news is that the equation can’t change: F=MA, and always will. If it’s assumed that football will be a game of reduced force, then it’s also assumed there will still be some degree of force via the basic identity of football as a contact sport. Bringing the ball carrier to ground, blocking another player, moving through living, breathing traffic — these are all basic elements of the game. Without them, football is handball without nets.

The lone good part about this equation: There are variables to work with here, and they are flexible. Acceleration (at least to the point of attack) can be redirected or eliminated in some cases. Mass can be lowered by either rule or game design, and the product of force itself can be redirected or dispersed through rules, further tweaks to game design, and playing technique.

There are two other variables here that matter. The first is space, both in terms of football’s standard playing field, and in terms of how the players are allowed to line up and function within it. The second variable is time, and within it the number of repeated exposures to/opportunities for impact.

Part 2: Space

If reducing the impact in football while keeping as much of the essential contact of the game is a goal, then there is another way to change the game for the better: cut unnecessary impacts as much as possible.

Schemers have already found one way to do this and it has been a part of football for the better part of 40 years: Spread players out and create a game of players in space, rather than a clustered mass of beef in cleats pounding away in close quarters.

Spacing out offensive players created a greater chance for a ballcarrier to find open grass. As a (largely unintentional)footnote marker side effect, players also had less traffic to deal with, and more of a chance of avoiding repeated hits fighting through blocks and clustered tacklers.

I talked to Mike Leach via a phone interview. He doesn’t believe the game has much to improve on in terms of new rules. “We really don’t need to change the game, I think.” Most coaches echoed the same sentiments: that football was inherently risky, and that was something accepted by all players. At the same time, many were surprisingly open to changes in the game when you suggested them — right down to extreme ideas like removing helmets and changing the number of players on the field. Coaches are single-minded, but shockingly open-minded provided the idea did not get in the way of winning.

Washington State coach Mike Leach, and his fellow Air Raid guru Hal Mumme, also experimented with spacing along the offensive line. Rather than lining up in close quarters in three-point stances with a hand on the ground, Air Raid linemen began each play basically standing up, ready to pass block.

They did something else new and different, too: they stood farther apart than any other linemen, sometimes six feet apart. What looked like madness turned out to have a lot of method behind it. Not only did quarterbacks have wider passing lanes between and over their linemen, but running backs suddenly had wider run lanes.

That’s relevant for two reasons. One: Those sub-concussive, continuous blows defensive and offensive linemen take on every play are repetitive, brutal force — particularly in the run game, where a literal butting of heads happens on every play. That violence doesn’t serve anyone well in terms of entertainment value, or in terms of long-term safety for linemen. Spacing it out, and turning every block into a one-on-one situation with carefully enforced rules about contact to the head, eliminated some of the lowest value and highest cost spectacle on the field.

Two: back to traffic management. Many of the biggest, most frequent collisions at or past the line of scrimmage happen in the run game between linebackers and running backs. In standard or tight offensive line setups — where linemen are shoulder to shoulder — the running lanes created can be narrow at best.

That clumping of mass moving at high speed in the middle of the field often sets up brutal collisions between running backs and linebackers. Think of Ray Lewis and Eddie George in their prime, hitting each other head-first forever in a narrow hallway: That’s the running back vs. linebacker matchup in the conventional run game, and that’s the series of constant face-to-face impacts that likely reduced lions of the midfield like Junior Seau to CTE cases.footnote marker

That setup is so fundamental to the core of football’s identity that it is literally a fundamental: the Oklahoma drill, whose variants all involved a.) compressed space and b.) at least two players pitted head-to-head in a potential high-impact situation.

Note the clarifier there: a potential high-impact situation. There is the possibility the ballcarrier makes the tackler miss. That possibility of escape and avoiding contact goes down by large percentages when the space is constricted. If wide splits were not just the norm, but required by rule and enforced, would that theoretically give ballcarriers coming out of the backfield more of a chance of escape, and thus shave off a substantial margin of bone-rattling hits?

In addition to what looks like horizontal spacing to the overhead/TV cam viewer, consider lateral spacing. Defensive linemen and offensive linemen in the Canadian Football League start a full yard apart from each other. In comparison, linemen at the snap in the NFL start just eleven inches, or the width of the ball, apart from each other.

Because there are no easy solutions in life, the benefits of starting three feet from your opponent on the line come with some definite disadvantages. The main one should be obvious to anyone who’s taken even a joking three-point stance in a backyard football game: Both linemen have space to take at least one step, upping the acceleration they can get, and thus increasing the total amount of force in the equation.footnote marker

There was one suggestion that went too far: starting linemen in a clinch, thus eliminating the instant impact that happens at each snap of the ball. Bob Stitt, the football coach at the University of Montana, objected: “Now you just eliminate scheme in the run game.”

All this tweaking at the line of scrimmage and spacing raises the question: If football is going to be safer, and survive, is the battle in the trenches the first thing to go?

After all, flag football removes almost all contact along the line, leaving offensive linemen to serve as little more than juking traffic cones. In some versions of flag football, there’s no offensive line at all — just like several variations of seven-on-seven football camp play, a pass-dominated version of the game used primarily to develop quarterbacks and wide receivers.

Arena Football League only requires that offenses have four players at the line of scrimmage, and defenses have three. In almost every variation of the game created since Teddy Roosevelt led the charge to modernize the game in 1905, the first thing to go in terms of numbers and importance has been the lineman. (Unless you’re Stanford football, but they’re an anomaly in an otherwise slimming trend, schematically speaking.)

The 300-pound leviathan may also become a relic of the game for other reasons.

Part 3: Mass

The other variable in football from a safety perspective is the “m” in F=ma — mass.

The progressive bloat of the American populace and the corresponding rise in the size of football players is well-worn territory now. Almost any comparison will do, because they all show the same familiar trend, presented with extremity and consistency.

For instance: The 1955 Oklahoma Sooners went undefeated and won the national title with a roster where the heaviest player — left tackle Steve Champlin — tipped the scales at a whopping 225 pounds. The 2017 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, by contrast, had 15 players over 300 pounds, and defensive backs like 220-pound Nate Ebner, who weigh more than the Sooners starting linemen on both sides of the ball.

Or take the individual case. There’s former Baylor tight end LaQuan McGowan, who played at 405 pounds. Jared Lorenzen of the New York Giants played quarterback at 300 pounds; Levon Kirkland of the Pittsburgh Steelers played linebacker at 275 pounds, give or take whatever he ate pregame. Even cornerbacks and punters have gotten heavier.

Everyone, at every position in the NFL, has gotten larger over time.

More importantly, not even the switch to a spread-out game has stopped the race to put as much poundage at every position as possible. With all that mass and ass on the field at once, there is more potential energy on the field than ever before — and it all moves as fast or faster as it ever did.

So if football’s evolution involves mitigating the massive forces exerted on players, there is another simple variable: require players to bring less mass to the party.

One option is instituting weight limits for players — something that already happens at the Pop Warner levels and in Sprint Football, a variation of the game where players must weigh no more than 178 pounds. (They must also have more than 5 percent body fat, in order to prevent players starving themselves too much to make weight.) The most unique suggestion: Allow football teams to have as many people on the field as they like, but limit the total amount of weight to a flat 2400 pounds, aka the “one horse-sized duck, or 100 duck-sized horses” system of football weight management.

Setting weight limits could cause a whole different range of problems: players going to unhealthy limits to make weight; the difficulty of weighing every single member of a football team like cattle before every game; the many, varied, and creative lengths teams and players might go to in order to cheat the system. Imagine the horror of a weight cut — a deeply unpleasant, miserable experience any high school wrestler or MMA enthusiast is all too familiar with — and you’re with us. Faced with one type of enforced and encouraged type of disordered eating, football players would simply be trading it for another.

Weight classes and limits also only serve one purpose: to reduce force. There is another option, one relying less on overt regulation, and more on changing the demands of the game on athletes while opening the game up even further: make the field bigger, both longer and wider, and open up the offensive game by making players run more.

This is sort of like buying a mansion to help you lose weight (“the two-mile walk from the kitchen to the bedroom really put a dent in my caloric deficit”) but it might be worth considering.

Football teams in the era of spread offenses and nickel defenses have already moved further and further away from traditional crowded run schemes. Stretching the field along either axis creates more space, making room for missed tackles, more open field running, and requires a leaner, fitter athlete.

Specifically, building a deeper end zone avoids much of the constriction and heavy traffic impacts seen in the red zone. It also has the non-safety related side effect of opening up the end zones for offensive play-callers. The CFL’s field is longer and wider, and features a 20-yard deep end zone. There aren’t a whole lot of stats on CFL red zone concussions versus NFL red zone concussions, true, but the dynamics of the game are quantifiably different re: scoring. As of 2014, CFL teams scored about three more points per game, passed for more yardage, and ran the ball fewer times per game than the NFL.

The safety difference between the two games may be marginal. However, football is a game of margins, and margins matter when talking about not one, but many different little things to help make the game safer.

Part 4: Time

Acceleration is less easy to control than mass. The emphasis on speed in football has coincided with a gradual but real increase in overall player speed — particularly speed gained in a short amount of space. The 40-yard dash has become the standard for measuring straight line speed because football players rarely run further than 40 yards. In automotive terms, top speed matters much less than a player’s 0-60 time.

No one wants a slower game. However, there is one simple edit eliminating a lot of opportunities for the kind of long, high-speed runs taken at targets that also happen to be running a long way at high speed: Cutting the kickoff and punt return from the game completely.

This isn’t even a controversial suggestion, or one that isn’t by some measure already happening. The NFL has already toyed with reducing returns, moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line in 2011, and then in 2016 testing a rule moving all touchbacks to the 25-yard line instead of the 20.footnote marker Greg Schiano, former head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and current defensive coordinator of the Ohio State Buckeyes, has advocated for the complete abandonment of the kickoff altogether.

Pop Warner football has already eliminated the kickoff, removing the play from all games in ten-and-under play. If the kickoff is already out of the largest youth football league in the nation, it won’t be long for the rest of the game, either. Add in eliminating punt returns, and football cuts the two greatest consistent opportunities for acceleration at the highest speed out of its force-heavy system.

Ironically, the 2016 rule change backfired and produced more returns and fewer touchbacks, a warning to anyone who believes more rules will change the game in predictable ways. Returners, given deeper kicks to return, simply kept running them out of the end zone. Returners, under any rules, are going to try to return kicks.

Part 5: Behavior

The repeated application of force in football involves another variable not represented in the equation: Time.

Maybe we shouldn’t think of it as “time playing football,” but as two things: “number of interactions in a period of time” seems bulky and overly academic. It’s way easier to say snaps or plays — opportunities for impact and all the nasty things that come with that repeated impact.

That number, at least in the NFL, has been pretty consistent over time. College football games, however, have gotten progressively longer, both because of the college clock rules and the advent of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. Those offenses run more plays; those plays usually pick up more first downs. First downs stop the clock in college football, and games creep closer and closer to the 3-1/2 hour mark.footnote marker

The 2016-17 National Title game, for instance, started at 8:17 p.m. Eastern time, and ended at 12:25 a.m., taking a total of 4 hours and 8 minutes to complete. Clemson ripped off 99 plays against Alabama — an obscene number of plays in the NFL, but not unusual for modern college football.

The hurry-up has its own issues outside of safety — it requires vigilant officiating, for one, and a small but dedicated crew of coaches despise it — but few want it to disappear in the name of shortening games. The hurry-up is entertaining, creates more offense and more scoring, and often allows overmatched teams to stay in games longer against superior competition. It is one way to play the game of many, and part of football’s basic DNA is the freedom to scheme, plan, and move players and the tempo of play around as you like.

Rather than dictating a specific speed of play, the easiest fix is enforcing what’s already there: the prescribed length of the game itself. First downs in the college game should not stop the clock. Let it run. The clock is the clock, and barring injury timeouts, teams may work as slowly or as quickly within 60 minutes as they please.

The other issue solved by changing clock rules: Game length from a spectator’s perspective, both in the stadium and watching on a screen.

The in-game experience of watching a football game is painfully constipated by ad breaks and the dreaded man in the red cap who walks onto the field for stoppages. The test for this among football fans is that a lot of them even know who the man in the red hat — the link between the studio and the game — is. At home the experience is seamless, but in the stands you can see every wire.footnote marker

This is meant quite literally now, thanks to the overhead cam rigs at every major game. The watershed moment for a college fan realizing that every game is recorded inside a poorly constructed, non-climate-controlled studio is Marvin McNutt of Iowa nearly getting blindsided by a falling Skycam in the 2011 Insight Bowl. At modern football’s most extreme, the football players can be an inconvenience to equipment designed to record them playing.

The on-screen experience, too, is an inflated, overlong commitment for many fans. The “100 commercials, 11 minutes of action” rule remains in effect in the NFL, where the league’s championship game features just 12 minutes of actual action spread out across four to five hours of pregame and postgame broadcast time.

That is a quality of life issue for fans — especially potential younger fans who have never lived in a world where they can’t watch exactly what they want when they want at their own pace. Live sports broadcasts, more than ever, can’t be any longer than they have to be. This goes double for football, which in 2016 experienced either flat or declining viewership at all levels.

The most valuable franchise in sports is the Dallas Cowboys, but three of the top five are soccer teams: Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester United. The world’s most valuable sports franchises function and thrive on games broadcast without commercial interruption, and sponsored in large part by on-field advertising, subscription fees, and team sponsorships.

It’s not the preference of the NFL, sure. But it has been done, and done well, and done by successful sports franchises. The future of American football probably involves embracing things currently considered heretical to the NFL and its airtight branding. There will be sponsors on uniforms, and in-game advertising on the stands, and whatever else the leagues and their television partners can plaster onto a TV screen — if only because the attention spans of the audience will only get shorter, and their patience for enduring even the biggest and most coveted live sports broadcasts more scarce.

Safety has been at best an intermittent concern for football management, but money? Money always gets their attention. If there’s a way to neatly avoid broadcast overruns and make game length more predictable, then yes:, teams and leagues and conferences will suddenly be interested in safety and game length.

Part 6: Acceleration

The last variable is the one mentioned first by coaches and players: Technique.

That is unusual in one sense: Technique is the most human, varied, and inconsistent part of football’s basic dynamics and gameplay. If it could be perfected, there would be no helmet-to-helmet hits, no fumbles, and no jobs for coaches to teach technique for longer than a week or so at a time.

Technique is the part players and coaches can work on, perfect, and dictate as policy and practice. That technique, in a future where football has to express less force as a game, must change. Some in the NFL already know that, and are at least incrementally working towards it by stealing wholesale from rugby.

There is a saying rugby coaches and players are fond of saying, usually when they’re around football players and coaches: “Rugby is a tackling sport, while football is a collision sport.”footnote marker

The saying is a variation on a quote from Michigan State football coach Duffy Daugherty. His original line: “Football isn’t a contact sport, it’s a collision sport. Dancing is a contact sport.”

Rugby may seem like a strange or even ill-advised place to look for solutions to football’s problems. It has its own problems — serious, serious injury problems, including concussion problems of its own on top of a paralysis risk due to the scrum.footnote marker It, too, is a contact sport that can’t begin to disavow its basic violence. Embracing rugby’s techniques, at first glance, might seem like insanity.

Rugby is itself in the midst of its own internal debate over player size, safety, and the rulebook. The line-out is ridiculously dangerous even by American football’s standards. Still, one college rugby coach I interviewed said the degree of violence in the basic interaction of tackling has no comparison. “We go to football practice and watch football players make routine tackles that would get you thrown out of a game. Our jaws drop.”

The saying is accurate, though. Tackling is formalized in rugby; the process, by rule, involves bringing the ballcarrier to ground. Football tackles are more freeform. A player can tackle a ballcarrier by bringing them to the ground shoulder-first. They may also drive through the player with the shoulder, making no attempt to bring them to the ground. Both are completely legal — provided no contact to the head is made.footnote marker

Reminder of how recent the cultural reform regarding helmet-to-helmet hits is: The opening logo of the NFL’s Monday Night Football used the image of two helmets smashing together until 2006.

The Seattle Seahawks in particular have preached the virtues of the “rugby tackle,” i.e. form tackling designed to bring people to ground. It has, in limited use, made for better football. The Seahawks consistently finish near the top of the league in defense, particularly in tackling and yards allowed after catch. But more importantly for the purposes of creating a game that can survive long-term, the Seahawks finish towards the bottom of the league in reported concussions annually.footnote marker

Reported concussions vs. unreported concussions is a thorny, difficult issue here given the number of concussions that aren’t diagnosed properly by sideline officials, or that are unreported by players not wanting to lose a single snap of play to injury. The data is imperfect, but it is also a start.

Yet there’s some logic in looking to football’s direct ancestor for answers. Rugby also features the kind of impact football tackling has, but contains much, much more of it. The average American football game has about 79 tackles, while a rugby game contains around 221 different collisions between players. Rugby is statistically about as dangerous as football in terms of total numbers of concussions — but mostly because rugby produces so many more opportunities for contact.footnote marker

The NFL plays just 16 games per season. Rugby manages to produce a similar amount of reported head trauma with almost three times the amount of collisions per game, and with many, many more games. The NRL regular season, the Australian Premier League of rugby, is 23 games long all by itself. That doesn’t include preseason matches, international obligations for players, the finals series (their playoffs), and other exhibition matches. Invert that comparison, and think about the horrors of football’s physics. In many fewer games, football manages to do as much or more damage than rugby.

Let’s not limit rugby’s influence to just tackling. For football in particular, there is an inextricable link between technique and equipment. All of those rugby collisions happen without a helmet. People have considered the helmetless player in trying to pull football, and the NFL in particular, back from the brink.

It is not as insane as it sounds. Players, most notably Hines Ward in 2012, have suggested it. The helmet, introduced as little more than leather skullcap with flaps to prevent ears from being torn off, is not what it started as. It has evolved into full-on armor, less a method of protection at this point, and more a weapon, a point of attack driven into the opponent.

There is some data supporting this. (Some.) A University of New Hampshire study tried it for just five minutes during a few practices a week, fitting players with a head-impact sensor to measure any possible reduction in head hits. Even that marginal reduction in helmet use lowered the overall number of head impacts by 28 percent — a startling drop in any context, but even more so before you consider that just a small slice of the overall total of practice time was used.

That is just one study, but it’s intriguing enough to back up what football players alone will tell you anecdotally. The helmet is as much a weapon as it is protection. Whether it means eliminating the facemask, introducing lighter alternative headgear, or getting rid of it altogether.footnote marker

“The helmet definitely gives you that feeling of being invincible.” That’s former NFL lineman George Foster when I ask him if removing helmets makes any sense. “I don’t know what the overall effect would be, but yes, if you take that facemask or that helmet off, they’ll get their head out of the situation real quick.”

The final factor in improving technique will be reforming and simplifying the system of rewards, punishments, and rules governing player conduct on the field. In other words, make the rules plain so that football can spend less time and energy litigating itself as an event, and more time in play.

To wit: The NFL has an 88-page rulebook. The National Federation of State High School Association’s rulebook stands at 116 pages. The NCAA’s massive rulebook is 218 pages in total, and has a separate casebook for officials to study specific situations. There are numerous websites designed to keep officials fluent and fluid in their understanding of the rules.footnote marker

For fun, take just one of those quizzes. Afterwards, marvel at how little you know about the game you thought you understood.

Reading through any of those rulebooks is only recommended if you want to understand what a technical, overwrought, and overwritten piece of pseudo-criminal code the rules of American football are. Any future where the rules of football are not made clearer and simpler is one where the rulebook continues to bloat. More rules make slower officials; slower officials make slower games; slower games make for bad football, an unwatchable product for a game competing with shorter attention spans.

The vagaries of the rulebook also make for more hesitant play. Somewhat counter-intuitively, hesitating on the field of play can get a player injured just as quickly as blindly blowing through a situation without thinking. This is especially true for defenders, who under current contact rules often have no idea how fast or slow they’re supposed to go in a tackling situation — and who could be ejected by rule for helmet-to-helmet contact even if they do everything correctly. Those are interactions, mind you, which often take place in half-seconds of action.

The overall sense from talking to players and coaches is that contact rules often give little discretion to the referees in how they enforce them. Subjectivity is a dangerous thing to bring to officiating, but over-prescription is, too. The rulebook already has a series of flagrant vs. inadvertent distinctions, but these should be simplified to the point where a referee, working by a generously worded rulebook, has enough discretion in a game to make those calls in a quick and decisive manner.

A lot of the future of football simply involves stealing good things from other sports, and officiating is no different. Red cards and yellow cards for fouls may be subjective, but they also allow officials to control physical games with obvious, clear signals.

Rugby uses them, soccer uses them, and in a full-pitch game like American football, their arrival is overdue, if only for one reason: A personal foul is a judgment, like many other legal-ish football penalties. A yellow or red card, though — that’s a stimulus, a signal, a clear indication the player in question has done something personally distasteful to the game.footnote marker

Are we suggesting that the tedious cycle of awarding yardage to the other team for personal foul penalties by the other team, instead of putting the burden on the player, is a boring thing to watch? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. If there were some way of slimming down the rulebook to eliminate false start/offsides penalties, endless procedural penalties, and substitution and eligibility infractions, we would. Mike Pereira is great at his job, and explains and interprets the rules of football as well as anyone on television. Counterpoint: a game should not require Mike Pereira to explain the vagaries of its rules to you.

They work well, and are a more economical way of controlling game flow and player conduct than stopping the entire game every three minutes and addressing the public at length with a list of charges and subsequent punishments. Ed Hochuli’s biceps aside, officials and officiating are not an attraction of the game. They shouldn’t be treated like one, or forced by design to be one.

Coda: The People’s Game

All of this re-engineering comes with a warning, and then a statement of purpose.

That warning is that football, even 20 years from now, will never, ever be completely safe. No sport really is — not golf, a sport where 54,000 people every year end up in the emergency room when they are hit by errant drives and golf carts; not recreational cycling, not skiing or swimming or any other activity where humans take the not-insignificant risk of leaving their house and putting their bodies in motion.

Football does hold the unique identity and accompanying risk of being a sport encouraging repeated, enthusiastic, and yes, violent contact. Any future involving something recognizable as football has to include at least an element of that, and should. Part of the innate appeal of the sport, even if only played in a backyard or recreationally, is the violence, the speed, the chase, and yes: the understanding that getting caught or beat might mean contact with another player.

That is the crucial difference football needs to embrace and understand. A sport that is watched and not played is a bloodsport, a spectacle. It has no investment from those watching, no claim held, no understanding of the cost, the experience, the time, the stress, or the reality of the thing being observed. The slow reaction to the issue of head trauma at every level is a perfect demonstration of this effect: Without actual stakes, and divorced from their own reality, fans and observers can’t really even being to grasp a splinter of the violence they see.

Football might not need more stakeholders in order to survive as a product. A sport that was once internationally beloved can continue profitably for years without widespread participation. (See: Boxing.)

Football does need more stakeholders to survive as a game, though. The people who need to save what may be left of the game so that it can survive are the stakeholders themselves: coaches, players, and the people who understand how to make games and then play them. They have to act now, or risk losing the game to its worst tendencies encouraged by its worst landlords.

The sum parts of the game of football should be made to be as close to free as possible. Someone will have to own the rest, including its future. It may as well be the people who want it to survive as a game, not as a business. The game of football has to belong to those who play it and love it. That starts the way the first version of the game started: in a field on open grass, running.