Nov 03, 2010 Phil Blackwell Uncategorized
So it’s Oct. 8, and Fayetteville-Manlius is squaring off with Corcoran in a football showdown for first place in the Class AA-2 division.
The Hornets win, 21-13, but what is remembered most about the night is not a long run, or key turnover, or timely block. It’s the sight of Brent Strickland, F-M’s brilliant defensive end, breaking loose and slamming Corcoran quarterback Shakem Buckmon to the turf in the fourth quarter. Dazed, Buckmon leaves the field, and does not return the rest of the night.
What happened there, on a small scale, occurs in hundreds of high school games every Friday night, and repeats itself Saturdays on dozens of college fields and Sundays around the NFL. Everywhere, it’s understood that football is, at its core, a violent and hard-hitting spectacle, and that the hits are part of the reason we love it so much.
Then came Oct. 17, a mere nine days after Strickland had his big F-M moment. All over the NFL, from Pittsburgh to Atlanta to Foxboro, defenders lay into receivers in a frightening way, and the frequency draws intense criticism. Calls are made for fines and suspensions.
Ever the savvy PR types, the NFL reacts with serious fines on James Harrison and others, plus memos and pronouncements that, from here on out, such hits could lead to the perpetrators sitting out a game. Scared straight, everyone behaves the next week.
Message sent, right? Well, yeah – but only if you discount the entire history of football and its primal appeal to the American sports fan.
More than a century ago, football was, indeed, too violent. College games dripped with real and proverbial blood as abominations such as the “flying wedge” led to deaths on the field, and the outcry forced Theodore Roosevelt to step in and call for some rules. TR’s prodding led to the formation of the NCAA. Insert your own bureaucratic joke here.
It took a long time for the equipment to catch up with the game’s tactics. Helmets didn’t even get face masks until the 1950s. Pads were slow in arriving, too. At the same time, though, athletes got bigger and faster. Linemen that weighed 200 in the ’40s and 250 in the 70s have pushed past 300 in the last decade or so. Players at the skill positions also improved in physical stature.
All the while, something else was taking place. Everyone in football – players, fans, executives, the TV networks serving up billion-dollar contracts – discovered that they loved it when some poor, unsuspecting guy got clocked.
In turn, the powers-that-be promoted and supported the game’s violence. From those NFL Films clips of Dick Butkus laying out anyone that dare crossed his path to some current player who, if he knocks someone out, is sure to get thousands of views on YouTube, the tacit message was the same. We love us some violence.
Except that now we’re sensitive about it. You have all the dozens of stories of former players unable to walk or live a life without oceans of pain (and getting stiffed for pension). You hear of the studies about concussions, which have made teams at every level reluctant to bring a player back until all is really clear.
All this moralizing is a few decades too late. As Harrison pointed out in his mid-career crisis (he mused on retirement following his $75,000 fine, then came back to practice the next day), a defensive player is taught to go all-out since Pop Warner, and now he’s supposed to let up? And how could the NFL, which literally built its empire upon the delight people got from the collisions of men, suddenly say that collisions aren’t always the best thing?
This is not straight-out hypocrisy, but rather a prime example of mixed messages. As such, the best possible solution is to implant, in young players getting into football, the “right” way of playing from the first time they hit the field.
On the offensive end, that means operating at all times with your head up. Yes, you’re wearing a helmet, but even the best helmets can’t totally prevent a dangerous hit if the head is set in just the wrong place. And on the defensive end, just tackle properly – aim for the middle of the body. There’s no need to head-hunt, and even less of a need to go after the knees of a guy carrying the ball.
That said, there is simply no human way to take the violence out of football. What was put into place and accepted through a century of trial and error is not going to disappear.
After all, the point of the game is to physically impose your will and score points – or physically keep the other team from scoring. You’ll always have injuries, intentional or otherwise. When Brent Strickland took down Shakem Buckmon, he was just doing what he was taught – no more, no less. That’s something you can never legislate away.