Isn’t regular football brutal enough?

American football is a brutal game and so it should not be surprising that it occasionally erupts into outright violence. This feature was on display recently when Myles Garrett, a player for the Cleveland Browns, yanked off the helmet of an opposing player and repeatedly beat him on the head with it until he was restrained by other players. As is often the case there were events that led up to this assault but it was still egregious by any standards. In fact, yanking out a player’s helmet can be very dangerous because the neck is violently jerked. He has been suspended indefinitely but it made me wonder at what point this kind of on-field violence moves into a territory where the perpetrator is subject to legal prosecution.

Several lawyers believe the pro-football player can be criminally charged for Thursday’s game. According to Yahoo! Sports, Ohio lawyers said his actions can be defined as assault and the helmet could be considered a weapon—as the NFL also indicated.

“Technically, swinging an object of that form could constitute a felonious assault,” Joseph Patituce, an Ohio criminal defense attorney, told the outlet.

Such incidents, along with the ongoing controversy over brain injuries has prompted people to ask whether football can be made safe enough to play. Erik Swartz writes that some are arguing that tackling should be banned altogether,

Because of the growing concern about concussions, many people argue that tackle football should be banned. Opponents to this argue that tackle football is safer now, that coaches teach tackling differently. They argue that safer methods are reducing head impacts and the concussions that come with them. Yet, what are “safe” tackling techniques, and what does the data tell us about their impact on preventing concussions?

There is very little scientific evidence available to support claims that teaching tackling a certain way results in decreased head impacts, concussions or other injury.

Swartz says that all the protection that football players wear may be giving them a false sense of security and thus encouraging them do things that are dangerous. He says that the rugby model of playing without a helmet may be the way to go

Contrast this against another sport that involves a lot of tackling: rugby. While rugby players are definitely prone to sustaining concussions, American football is beginning to model the rugby style tackle of using their shoulders to initiate contact while avoiding head contact.

Based on risk compensation theory, rugby players tackle with their shoulders not only because they were taught that way, but because their heads are not protected with a helmet. Keeping the head out of the way simply develops naturally as an anticipatory reflex to protect the head.

But it looks like the NFL is not going to give up on helmets soon. Instead it is looking to see if they can improve helmets, even though the tests they are using are of doubtful validity. . Even if you wear a helmet, your brain is still jerked violently in any collision.

The dirty little secret of American football is that I think many of the fans love it precisely because of its violence and the bone-crunching tackles. They like to see bone-crushing tackles and would see their removal and a sign of wimpiness. It seems to stimulate the same kind of visceral response that I suspect gladiator contests of the past did and for this reason the NFL will make largely symbolic gestures towards safety.

It is similar to the way some members of the public love the violence of professional wrestling, even if they know that it is choreographed or the violence in films even though we know it is all acting. Maybe the NFL should have its players take acting classes and learn from pro wrestlers about how to fake tackles so that it looks vicious and the victim looks dazed and hurt but is actually harmless.


  1. John Stevens says

    I remember as a boy running to home plate while playing baseball and couldn’t wait to see if the catcher had the ball. This was the only time you plow into a player and it was like playing football. Now that has been removed from the game. My son’s soccer league has even removed using your head to redirect the ball. I suppose if everyone gets a trophy you might as well remove any real contact. I loved full contact as a boy, whether, soccer, baseball, hockey or wrestling. It was a great way to burn off some energy. I miss the good ol’ days. Cheers, God bless and Trump 2030!

  2. fentex says

    In the late 1980’s body armour started sneaking into rugby with increasingly bulky shoulder pads being adopted.

    They were fairly quickly banned when it became evident they contributed to more injuries (armour makes a person a better battering ram before it protects them).

    Sometimes players with eye problems wear goggles, and those with pre-existing issues sometimes wear soft head protection (often to protect damaged ears) but not much else.

    In forty years of playing rough and tumble sports the only time I was carded
    (playing soccer) was when I once dipped my head to knock a ball ahead of me when another player was trying to kick it -- the referee cited me for endangering myself.

  3. Kimpatsu3001 says

    @John Stevens: Expressing sentiments like that reveal that you did indeed suffer concussive brain damage…

  4. anat says

    I think there is an element of gladiatorial games in most sports, especially at the professional level. Training a team for track and field involves starting with a much larger team and having the members train until a significant number drops out due to injuries. In the area of sports and genetics, the interest isn’t into variants that improve performance directly but in those that promote faster recovery from injury. I find the entire thing morally repulsive. Organized forms of all high-risk sports should be banned entirely for young ages and for educational institutions (funding your education by destroying your future brain should not be a thing).

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I’m not sure whether John Stevens @1 is being satirical or is an actual troll, but either way, associating a love of violence with Trumpism is certainly on point. Thugs always love violence, at least as long as it’s only Others who suffer from it.

    Moreover, his post pinpoints exactly why the two impulses so frequently coexist: they are both founded on a profound lack of empathy for fellow humans. It doesn’t matter whether the “Other” is an immigrant, a minority, or a professional football player. The point is, if I’m not the one who is suffering, then their suffering is no concern of mine.

  6. says

    “The dirty little secret of American football is that I think many of the fans love it precisely because of its violence and the bone-crunching tackles.”

    I don’t think it’s all that much of a secret. I don’t watch football but in commercials featuring it it’s pretty clear the sounds of hits have been enhanced. One can also compare it to how many Americans (particularly American men) feel about non-American football. These are amazing athletes who run up and down a pitch over and over but get little respect because what is cardio and stamina compared to size and strength?

    As for hockey, every so often people will talk about getting rid of the fighting but the outcry over that stops that talk. Hell, disgraced commentator Don Cherry used to have a video series that was just clips of fights and the most violent checks from games.

    And now is the part where I reveal MY dirty little secret… I enjoy professional wrestling.

    “Maybe the NFL should have its players take acting classes and learn from pro wrestlers about how to fake tackles so that it looks vicious and the victim looks dazed and hurt but is actually harmless.”

    While the goal in wrestling is to make everything look worse than it is and a good wrestler keeps their opponents as safe as possible, it’s not harmless. Injuries are a regular occurrence and concussions happen far too often. Early retirement from concussions and spinal injuries are frequent.

  7. says

    This isn’t the first egregious assault on another player in an NFL game. Albert Haynesworth intentionally stomped on another player’s head in 2016.

    No amount of change to the helmets and pads can make up for the size of the players. Force equals mass times acceleration, and huge men hitting each other at high speed makes concussions inevitable, no matter what they’re wearing. You could dress them head to toe in foam helmets and padding (similar to martial arts) and it wouldn’t make a difference.

    NFL players today weigh 100-140kg compared to 80-120kg in the 1970s, and they’re faster and stronger, “thanks” to supplements, steroids, dieticians, weight training, etc. Despite the improvements in helmets, players today are suffering CTE at higher rates and suffering long term effects sooner (some while still in the league, e.g. Jovan Belcher) than players of the past who took 20-30 years to decline.

    All major hockey playing nations and the IIHF (the game on ice, not the one Mano knows) banned full body contact for players under 14. Hockey could ban hitting, fighting and slapshots at all levels and they could still play the same game. If you take away tackling and blocking from North American football (*), the game would change completely and fans wouldn’t watch. (* Because Canada also plays it nationally, not a fringe sport.) North American Football is nothing more than Roman gladitorial combat.

    I say North American football because World football (aka soccer) has also changed its attitude on heading. The US led the way on this one, the first country to ban intentional heading for kids under 14. Despite resistance from other countries (e.g. England, Brazil), many are calling for this to become worldwide. Nobody is at a “training disadvantage” (the argument against a heading ban) if every country has to play by the same rules.

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