Whether the increasing amount of lawsuits filed against the NFL for traumatic brain injuries or critics of football exposing more of its brutal nature amass more attention, one must begin to wonder if tackling in football has seen its run.
We should first ask ourselves what we love about football and if we can still have those components in a non-tackling league. Or, if there is no tackling, is there a proper substitute that will still shoot the same adrenaline down our spines, without the body-bashing injuries?
Pain in football is inevitable; ask any football player from any level and they will tell you. They’ll also say that they always play with pain, but never with injury. Sure there are several useful precautions one can take when playing football – keep your head up, low man wins, maintain grounded footwork – but the reality is that even technique can’t compensate for that one false step, that one mishap, that lands you on the ground withering in agony.
Just ask former Steeler and Redskins wide receiver, Antwaan Randel El, who played eight years in the NFL. “I have to come down (the stairs) sideways sometimes,” he said. “I ask my wife over and over again and she’s like ‘I just told you that.”
And on the inevitable collisions Randel El adds, “There’s no correcting it. There’s no helmet that’s going to correct it. There’s no teaching that’s going to correct it. It just comes down to it’s a physically violent game. Football players are in a car wreck every week.”
The question remains: What if we eliminated tackling from football? I have wondered from time to time what the sport would be like if this limitation were imposed. Would football still be fun? How would the strategy of the game change? I’ll take a shot at both questions.
Yes, football would still be fun in a non-tackling league. When I think about what I enjoy most about football, head bashing and getting the wind knocked out of me are pretty low on the list. Throughout my four years of just High School football I suffered a sprained wrist, sprained ankle, fractured finger and at least one concussion (I say “at least” one because there were several instances in which I was hit in the head hard, but was unable to make the distinction between a concussion and just another big hit). Those forgotten injury statistics don’t include the couple of times I was hit so hard that I literally saw colors.
Instead, what makes the game fun and exciting is the passing, the receiving, the running, the intercepting, the fumble recovering, the kicking, the returning, the comradery, the celebrating, and most of all, the friendships. Football is the ultimate team sport; the linemen block for the quarterback, who passes the ball to a receiver, while the defense rushes the passer and communicates coverage and blitz responsibilities. As with any players in team sports, football players improve their teamwork skills, become more disciplined workers, and establish a brotherly bond with one another. Perhaps these advantages to playing can still hold true if the game were touch football.
The strategy of offensive and defensive schemes would most likely alter in the passing game. Assuming there would be no need for pads, receivers would feel fleet-footed and lighter. Passing patterns would stretch the field, players would be better able to make quicker cuts, and the concern of coming out of the game from exhaustion would abate. After all, football pads, helmets, and gear can add as much as 15 to 25 pounds to one player’s load.
As far as the running game is concerned, the existence of running plays will depend on blocking. It should be no shocker that linemen are the ones in the worst physical shape when they’re conditioned to bulk up and gain weight to either block or evade blocks. I suppose the manner in which linemen block would have to change and become more…gentle? But remember, ruling a player down is still no easy task in touch football – athletes are shifty! This is why flag football is a useful alternative to the current state of football – you can still run the ball outside and you’re ruled down when a defender grabs your flag, which is not easy.
My point is that football would still be a unique, creative, enjoyable sport if the tackling aspect were removed.
Despite playing multiple positions as a receiver, return man and quarterback, Randel El also admitted his regret without hesitation. “If I could go back, I wouldn’t. I would play baseball. I got drafted by the Cubs in the 14th round, but I didn’t play baseball…Don’t get me wrong, I love the game of football. But, right now, I could still be playing baseball.”
Randel El is also worried about the devastating injuries, and sometimes deaths, associated with High School players. “The kids are getting bigger and faster, so the concussions, the severe spinal cord injuries, are only going to get worse,” he said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow because I love the game of football. But I tell parents, you can have the right helmet, the perfect pads on, and still end up with a paraplegic kid.” Last year alone fifteen High School players lost their life playing the game they loved. These young men are being robbed of their futures.
More evidence looms as time goes by, not necessarily for the end of football, but for a call to change in violent football culture.