Can Rugby Save The NFL's Extreme Violence Issues?
The news last week that the NFL’s TV ratings are dropping— down 11 percent from the previous season— was greeted with all sorts of interpretations from the media that makes it their business to know what the NFL does.
A number attributed the drop to the recent spate of “social justice” protests by players and some coaches in the NFL. A lot of people (68 percent in one poll) don’t want BLM when they tune in for YAKs and PATs. Politics had reared its ugly head in the NFL and is turning some off the sport.
That seems the trendy answer. The less sexy one, less open to interpretation, is that the NFL is being stung like everyone else in the TV business by the epidemic of cord cutting— people dropping cable or satellite service in favour of the internet or other social outlets. As reported here before, ESPN, the NFL’s principal cable network, is hemorraghing customers.
But a third factor is also haunting the NFL, one that threatens both the health and welfare of players and team owners. As we wrote in our last missive, a number of people are being turned off by the violence of the sport and the physical toll it’s takingplayers. The injury lists are groaning with casualties.
Every game, it seems— Thursdays Bears/ Packers game for instance— seems to feature a series of season- and career-ending injuries to players. Fans are starting to feel guilty about their participation in a blood sport— even when the participants (unlike gladiators) accept the risk.
The hit by Chicago linebacker Danny Trevathan on Green Bay receiver Davonte Adams knocked Adams out of the game and cost the Bears player a two-game suspension for targeting. Adams, who was carted off on a suspension board, remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol. The league is trying to change the way players hit each other, and Trevathan paid the price for this new vigilance.
In some ways it’s hard to blame players like Trevathan. That’s how he was taught to play. Inflicting the most pain on opponents to break their will. President Trump seems to be all-in with the warrior ethic— if you believe his tweets. He wonders if the future of football we know and love will be more like touch football than the tackle variety.
Others look to reduce the harm.
The answer to curbing some, but not all the injuries, may lie with the sport that spawned North American football in Canada and the U.S. Rugby is a game seemingly as risky as tackle football. But in the years since it was invented around 1832, it has come to grips with the same violent impulses— and cries forrestraint— as we now see in the NFL and CFL.
There were deaths and injuries and periodic inquiries into making the sport safer. Medical improvements also forced change. What has rugby learned in its almost 200 years that the North American hybrid can learn so that it pleases both its blood-and-guts fans but also those who don’t want to be spectators to maiming and even death?
The NFL and CFL can learn, as rugby did, that the human body is not equipped for the laser-like striking ability of the modern athlete dressed from head to toe in space-age plastics. Today’s football players are products of training, diet and coaching that enables them to destroy the human body if given a chance.
The world’s best rugby players are also in phenomenal shape, but the governors of the sport have restricted their zone of contact to exclude hits above the head, below the knees or from behind. .
They also restrict dangerous pile-driver tackles and flying hits where a player launches himself at another with the intent to injure. Rugby has also managed to largely keep players of equal size pitted against each other, with smaller, faster players rarely straying too close to the massive brutes in the middle.
They’ve also learned that wearing less padding blunts the killer instinct and discourages the feeling of invincibility that many of the players have in football and hockey when they don a helmet. Rugby players exhibit far more of the live-and-let-live spirit because they feel their vulnerability every second on the pitch.
This is not to say rugby doesn’t have problems with injuries— particularly concussions— that bedevil the NFL, CFL and NHL. It is still a brutish, savage sport where will to win comes packaged in punishing scrums or hard tackles.
But they offer some picture of how to reduce injuries. Rugby has an advantage over football in that it is a flowing game. Pro football is episodic, with teams only getting to keep the ball by earning ten yards. In rugby, teams can tactically surrender yards to stiffen afterwards. The ball is turned over far more often than in football. In the NFL you have to make a stand on every play.
Many fans like President Trump will decry the lowering of spectacular hits and getting rid of some of the equipment— particularly the hard-shelled helmet. If the NFL and CFL want to survive, however, they must find a new path forward. One that lessens the chance of catastrophic injury.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy.is the host of the podcast The Full Count with Bruce Dowbiggin on anticanetwork.com. He’s also a regular contributor three-times-a-week to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also the best-selling author of seven books. His website is Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com)