Football Sustainability: Some Ideas

Submitted by steve sharik on March 29th, 2016 at 10:55 AM

My previous diary came on the heels of the NFL's admission that concussions in football are a problem. Some people expressed they'd like to hear my ideas on how to solve these problems. I posted them at the end of the diary responses, but the thread had died out. I'm re-posting them in another diary, not to say, "LOOK AT MEEEEE!" but with the purpose of getting feedback. I welcome all forms of serious feedback, as there's probably things I haven't thought of (why they wouldn't work) or some physics things I don't understand. So, without further ado, here's some rules ideas I've been tossing around in my head:

  • No launching or diving at another player, whether you're on offense of defense. Only time you're allowed to leave your feet before contact is to try to catch a thrown pass or lateral.
  • Alternating possession, a la basketball. If the offense fumbles, the whistle is immediately blown and it is a dead ball. If it is indeed a fumble, team with the arrow gets the ball. Fumble piles are dangerous in a myriad of ways, and it has been statistically shown that fumble recoveries are random anyway. Or, defense gets the ball. While that may be hard to do in basketball, in football it would be pretty easy to see that team A had possession, then fumbled, ergo, team B gets the pigskin.
  • NO player is allowed to lower his head.
  • A tackle must be secured by actually securing the ball carrier. You can't get a guy down by simply laying a hit. A tackle is when the defender has a hold of the ball carrier. No tripping tackles. If a ball carrier breaks a tackle and then goes down, he can get up and run.

All of the above except alternating possession are 15-yard penalties for 1st offense, DQ for 2nd.

Headgear and uniform ideas:

  • non-hard shell, but need to engineer a protective face mask. At least in boxing the athletes are trying to protect their face which they know the opponent is attempting to hit.
  • hadn't thought of the "grease the helmet" thing...interesting idea by user trackcapt. Perhaps silicone spray?
  • race cars are designed to shatter on impact to absorb force. Hard-shell helmet could be structured not to shatter per se, but come apart on an impact of a pre-determined force, and then easily be able to be snapped back together. Somewhat like a glorified Lego. (Boy wouldn't they love to get their hands on some of that NFL money and # of impressions?)
  • All linemen wear gloves w/o fingers so they cannot grab an opponent. Okay, they couldn't catch a ball very well or secure a fumble, but the alternating possession rule would rule that moot.
  • No hard-shell shoulder pads.
  • Clampons (just kidding)
  • protective girdles that are lightweight and pad everything from belt to knee--there would be a lot of shoulder hits to the thigh area if the rest of these were adopted

Okay, now let's hear everyone say how stupid these are, how they would ruin the game, woosify 'murica, etc.




March 29th, 2016 at 11:39 AM ^

There are two parts to your diary, the part dealing with changing the game and the second part, improved protection of the player.

As to the first part, at some point, you change the game enough, its appeal as a spectator sports starts being diminished.  We have largely eliminated kickoffs as a viable part of the game.  At some point, enough is enough.

As for protection, and I've done some research on this subject professionally, there are some very significant problems. It seems that some of the worst trauma happens from rotational forces to the head.  It's much easier to cushion a linear force.  Beyond that, studies have shown that you need not have head to head impacts to create CTE.  When two bodies collide, such as an O- and D-lineman, the declerative forces of the collision amplified through the neck are enough to create movement of the brain within the skull.  These forces can literally happen on almost every blocking play.  

There needs to be a biochemical solution - a drug that can be taken that mediates the impact of brain movement.  Unless and until you find such a solution, I personally believe the game has rough sledding ahead.  This latest admission by the NFL did not help, and now the NHL is getting itself embroiled with issues.


March 29th, 2016 at 11:38 AM ^

I've mentioned in previous threads that I really like how youth hockey has tried to handle this - there's no contact below age 14 (IIRC). Hockey without checking is still hockey, how do you play football without contact? You dont.

However - I think that at least some of your ideas could filter down to the youth level with minimal disruption to actual football. What if NFL & College (and probably high school) stay the same. These are adults/near adults who can decide the risks for themselves. At worst, the actual cumulative head trauma should be limited if YOUTH football (let's say younger than high school) adopted some of these.

Why can't youth football alternate possessions? Rules are already different in lots of sports. College hoops doesn't do jump balls, that seems to be OK. Why not have youth linemen wear mittens? They'll learn to block better without holding.

I'd love to see youth football nationally adopt some of these, but there's no reason they couldnt do that without "leaving" college/nfl alone.


March 29th, 2016 at 11:40 AM ^

How would the new fumble rule affect things like high snaps, pitches, and more? And the bit about tackling, it would be interseting to note how many tackles would be voided in a few case studies of games to see if this is truly viable.

Secondly, I've heard getting rid of hardshell helmets, but I would rather see a soft/hard/soft helmet design. If I understand correctly the hard layer allows force to be distributed to a larger area, more evenly, yet, because it allows elastic collisions is a problem itself.

Ali G Bomaye

March 29th, 2016 at 12:27 PM ^

I don't think the proposed fumble rule is workable.  For instance, if a guy is getting tackled and the ball comes loose a little bit, but he lands on it and quickly recovers possession, is that now a turnover?  We'd have all kinds of ridiculous challenges.  It would make the catch rules look simple.


March 29th, 2016 at 11:46 AM ^

I think there may be some potential in saying "only wrap-up tackles count" but there are certaintly some pitfalls too.

For example, if you trip the ball carrier and it doesn't count, that means they're on the ground and still a live target.  Not hard to imagine that scenario ending up being way more dangerous - how would you handle that?

Ali G Bomaye

March 29th, 2016 at 12:25 PM ^

In rugby, a tackler is required to try to wrap up, kind of like the rule he describes.  But obviously there are situations where the ball carrier is just tripped up but not wrapped up and ends up on the ground.  As long as the tackler has to try to wrap up, I don't see how this changes anything, either with the college tackling rules or the NFL ones.


March 29th, 2016 at 11:49 AM ^

I watched the 30 for 30 on the 85 Bears this weekend. They showed some scenes from when Ditka was playing in the NFL. He had a helmet with one bar across the face. I know they used to play with leather helmets and helmets with single bar facemasks, but it was still a little jarring to see. I'm used to seeing kickers with the single bar facemask, not tight ends. His whole face was basically exposed. Imagine a hockey goalie without a facemask. That's dangerous and can lead to broken noses and poked eyes and all sorts of facial trauma.

The boxing helmet idea intrigues me, because that still gives more protection to the face, but isn't hard where it could be used as a weapon with no fear of facial damage/head trauma. There is still head trauma with the hard helmet, but I think the players feel invincible with the helmet and massive face mask. They are tricked into thinking they aren't hurting their brain by the collision but in reality, it's the deceleration of the skull while the brain is still hurtling forward that is causing the damage. That shouldn't be as big a problem with softer headgear. I'd like to compare how many concussions there were in the old days with leather helmets, but I'm sure that data doesn't exist. The comparison to make is between modern football and rugby. I'd like to take the, "I feel this..." out of it and rely more on hard data.


March 29th, 2016 at 12:22 PM ^

As a premise lets agree that at the professional level brain trama is a serious risk, and if you play long enough perhaps an unavoidable consequnce of playing. I submit that the long term risk of playing professional football is very different that the risk of playing in college, and virtually unrelated to the risk of playing in high school.

The number of games played in a professional football career is far more than in four seasons of college ball, and the impact and violence in the pros is higher. The number of games played in college is significantly more than in high school and the level of violence in college exceeds that in high school. 

Extrapolating the risks of brain trama detected from the pros to college and then to high school seems quite a leap. Especially since soccer has generally higher risk at all levels. 

Professional football is played by grown men. Adults who are capable of weighing the trade offs and making an informed decision about the risks. There is an argument to be made that some of that information was not appropriately shared, but in the end it's their bodies and their choice, as to if and how long they play. 

While at times it is popular to refer to college athletes as "kids" the simple truth is they are legally adults. No one forces any student to accept a scholarship to play football or any other sport. As adults they to are free to weigh the risks and decide whether or not to play. 

When we come to high school, things are different. Parents have an obligation to determine the level of risk in high school football and decide if they want their sons to play. However at this point knowledge to truly assess the risk in high school is far from complete. 

Life is not without risk. I fully support the ongoing research into the nature of brain trama in sports generally and football in specific. I have no doubt that protective equipment will continue to advance and, as the nature of brain trama is better understood, will evolve to provide better protection against  all injury mechanisms. In the meantime, while it's useful to be aware of the issues, perhaps we should all not rush to "fix" a situation about which we have at best a very marginal understanding.


March 29th, 2016 at 1:05 PM ^

I think it's a fair point that people who are adults and make the decision to play the game and suffer the physical and mental toll will be the ones that play. That's already how it is. But with people abandoning football because of it, how can the sport continue without addressing some of the realities of the damage the game intrinsically does to your body?

For example, my parents would never let me play growing up and I'm sure I won't let my kids, even though I love the game.


There's a large philosophical question for the sport as well though, which is, what defines football as a entity, and what sacrafices can be made to perpetuate it without damaging the nature of the sport? e.g. Southpark's Sarcastiball.


March 31st, 2016 at 11:40 PM ^

Concussions is not just a football issue, there are plenty of other sports where brain trauma/concussions occure.  It is just that football is the biggest moneymaker thus the biggest target.

There have been several players who have retired from the NFL after 1 or 2 years because of concussions, most of which they got in college and highschool.   Chris Borland former Nebraska LB is one of the most recient who has walked away from the game.  As far as no tackle before middle school (13-14) 7th grade, why not limit it to flag football till then you still have to teach proper blocking technique, and the other fundamental skills. Then when they are old enough to really understand the bio-mechanics behind making a proper tackle teach that and complete the training.

Two examples.……

Cosmic Blue

March 29th, 2016 at 12:26 PM ^

Not a fan of your first rule...
  • No launching or diving at another player, whether you're on offense of defense. Only time you're allowed to leave your feet before contact is to try to catch a thrown pass or lateral.

would this also make plays at the goalline where players leap over the pile illegal? or what about people leaping over defenders to avoid low tackles? Diving to block a punt/FG? I'm sure there are other non-dangerous plays this rule would eliminate that we would miss

I think your 'no lowering the head' rule provides better protection for players and that this rule is not really necessary


The tackle rule you propose seems great in spirit, but i think it would be incredibly hard to enforce. I think you need to elaborate with more objective definitions for what a tackle would be under this rule.


Ali G Bomaye

March 29th, 2016 at 12:33 PM ^

I think the three proposals that make sense are (1) no launching/diving, (2) no lowering the head, and (3) the tackler must try to wrap up and not just hit.

I don't think the alternating-possession-on-fumbles rule is enforceable, although it's an interesting idea.  There would be too many ambiguous situations where the officials would have to determine whether a player maintained possession of the ball completely or not.

And the soft-shell helmet idea has been explored before, for instance, in the early 90s with the "Pro Cap" helmets.  The problem is that soft shell helmets absorb more torque when hit because they stay in contact with the opposing helmet longer, leading to a higher risk of neck injuries.

Limiting hard shoulder pads is another idea I like, although it would be a radical change.  This is similar to rugby, which allows players to wear shoulder pads made of no more than 1 cm of soft foam.  It would certainly influence defenders not to use their bodies as a weapon.  That said, football has a far greater potential for violent hits than rugby does due to downfield passing and blocking, so this might be unworkable.


March 29th, 2016 at 1:29 PM ^

I like the no launching or diving and heads up rules and think they help emphasize proper technique.  

I think the take down by wrapping up without the hit has two problems:  1.  It overly limits the tools available to defensive players and 2. Takes something away from the sport and subjects it to a "death by a thousand cuts".

I don't know enough to comment on the possible equipment changes, but I think whatever avenues can be explored should be.  

On a meta level put me down in the, "There is a problem but I don't think it's existential." camp.  Boxing isn't what it used to be because people thought it was corrupt and not that it was dangerous.  The football and hockey handwringing seem to be coming from a couple different groups:

1.  The legions of parents who have always thought football was too dangerous, as the current fetishization of child safety continues that number of parents was always going to grow larger.  (As a personal example I can't currently get my wife to even consider letting the kids walk to another kids house three streets away by themselves and my son is eight.  It seems like madness to me and frankly, it's starting to make my son a wreck, but if I try to bring this up the emotions just rise up and I get shouted down).  These parents also tend to be very........strident in their views, so their numbers may be seem larger than they actually are.

2.  Sportswriters who have to come up with some angle on stories and know that raising questions about, "The future of the game" burnishes their deep thinker cred.

For the most part I feel like adults and near-adults who have been informed about the possible risks they are signing themselves up for can make their own decisions, which is why the NFL trying to sweep the concussion data under the rug is a problem.  Get the information out there and let people decide, it's not like photos of retired players hands and reports of the long terms effects of non-brain injuries haven't been out there for a long time.  I am willing to bet at the end of the day, the number of people who decide football is still worth playing is still pretty high as there is a lot of good things that playing rougher sports can teach you.  There will be some things done to make the game safer and thats all to the good, I get nervous when the energy turns toward being supportive of banning it.  


March 29th, 2016 at 1:44 PM ^

The future of football will be played by those robots shown in the Fox graphics for the NFL.  People will be wearing suits and VR headsets and will control robots that play the actual game. 


March 29th, 2016 at 2:20 PM ^

Most of the comments here are nit-picks about the weird consequences of various rules relative to what we are accustomed to seeing in the game.

But that's kind of the point: the rules changes theorized here (and I'm not sure I like them either) are serious, visible changes. And they have to be, because the number of players suffering serious damage is becoming disturbingly high. So in an environment where serious change needs to take place, Sharik is suggesting serious changes.

So in the hypothetical scenario where these occur, yeah, it's going to be challenging to enforce, and it's going to be a lot different.

The price of saving the sport, maybe, if it comes to it.

steve sharik

March 29th, 2016 at 2:47 PM ^

Anyone with a good understanding of physics have a comment on this one:


[R]ace cars are designed to shatter on impact to absorb force. [A] [h]ard-shell helmet could be structured not to shatter per se, but come apart on an impact of a pre-determined force, and then easily be able to be snapped back together, [s]omewhat like a glorified Lego.


March 29th, 2016 at 3:31 PM ^

From a physics standpoint sure, destructibles can be used to absorb energy.  From a practical standpoint there may be some issues.  For one thing, if your helmet "breaks" on the first hit, then when that second tackler (or the ground) hits you in that same play you would have a helmet with reduced effectiveness.


March 29th, 2016 at 3:36 PM ^

I'm no physicist, but I believe part of what makes the shattering car work is the energy that translates through the bodywork, crumpling and shredding the carbon fiber. It is that widespread deformation that absorbs so much energy. A helmet with pre-designed fracture points (necessary to be reusable) is going to fracture quickly without much energy loss. It's worth noting that race cars do still maintain a rigid tub around the driver that is NOT supposed to deform.

Now, modern bike helmets can and do fracture to absorb crash energy, but they are designed to be crashed only once. Defeats the purpose for football.

The Maizer

March 29th, 2016 at 5:00 PM ^

Nailed it. Plastic deformation, the creation of new surfaces, phase transformations. That is how energy is absorbed in an impact of a structure or material designed to break. Something that is clipped in or Lego-style is only absorbing the relatively tiny amount of energy stored in the stress of the clips or the squeezed pegs of a Lego; and then the kinetic energy of the pieces that fly off (also tiny).


March 29th, 2016 at 4:51 PM ^

So, the force has to go somewhere. If the force "Breaks" the helmet, that's a plus. This is actually how bike helmets work - that plastic shell is good until it breaks, after that, the helmet is worthless.

Snapping it back together is interesting, but so far not an option. Sports helmets in general have been designed (so far) to protect against cracking skulls. Which they've become very good at. In terms of design-for-failure as a way to absorb energy, that happens. It's what happens with crumple zones, race cars, etc. Football helmets have not done this because the goal was to provent fractured skulls.

Another big problem with the concussion-prevention is not the head-to-thing contact, but rather the brain-to-skull contact from whiplash style forces. Helmets can't help with that.


March 29th, 2016 at 4:01 PM ^

Helmets don't all need to be the same. I can't do the physics, but maybe if all offensive players wore one kind of helmet (soft within hard within soft, for example) and all defensive players something different (soft within hard, as at present, for example), there would be less torque applied to heads. Maybe offense and defense could switch by quarter.


March 29th, 2016 at 4:47 PM ^

I'm not sure how anyone can really advise or actually think the game of football will die. All you can do is try to improve it. But killing it off would be supported by who exactly??? No one is made to play? This isn't a government institution. You will always have people willing to play for money and accept the health risks. You may see degradation in quality in players if less are willing to play, especially from a young age. If the players want to play and the owners want to own and the manager want to manage, the game won't die until the public stops watching... which ummm... there are sports specifically to beat the crap out of each other.


March 29th, 2016 at 6:23 PM ^

I'm kind of surprised that colleges and the NFL haven't put some sort clause in contracts and scholarships that players acknowledge the inherent risks associated with the sport and choose to play at their own risk, essentially releasing the NFL and colleges from the brain injuries suffered (with the assumption that all proper medical care has been taken by the NFL and colleges).


March 29th, 2016 at 4:52 PM ^

I applaud the OP and everyone else here who offers creative ideas to a troubling issue.

That said, I do agree with those who say that implementing major changes fundamentally changes the game.  For example, if lunging/diving were outlawed, how do players defend passes?  Is it just leaving one's feet to hit other players that is forbidden?

I'm really curious to know if the incidence of CTE is greater in football players than in other contact sports like rugby or soccer or hockey. I don't think it's accurate to assume the incidence of CTE from football has increased in recent years; we simply are much, much more aware and invested in the issue.

I read an interesting article about an Alzheimer's study on elderly nuns that indicates people's cognition and memory are not impacted equally by the disease; some with badly diseased brains maintain a high level of cognition and memory:…

It's reasonable to assume that wide variation exists in CTE brains as well. There's so much still to learn!


March 30th, 2016 at 3:06 PM ^

if that were amended to "to try to catch or defend a thrown pass or lateral" that might work.  Most break-ups are not attempts to catch. After all, there is a PBU stat for a reason.

I'm not trying to nit-pick; I'm interested in this topic, and trying to imagine how such changes might work in the real world.

It seems to me there would be a huge advantage to offensive players if these rules were implemented, especially in open-field tackling and pass defense. Video game scoring.


March 29th, 2016 at 5:55 PM ^

I've long thought if they would just enforce "stop when the whistle blows" they could largely solve this. Yes, there's going to be some ref's judgment controversy, but it currently works pretty well overall with late hits, so I don't see why it can't work with fumble pile-ons. And yes, until players get used to it, the refs will be having to tally up a bunch of offenders from both sides to see which team ends up with the net penalty.  In any event, whichever team ends up penalized does not get possession, ever.


March 29th, 2016 at 6:15 PM ^

...and probably the most enforceble. It would bring the game back to the rugby laws, but you may also need to add another rugby law that tackling is only legal between the shoulders and knees of the ball carrier.

The other ideas have too many issues. Don't forget that the rule about ball carriers being down when any body part other than hands or feet touches the ground was put in to eliminate dangerous "johnny piles". Your "get up and run" idea would undo that.


March 29th, 2016 at 6:26 PM ^

Is this meant to be serious? This is so unpractical. You're telling me a tackler can't make a diving attempt at a tackle? How do you enforce the rule that players can't leave their feet? Players can't jump to swat a pass?
Your equipment ideas make sense but your rules changes are ridiculous.


March 29th, 2016 at 7:11 PM ^

is facing a crisis which can result in one of two outcomes. Continue it as played with some minor modifications to reduce injuries or abolish it. There is no in between. The likelihood of abolishing it are slim to none. The public's appetite for the game is insatiable. Players know the risk and can choose to play knowing serious injuries may result.

This much I know. If I had children, they would not be allowed to play football or soccer.



March 29th, 2016 at 8:10 PM ^

Interesting ideas, but you'd have to be prepared for games with almost constant penalties for at least some period of time.  They have to do at least something incremental to get the head less involved.  Not just on the big hits, but in all contact.