How can football be redesigned to prevent serious head injuries? I’m not a football expert, but I love the game, and I’ve been thinking about this question from my perspective as a game designer. I make video games and also run a festival called Come Out & Play
that features a number of new physical, real-world games.
Football’s been changed many times in the past in attempts to make it safer, and the history of this process is actually quite interesting. A lot of the rules we have now were designed to open up the game and make it less about players smashing into each other. But the new rules changed the geometry of the game and actually led to some of the violence we see today. For example, passing actually spreads out the game and allows defenders to build up a head of steam before they hit someone, making injuries more serious.
The NFL is currently trying to adjust the rules to prevent injuries. They’re focusing on tackling and then doling out penalties for certain types of tackles. This may work to some degree, but it’s retroactive and punitive. It says "don't do this" instead of "do this." When you're designing a game, you don't just want to prohibit or punish certain behavior, you want to positively reward players for the behavior you do want to see. So the question for the league becomes, "What is the behavior we want to see? What is the aesthetic we want this game to have?" Once they answer that, they can figure out how to reward it.
Football is obviously a very well-established game with a very popular set of aesthetics. It is both brutal and balletic. It is full of smashmouth tackling and leaping, one-handed catches. The tension between these two characteristics is partially what makes football so fascinating and compelling. It’s like an operatic ballet, but with real danger. This has proven popular.
But if that danger element—principally the danger that comes from tackling—becomes too much for players and viewers to bear, then some of it will need to be removed. So how would you do that? The obvious answer is to remove tackling. You have to do it wholesale. Any half measure is too confusing and too subject to interpretation. This is, I imagine, what they are currently finding.
There are already variants of football that remove tackling: flag football and two-hand touch. With either, the danger in the game will revolve around twisting an ankle, which is a level of injury viewers can bear because it’s not doled out intentionally by another person. Flag football would also reward speed and dexterity. Running up the middle wouldn't be as much of an option because grabbing the flag is much easier than tackling a 300-pound running back. So theoretically you would get more passing and balletic play and less of the smashmouth collisions.
This is a big departure from what we currently have. Right now the game isn't just about one team trying to score a touchdown and the other team trying to stop them. The game is partially about how much punishment you can take and keep playing. To remove the injury you need to remove that part of the metagame or redirect it. You could make it about speed and that type of endurance with more passing, or a larger field that spreads people out and eliminates tackling.
Illustration by Corinna Loo
There are many other possible solutions, but I'd go with flags. It rewards speed and grace. It eliminates hits. I'm sure it would cause other problems, but you can't be sure what those are until players figure out how to optimize around these new rules. The bottom line is that it’s the clearest way to truly prevent concussions and long-term brain damage.
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