Man Down: Football Has Changed For The Better, But We Can Do More

It was a mild October afternoon at the Yale Bowl stadium in New Haven, Connecticut. The year was 1931, and nearly 75,000 people were in attendance to see the 31st meeting between Yale and Army, one of the longest running rivalries in college football.

They were to see players like Army star Ray Stecker and Yale’s Robert (Bob) Lassiter, who would go on to become an All-American and team captain. What they eventually saw was one of the most tragic events in football history.

Amongst the Army players was a young cadet named Richard (Dick) Sheridan, who was in third year at West Point. In the fourth quarter of the game, with the score tied 6 to 6, Army kicked off to Yale following a Yale touchdown. At that time college teams were allowed to choose whether to kick or receive after conceding a touchdown. Army’s choice to kick was a fatal one.

Sheridan, a 21 year-old tight end, dived at Lassiter, who had received the kick for Yale. As more tacklers came in to haul the runner down, the bodies cleared to reveal Sheridan lying on the turf.

Sheridan had fractured his fourth cervical vertebra, and was rushed to hospital. Despite the presence of several of the country’s best brain and nerve specialists, there to attend a conference happening at Yale, he was pronounced dead less than 48 hours later.

Dick Sheridan was not the first player to die from a footballing injury and he was not the last. In fact, 1931 is considered to be one of the deadliest years on record, as TIME reported 40 deaths as a result of the sport in that year alone.

Football was violent by design; it’s part of why we love it so much. It was built on blood and thunder, on strength and speed, on guts and glory. But over the years, the game has changed to benefit both the players on the field and the people collecting the checks upstairs.

Nowadays, every time a key player gets hurt, questions are raised about the dangers of the sport and the legitimacy of the rules in place to protect the players. While any sane person would agree the injury to Aaron Rodgers this week was incidental and a clean hit, it did raise concerns over the risks players still face.

Football is America’s sport for a reason; it’s a show of courage, independence and fight, but despite all the changes for the better since the first football game in 1869, there is still more to be done to protect the players we all love so much.

Violent by Design – Football’s Beginnings 

American football developed in the 19th century from a mixture of association football (soccer) and rugby, which were both extremely dangerous sports.

Medieval versions of soccer were incredibly violent and it was not until the 13th century that it became a ball-kicking sport, after a player was killed by an opponent’s knife.

Soccer was actually banned in England in 1314 by King Edward II and did not become an organised team sport until the 16th century. Even then, players were regularly killed during games and it was banned again on multiple occasions.

Modern versions of rugby were born much later, though similarities can be drawn between rugby and ancient Greek and Roman games.

Football itself had no official rules, but it quickly gathered pace at colleges and universities this side of the Atlantic. Some schools were essentially playing soccer, while other versions more closely resembled rugby.

In 1869, the first recognised American football game took place between New Jersey (now Princeton) and Rutgers. Princeton became one of the three main pioneers of the sport, along with Harvard and Yale.

Walter Camp, now known as the “father of American football,” left Yale in 1880 and devoted his life to improving the sport.

Camp convinced other schools to field 11 players instead of 15, painted measuring lines on the field and came up with several of the terms we now use today, such as quarterback.

The game was still incredibly violent. A ball carrier would try and move the ball forward underneath piles of men until they submitted. Teams used tactics like the infamous “flying wedge,” a V-shaped attack that originated from a military tactic. The ball was quite literally inched forward punch by punch, limb by limb.

Football was intentionally violent. It was a show of masculinity, strength and brevity. But in 1905, those very traits that attracted so many fans to the game nearly caused its downfall.

1905 – The Year Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football

It is not known for sure how many people were killed playing football in 1905, as official stats were not recorded until 1931. That said, it was a number high enough to cause concern. As the number of deaths rose, so did the voices calling for the abolition of the sport.

Despite a staunch defence of the sport from many, there were enough doubters to lead several schools to ban the sport, which is when President Roosevelt stepped in.

Roosevelt loved football. He believed it was a character-building sport that demanded physical play, but he also acknowledged the need to abolish certain aspects of the game, like deliberately injuring opponent players.

Roosevelt called a meeting of representatives from Harvard, Yale and Princeton, which eventually developed into a reform meeting of around 60 schools later that year.

In 1910, the committee changed its name to the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The Issue of Player Care

Of course, the game has changed drastically in the last 100 years, but one thing that has only recently taken a front seat is player care. Player care must be a top priority, as stressed by Richard Sherman in his comments to The Players’ Tribune in 2016.

“They’re (the NFL) a bottom line business. Once a player isn’t on their rosters then they don’t care. Does the league care when Cam Newton gets hit in the face five times and pretty much knocked out the game? If you take the reigning MVP out of a game with the game on the line it would affect the ratings.”

Richard Sherman

Sherman was speaking shortly after the whole country had watched Cam Newton take several illegal helmet-to-helmet hits from the Broncos defense in the 2016 season opener.

Newton continued playing, despite clear signs of a concussion; something the NFL concussion protocol is supposed to prevent.

Both the NFL and NCAA have made efforts in recent years to improve the wellbeing and future health of their players, but there is still a feeling that teams and players will look past the protocols if the game is on the line.

“Key players in crunch time rarely ever get removed for an evaluation, probably because the spotter doesn’t want to be blamed for creating a competitive disadvantage if, as it turns out, Newton didn’t have a concussion.”

Mike Florio, creator and owner of ProFootballTalk

Last season, Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore sat out for just one play after taking a massive hit from Steeler Bud Dupree. Whether or not Moore suffered a concussion is not really the point; one play is simply not long enough to check someone after a hit like that. The Dolphins’ punishment for seemingly ignoring the concussion protocol? A strongly worded letter from the NFL.

While Rodgers’ injury on Sunday was likely unavoidable and certainly not an illegal hit, it was another reminder of the risks these players face every time they step on the field for our entertainment. The rules in place to protect players are being improved constantly, but instances like the hits to Newton show there is still not enough being done to truly care for these players.

Football has changed for the better in the last 100 years, but simply due to the nature of the game it will never be “safe.” The NFL and other governing bodies like the NCAA must keep striving to improve player safety and protocols. Even more importantly, they need to be far stricter in both enforcing those rules and punishing teams and players who violate them.

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