NFL Rules: Game Plan for America?

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In 1905, after he had taken on the trusts, President Theodore Roosevelt turned his attention to more serious matters and convened a White House summit on the vital of issue of...well

That season had seen the death of eighteen players, and Teddy knew that it was time to act decisively.

He and his peace council, which included a number of college presidents, decided that America could not face the political future unless a first down was ten, not five yards and the forward pass was given a presidential blessing. Until that time, most of the game was on the ground.

In the years after the football summit, women were given the vote, prosperity reigned for much of the century, and neither fascists, communists, nor even radical Muslims have ever challenged the inalienable American right to the forward pass.

In trade terms, this is known as a competitive advantage, one of the few we have over the Chinese, so now might be the time to take another look at the winter game. (Hey, Hu Jintao, you want the NFL? Go to the NFL.)

In the wake of renewed violence in Iraq, escalation in Afghanistan, potential failure in Copenhagen, and the costs of health care reform, I did what I always do in moments of national crisis, and watched another football game, although to be clear it was with the idea that with a few Rooseveltian rule changes America might yet move up in world standings.

I probably spend a little more time than I should thinking about and watching professional football, but it’s only because my devotion to the New York Jets is in the national interest. (What’s your excuse on Sunday afternoons?)

Leaving aside that the Jets are in the fortieth year of their rebuilding program, I can’t escape the feeling that making professional football more freewheeling would make America a little more confident and spontaneous.

Take the decision on Afghanistan. If the Afghan policy had been made by Marshall, Randy, Brent, Coach Cowher, Deion, John, Steve, Dan, Shannon, Herm, Phil, or Jaws, at least we would have some good diagrams, lots of reruns, and maybe even a booth review. Instead we ended up with a game plan that feels like a Hail Mary dreamed up by the offensive coordinator of the Detroit Lions.

As an adjunct to the advertising industry, professional football is a wonderful product. It can build excitement for just about any game. (“Stay tuned. Can Kansas City turn its season around with a win in Tampa Bay?”) It has figured out how to stretch the last two minutes of each half into a long weekend, and it has elevated instant replay to an instrument worthy of the Supreme Court.

But as a sport, let’s face it, and as much as I love it, football is more and more coming to resemble professional wrestling. The sack dance after a simple tackle? Those burlesque 400-pounders taking it to the house? The obsession with brooding dandies like T.O and Ochocinco? Is it any wonder that the Muslim world talks a lot of trash?

Are politics much better? We have trillion dollar deficits, undeclared wars, a Congress that more and more resembles the Raider Nation, and no proof that our children is learning. (And don’t get me started on why the Jets drafted Vernon Gholston.)

Much as I am willing to cede national affairs to the National Football League, I still think that the sport needs a few presidential reforms. As my friend Charles Harris likes to say, there are too many “dead spots” in the average football game, which is played in fits and starts between the Viagra ads and the trailers for yet another prime time autopsy.

To save football, if not America, from turning into a televised side show, here are a few modest proposals, suitable for the next White House beer summit:

  • Get rid of the fair catch on punts and, as in Canada, mandate a safe zone around the return man, who is otherwise obligated to make a run for it;
  • Reward kicking teams by getting rid of the touchback and require that all kicks (except those that roll out of the end zone) be returned;
  • Think about weight limits for players (who now look like animated cattle) to restore to the game its fast pace and the improvisation of scat backs. Why should size largely determine who can play the game?
  • Reform the extra point, one of the deadest moments in any game. It’s just there to stop the clock for more ads. Bring back the drop kick, spot the ball on the 30 yard line, or make teams line it up where they crossed the end zone, as is the case with rugby. But try anything to give the moment the excitement of a soccer penalty kick;
  • Eliminate the need for six down offensive linemen (a bad Roosevelt reform), and let teams spread the field with offensive players, as happens now in some college programs. Who would not love seeing eight men out for a pass?
  • Award four points for a field goal over fifty yards. My friend Charles thinks this is a stunt, like basketball’s three-point play, but I am for anything that allows a losing team to make the game close in the fourth quarter;
  • End the artificial distinction by which running backs just have to “cross the plane” of the end zone, but then in order to score receivers have to have “two feet in bounds.” In the interest of higher scoring games, let any touch of the end zone, by a receiver or ball carrier, count for a touchdown.
  • Don’t stop the clock when the ball is carried out of bounds, except in the last two minutes of each half. European soccer doesn’t ever stop its clock, and that game has a delightful flow. It’s one thing America can safely import from Europe.

Will it take a constitutional convention to get my ideas approved? It might, given that most Americans would rather change the Constitution than mess with the rules of football. But returning speed and spontaneity to the game might also have the same effect on the country’s politics, which in the age of Roosevelt were not subject to “further review” or endless “challenges.” And it was an era of sustained peace.

Consider this: When Roosevelt was president, more Americans died on the gridiron than fell on foreign fields. And he found even those deaths unacceptable. When Teddy went to West Point, it was to strut around in a raccoon coat, not to send college seniors into dubious battle.

Matthew Stevenson is author of An April Across America and the soon to be published Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited. In a subsequent article he will write about how the game of professional football became hostage to monopoly money.


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