This Ain’t No Thinking Thing

In Grade Ten, I played American Football.

I have hated the game ever since.

Make no mistakes, American Football has never been one of my favourite sports.  I joined the team mainly due to peer pressure.  It didn’t take long to confirm that it just wasn’t the sport for me, but I have never been able to pinpoint exactly why I hated it.

Part of it might have been the endless stoppages.  Part of it might have been having different “teams” to play different parts of the game.  Part of it might have been the equipment designed to hurt players under the guise of being protection.  I could never pinpoint it exactly.

Now, almost 6 years later, I can finally understand why I hate the game so vehemently that I can barely call it a sport or acknowledge it as a form of football.

Simply put and with all due respect, American Football is a game for idiots.  It is a game that engages a minimal amount of the brain capacity of its players.  It is a game where any meaningful decision that requires any amount of thought is made by some 60-something standing on the sidelines in a tracksuit.  The only thought process required of a player is “Hit hard” or “Run fast.”

For example, in Sports Illustrated’s NFL Preview edition a story was run titled “What Ever Happened to Tackling?”  (It was billed on the cover as “The Lost Art of Tackling.”)  The main purpose of the article was to bemoan the degradation of tackling as a technical skill in the NFL, but it was also a showcase of just why American Football is not a thinking man’s sport.

Coaches in the NFL teach their players not to think.  They teach them to tackle in one way: straight up and as hard as possible, consequences be damned so long as you hit the guy hard enough to knock him down.  Specifically, Philadelphia Eagles Defensive Coordinator Jim Johnson would teach his players to, according to cornerback Sheldon Brown, “just keep running through like knives” and, according to fellow coach John Harbaugh, “attack like an arrow through snow.”

This mentality pervades the defensive system as a whole.  The standard defensive system teaches players to flood to the ball and gang tackle the ball-carrier.  That part is fine, and it actually makes a lot of sense.  However, this system also frees up the first-up tackler to fly in as hard and as fast as possible.  Because if the first-up tackler misses he assumes that his teammates are going to be right behind him to make the stop.  He assumes that someone will have his back if his thoughtless form of tackling fails; he doesn’t think of the consequences.  But how many NFL highlights have you watched where the first-up tackler flies in without regard for consequences only to be sidestepped on the way to the ball-carrier doing some inane touchdown dance?

In this type of philosophy, there is no thought.  There is only action.  A player is trained to be a heat-seeking missile and once the switch is flipped (read: whistle blown) automatically hunt down any opposition ball carriers.  The technique taught, as bemoaned in the article (in reality tackling technique in the NFL has only really devolved from ‘hit the guy as hard as you can with your shoulder’ to ‘hit the guy as hard as you can’), is non-existent.  The full extent of it is ‘be an irresistable force.’

But let’s look at the technique a little deeper before we call the case closed.  In football the primary goal of any tackle is to force the ball-carrier backwards, or to at least immediately stop them from progressing forwards.  When I played, I was taught to hit up into the ball-carrier, essentially picking them up, thus stopping their forward momentum.  But against a 220lb man running at you at full speed, you can’t just wait for them to come to you if you are to stop them in their tracks.  To truly do so you need to face them with just as much force, which is generated by how much speed you possess at the point of contact.  In these moments where two large men come together, one with the mindset of being an irresistible force and the other with the mindset of being an immovable object, you get something that more resembles a collision than a tackle: whatever little technique you were taught goes out the window in the face of two bodies crunching together at full speed.

Compare this to American Football’s genealogical predecessor, Rugby Union.

Due to the nature of the game, the big hit that has so wowed American audiences in the NFL, College Football, and high school Friday Night leagues across the country is largely eschewed in rugby in favour of a more technically sound, safer form of tackling.  Players tackle with their shoulders instead of charging full-bore into the opposition.  When they do charge full-bore they risk leaving a large hole in defense.   Not charging full-bore and holding a defensive shape requires thought.  It also results in far less injuries involving tackles than what is seen in American Football.

Furthermore, due to the continuous nature of rugby, tacklers must tackle in such a way to either not commit a penalty for disrupting the opposition or inflict a turnover on the opposition.  This requires thought about body position, angles, time, and the laws of the game.  The tackler must process how the opposition ball carrier is coming at them in order to ascertain how best to end up in a favourable position to complete a turnover.  Do they go high and hope to hold the ball up or stay on their own feet?  Do they go low and have to scramble back to their feet before contesting the ball?  Do they have time to even contemplate a turnover or should they just focus on rolling away and re-taking their place in the defensive line?

This level of thought is not required of an American Football player, even on the offensive side of the ball.

On offense, plays are most often called by the coaches on the sidelines.  The thinking is done on the sidelines, all the players have to do is execute.  And still that execution involves no more thought than “run into this gap,” “throw to receiver x,” or “catch the ball.”  As a thinking man’s game, offense in American Football is light-years behind sports such as Hockey, Association Football, or even Curling that demand their players make the key decisions in real-time.

It must be said that some thought goes into the mind games played between the offense and defense at the line of scrimmage, but that is merely a by-product of decisions made on either sideline.  The track-suited coaches on the sidelines make all the important decisions.  And not only during the game: even the crafting of plays is driven by coaches, leaving the players with the simple task of execute the order given.  Also, tied up in each play is a cadence and a series of fakes/bluffs designed to mask what the offense is doing and possibly bait the defence into a penalty.  All of these things, except in the rarest cases, are devised by the men on the sidelines, the players just have to do them.  As such, these mind games are not independent thought, but rather a necessary outcome of two grown men on either sideline trying to keep each other in the dark.

Therefore, as a product of the game’s inherent devaluation of intelligence, there are very few examples of players who can be truly classified as smart players.  Peyton Manning is one (why the Indianapolis Colts even bother with an Offensive Coordinator and/or Quarterbacks Coach is beyond me…).  Green Bay Packer cornerback Charles Woodson is another.  Manning is the only quarterback in the league who truly calls his own plays, often at the line of scrimmage seconds before the ball is snapped, and Woodson is the pioneer of tacklers who think enough to try and strip the ball – thus causing a valuable turnover – in the process of making a tackle instead of following Johnson’s “arrow through snow” method.

Now, American Football fans might try and turn the title of this article against me and argue that American Football isn’t supposed to be about thought, but rather passion.  And that’s fine.  In my opinion, a sport bereft of passion is just as lacking as a sport bereft of thought.  But where does that argument take us?  It is an admittance of a flaw to be sure, since if thought and passion are our two criteria for what makes a good sport it then follows that having only one cannot be better than having both.  No amount of passion can overcome a lack of thought.  It will always be the case that thought plus passion will be better than either of thought or passion on their own.

But I digress.  This article is about why I don’t like American Football.  Those who do like American Football are free to like it as they so choose and for whatever reasons they want.  I long ago realized that, despite my vehement hatred of the sport and everything it stands for, there are many people out there that do like it.  Those people don’t need me telling them that their favourite sport sucks (they already have to put up with watching it for heaven’s sake!!).

It may have taken me six years, but I can now truly understand why I hate American Football.  I value sports that combine thought with passion.  I value sports that don’t require their players to perform like automatons, performing simple functions without thought for the greater picture.

I also value sports where the players don’t celebrate after performing those simple functions like they single-handedly won the Second World War…

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