Ideally, you should be able to play any game without referees or umpires. Players of sport should also be sportsmen. Officials of sport should make rulings, not serve as cops keeping athletes from maiming each other.
But that is exactly what is happening in football. It is naive and dangerous to think otherwise. Certain practices of coaching and play have evolved that have increased the likelihood of injury. And the higher the level of play, the more brutal the practices. Yet football has not yet become Rollerball. Skill, not mayhem, is still its primary attraction.
But the game has changed. Skill and technique and teamwork have lost ground to intimidation and wanton aggression; ruthless play within the rules has led to unconscionable acts that have contributed to an injury rate that is now unacceptable—and to increasing litigation by an increasingly litigious society. Football has become a game in which rule-maneuvering is so much a way of life that the men who coach it, and the men who play it, are often indifferent to the game's aberrations.
"The basic problem of football today," says Davey Nelson, the University of Delaware athletic director and secretary-editor of the NCAA Rules Committee, "is not to see if you can win within the rules, but to see how much you can get away with to help win."
The process by which permissible aggression becomes mayhem is not difficult to trace. Sometimes it can be found simply by listening to the young men who play the game:
Dean Payne is a linebacker at Northwestern. He is a sophomore from Chester, Pa. Says Payne, "All the coaches stress gang tackling. You're taught to be there at the ball—once you're there, you're not supposed to stare at it. You're supposed to pile on. It becomes a really violent state of mind—you really get fired up and motivated to get someone. Everyone accepts things like late hits as part of the game."
The college player advances into the pros, where his aggression is marketable and becomes a springboard to affluence. Jean Fugett, from Amherst, now is a tight end for the Washington Redskins.
"I never understood the real violence of the game until I played pro ball," Fugett told Charley McKenna of The Milwaukee Sentinel. "I had to work very hard to be aggressive. I used to have to start making up stuff like, 'This guy raped my mother' to get physical enough to really hit him.... Intimidation is the biggest part of the game. You can't let anyone get away with anything because everything you do is on film. If you let yourself be intimidated, the team you play next week will see it on the films and may try the same thing."
Fugett said that when he played for the Dallas Cowboys he tried to avoid brute force, to make blocks with finesse. He said his style did not sit well with Assistant Coach Mike Ditka, a former All-Pro tight end.
"Ditka was always saying I wasn't aggressive enough. Do you want to know how Ditka taught us how to block in Dallas? He told us to fire out and hit [the opponent] in the chest with our helmets, then bring both arms up like this and hit [him] with both fists [in the groin]. Now I just couldn't do that, and I didn't. But if a guy does that to me, it's different.... This is one job where you can come to work every day and really take out your frustrations."