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Restoring safety and sanity to the gridiron can't simply be left to the NFL's overlords. The pressures on players to perform may be too great, and the financial stakes too high, to expect the league's teams to back dramatic changes. Should others step in? High-level government intervention to quell violence in football would not be without precedent. A story in the Oct. 10, 1905, New York Times reads, "Having ended the war in the Far East, grappled with the railroad rate question and made his position clear, [and] prepared for his tour of the South ... President [Theodore] Roosevelt to-day took up another question of vital interest to the American people. He started a campaign for reform in football." T.R. used his bully pulpit to summon coaches from Harvard, Princeton and Yale to the White House for a little pigskin summit, imploring them to cut down on violent play among the blue bloods.
Can the government intervene now? President Obama has in the past expressed support for a playoff system in college football--a goal whose gravity and significance pale in comparison with the goal of reducing the number of brain injuries occurring at all levels of football. Congress has rarely hesitated to assert its right to police professional sports, from pressuring baseball to enforce tougher steroid penalties to threatening to end the NFL's antitrust exemption. Hearings that shed further light on football's concussion crisis would be a more productive use of the power of the congressional subpoena.
Beyond pols and pros, school boards and colleges, with an eye on legal liabilities, certainly have an interest in making play safer. Parents, and of course players themselves, play a crucial role. The reform movement is desperately needed at the lowest levels of the game, where amateur coaches can cause the most harm to their young players. It should also target the very ways in which football is covered and consumed. Spectators who fetishize the sights and sounds of high-speed collisions share responsibility for those who suffer the consequences of such violent encounters.
Woodrow Wilson once said that football "develops more moral qualities than any other game of athletics." The game has always been a laboratory for traits like teamwork, discipline and perseverance. If it is to remain a metaphor for American exceptionalism, however, we can't let it leave so many victims in its wake. Here's a game plan to lessen the pain:
1. Change the rules.
The NFL's competition committee seems ready to move on player-safety fixes. "You start with the premise that nothing is off the table," says Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, a co-chairman of the committee. This is crucial, as NFL changes will not only protect athletes who suit up on Sunday; they will also trickle down to football's lower levels, reducing injury risk for all.
So go ahead and ditch the three-point stance for linemen, except perhaps for very-short-yardage situations. "You wouldn't be firing out, I guess," says New York Jets guard Alan Faneca, initially skeptical when asked his thoughts about this change. "I'd buy that." Starting linemen upright in a "two-point" stance--two feet, no hands on the ground--would result in more blocking with the arms and hands.