The NFL Doesn’t Control Football, Nobody Does

Commentators love to talk about the rulebook, but there’s now way to control a violent game.

Football was made for television. Well, it was remade for television anyway. If you actually watch footage of a Yale vs. Harvard blowout from the thirties, the first thing you’ll think is: “I could run for 10,000 yards a season against that defense.” The second thing you think is: “This looks like mayhem.” That’s right. It was mayhem.

Today’s NFL contests don’t look like that at all. There are seven officials working each game. They all have flags – Youngstown State coach Dwight Beede invented those during a mess of a game against Oklahoma City in 1941 – and whistles and disturbingly well-developed biceps. There are coaches and coordinators and everyone is wearing a headset. The least put together coaching staff (read: the Patriots coaching staff) still looks like a NASCAR pit crew trying to hustle people at a soap box rally. The Chargers coaching staff looks like a homecoming committee at Beverly Hills High.

The whole thing, in short, reeks of organization. Hell, the commentators have been convinced to call the actual franchises “organizations,” as though the ACLU and the NRA were about have at it, which we’d totally watch that by the way. The idea that, within this streamlined ecosystem, a coach like Bill Belichick or, even worse, a star like Tom Brady would flout the rules seems outrageous: No one has such cunning and guile.

Actually, everyone does. The NFL can’t impose order. They can only impose the perception of order. And, at that, they are without peer.

The best part is when they bring out the chains. Could the NFL put a chip in the ball to precisely map its progress? Yes. Are they going to? Absolutely not. The reason is simple: The NFL loves security theater. Every time men in thick pinstripes use an officious tone of voice and look under a hood or move a measuring stick, an executive in Midtown Manhattan trills like a finch. The league is built on the idea that football is an organized sport and takes it as gospel that said organization comes from the top.

It isn’t and it doesn’t.

Go to an NFL game and take a good hard look at the sideline. There will be roughly 42 players – not counting the injured – engaged in roughly 42 activities. The cheerleaders will be milling around. The reporters will be rubbing shoulders with (or having their shoulders rubbed by) wideouts and linemen will be gossiping with the training staff. Even the most tyrannical coaches can’t maintain control on the sidelines and control on the gridiron has never been more than a myth.

NFL players will tell you the truth: The game has a 100 percent injury rate. To be a football player is to accept the fact that you’re going to end up in physical therapy. That’s the way this thing goes. And the difference between a torn achilles this year and a torn achilles after a contract extension is tens of millions of dollars. Expecting the players to do anything short of clawing each other’s eyes out is incredibly naive. Given the financial structure of the game, it’s a tribute to the players that there aren’t more on-field brawls. It’s a tribute to the players that they don’t pull out the rulebook and beat each other with it. Tell a bunch of Goldman Sachs employees that whoever hits the hardest will get the biggest bonus. See how that goes.

The NFL rulebook exists and that’s about all you can say for the damn thing. It’s so specific – 12.5  psi, not tk psi – that it all but assures teams will find myriad ways to gain an advantage. The rulebook incentivizes coaches and players to think of elaborate schemes, dirty tricks, and hard-to-detect cheap shots, in order to get one over on the other team and the refs. If you think Bill Belichick is a cheater and your clipboard-wielding hero is above reproach, you should probably find a different sport to watch.

Football is chaos. It always was. The only guys who believe in an even playing field are the guys who have never stepped on one. Is it possible to flatten the thing? Sure, but it’s gonna get torn up on that first down. There are no level fields will men on them.