In 1995, the NFL changed hip, thigh and knee pads from “mandatory to “recommended equipment because so many players were stripping down that the earlier rule was considered unenforceable.
Thats funny right there (as John Madden might say). Changing a rule because people are breaking it? Arent these the ones youre supposed to enforce? Funnier still: this from the NFL, a league normally incapable of administrative flexibility.
Players are now wearing the “bare minimum: no knee, thigh, kidney, elbow, or forearm pads.
Their motive? Speed, baby, speed. In a brilliant explication, Antuan Edwards, Rams safety, says “The game is so fast, you want to be as light as possible. You feel a difference. At least you want to think you feel a difference.
The game is speeding up. Players are obliged to follow suit, both actually and psychologically.
The NFL will bend the rules because it wants a faster game, too. If basketball and hockey have an opportunity to close the competitive gap, its here. They are fluid and very fast, where football, in the famous words of George Will, often looks like a deliberate combination of violence and committee meetings. Faster players in faster equipment (and someday a mandatory no-huddle offense?) helps secure footballs place as the preeminent game of a very fast culture.
But if I may impinge for a moment on Virginia Postrel territory, this is also a matter of style. There was a saying in the old football: “look like Tarzan, play like Cheeta. Thus did players express their disdain for guys who looked the part but couldnt play to save their lives. “Look like Tarzan, play like Cheeta, was a way of saying that performance counted for more than looks.
But now looks (especially the fast look) are everything. The equipment manager for the Rams, Todd Hewitt, says that rookies who ask for a full complement of pads get ridiculed in practice. One Ram tried a larger, more protective helmet. His teammates said he looked like ‘that little dude on The Flintstones. You want to look fast out there. Now, apparently, its “look like (a) cheetah, play like Tarzan.
Plainly, all this makes a nice little “response set. Players respond to the tempo of the game, the League respond to the demands of consumers and the competitive set, each responds to the other. But, most of all, this is culture responding to practice.
The rules of football are being blithely rewritten (damn the injuries to players and teams) because football wants to remain Americas game. And Americas “game is famously Sicilian or at least Mediterranean in its willingness to make form conform to practice and not, as most of the Northern Europeans would prefer, the other way round. Soccer, thats sacrosanct and, in its rules, as arcane and practice-proof as the European economy. Football? Well, what works here?
Blaine Saipaia, a 330 pound offensive lineman for the Rams, says that diminished padding makes him feel “lighter and freer. This is of course a deeply frightening thought but it nicely describes the state of the American economy, ever larger, ever faster, ever more responsive. And not a moment too soon because Chinas coming. And it won’t be wearing any pads at all.
Fatsis, Stefan. 2004. In the NFL, Playing Safety Doesnt Mean A Lot of Padding. Wall Street Journal. December 28, 2004, pp. A1, A6. (All quotes from.)