Playing like Tarzan

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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.

That’s funny right there (as John Madden might say). Changing a rule because people are breaking it? Aren’t these the ones you’re 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, it’s 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 football’s 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 couldn’t 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, it’s “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 America’s game. And America’s “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, that’s 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 China’s coming. And it won’t be wearing any pads at all.


Fatsis, Stefan. 2004. In the NFL, Playing Safety Doesn’t Mean A Lot of Padding. Wall Street Journal. December 28, 2004, pp. A1, A6. (All quotes from.)

5 thoughts on “Playing like Tarzan

  1. Owner's Manual

    Changing a rule because people are breaking it? Aren’t these the ones you’re supposed to enforce?

    Maybe.  But the lesson of Prohibition was that greater criminality can come from enforcing unpopular laws.

    Neglecting that lesson has consequences, too.

    We criminalize behavior some think coarsens the culture, resulting in the imprisonment of huge swathes of society, educating them in the ways of the underworld.  The ex-cons come home thoroughly coarsened, much more so than they were to begin with, making it necessary to outlaw more and more acts.  The competition between the two political parties seems spurred by who adds the most pounds to the Federal Register.

  2. Grant

    OM: thanks, it’s true that in other domains, and elsewhere in the NFL, we make rules with gusto. (And to think the forward pass came emerged as a departure from convention. Thanks, Grant

    Tom, hey, I married in, and in any case I mean it as a term of high praise. Thanks, and happy holidays, Grant

  3. steve

    Eric Dickerson, one of the speedier power running backs in NFL history, used to put on as many pads as he could get. He made no bones about it. At the same time, I remember another player reporting that Dickerson was eerily silent as he ran–no creaking of pads could be heard. So maybe the key is getting them fitted carefully and attached tightly.

    From an aesthetic point of view, I don’t think the fans really make much of a distinction between guys with full-size thigh pads and those with the mini ones. It really seems to be about peer and coaching perception. And maybe some of these guys really do run faster without the big pads.

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