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"Football. There's murder in that game. Prizefighting doesn't compare in roughness or in danger with football. In the ring, at least you know what you're doing. You know what your opponent is trying to do. He's right there in front of you. But in football -- there's 11 guys trying to do you in!"
-- Heavyweight champion of the world JL Sullivan d. 1918
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is taking a lot of heat right now for his suggestion that the league consider, in the name of player safety, modifying or eliminating the kickoff.
The kickoff is integral to the game. As Jets special teams coordinator Mike Westhoff noted, can you imagine being at the Super Bowl, with the anthem and the cheering and the cameras flashing, only to have an official take the game ball and, instead of putting it on the tee for a booming kick, say, "OK guys, put it down."
Except that football has endured hundreds of changes, large and small, since the flying wedge was banned. Leather helmets are gone, instant replay arrived, not to mention myriad rules about bagels and laundry that NCAA athletes have to follow -- rules that the good old boys of the Ivy Leagues would have scoffed at in the sport's infancy.
In 1905, 73 players reportedly died on the football field from the high school ranks on up, as William Buckley noted in his Observer column on Jan. 25, 2003. The number of deaths and injuries were so alarming that football's rules committee made a radical change that must have horrified traditionalists of the day: the forward pass.
That's right, the very element that distinguishes football from rugby and every other sport was inspired by a desire to protect the health and safety of the men who play the game.
Would eliminating the kickoff be a radical change? Of course. But if the NFL has the data to show that a disproportionate concussions occur during that part of the game, they would be foolish not to consider it.
The league faces lawsuits from hundreds of players over the very issue. Football has always been a murderous game, but rulemakers have always tried to preserve the violence of the game and protect the health of the players.
It may be an impossible task, but kudos to Goodell for trying.