PLAYING OUTSIDE AND ON GRASS
OK, I’m going to sound like the old man who might say get off my lawn, so here goes. 50 years ago, the majority of professional football games were played on living grass and played in the elements. Of course, over the years, this has changed quite a bit in some U.S. cities. There are more outdoor stadiums today played on artificial grass, and you also have more indoor NFL stadiums that are played on artificial material (a few exceptions). To some diehards of the gridiron, the venue makes a big difference whether the NFL game has that perfect attraction buzz. In other words, it’s not just about who’s playing, it’s where and how the game is hosted. For example, if it’s an outdoor game with fake turf, it may have one strike against it. If this violent and tough game is played indoor with fake turf, two strikes. If it’s a lousy team, team without personality or a city that doesn’t generate the warm and fuzzy feeling, and played indoor, there’s little chance it may fully capture viewer’s attention. Based on that criteria, if any two or three of those boxes are checked, some purists may be on to another activity.
Back to the English Premier League (EPL). To the best of my knowledge, all teams competing in English football play on live grass. In addition, none of the stadiums are enclosed. However, there are many stadiums that cover part if not all of the spectators. What a bright idea. Let the footballers who are making the big bucks have to withstand the rain, sleet or cold wind.
INJURY PITCH DRAMA IN THE EPL?
If you’re injured in the EPL, you may lay on the ground, ache and moan to ensure your opponent is assessed a foul or even a yellow card. I’d be the first to say there are certain European professional football leagues with a propensity to engage in “injury pitch drama,” to either slow down the game, take a breather or try to entice the referee to call a foul on your opponent. If it’s not legit, this may take some joy and momentum away from the game. There are some EPL players who temporarily act like they were shot by a cannon — laying on the ground and begging their medical staff to bring the stretcher immediately. Only to be back on their feet within a minute or two once they realize the game goes on with or without them. It’s difficult to legislate as a player may indeed be injured. If it’s merely “injury pitch drama” and occurs every 5 to 10 minutes, it may detract from the beauty of the game.
If you ask a loyal fan of the NFL if there’s a problem with fake injuries, for the most part, they will say no. There are times during the early part of the season with hot and humid conditions that they’ll need a breather so sprawl they will on the field gasping for oxygen. You may also have occasional defensive players who will fake an injury against the hurry up offense. However, this is the exception rather than the rule. The majority of those fallen players during the NFL season have a possible injury — especially if there’s a injury timeout.
REFEREES HANDLE PLAYERS DIFFERENTLY
Often in the EPL, referees may chat with offending players after a minor foul is committed. This may be educational or a warning. If you watch closely, referees keep a mental note of these minor fouls so that this reoccurring behavior will eventually result in a yellow card. So that when a yellow card is shown after repeated behavior, players typically know the punishment fits the offense.
When there are inadvertent fouls or potential rough play, good referees will talk to these players about the potential fouls or other serious consequences. It provides instant feedback to the players real time. I don’t see this happening much in the NFL. For example, if the offensive player may be holding on a play, referees will not warn them of the potential offense. It may or may not be called as it could be common on most plays. There appears to be little feedback and less teaching. In the EPL, players know what they can and can’t do. With many more EPL games played as opposed to the NFL, referees and assistant referees know the players much more and vice versa for the players.
Having said that, there are some situations in English football where players are not warned before receiving a yellow card because the foul is significant and serious. For example, if an offensive player is on the attack and the defender trips them or pulls them down, most referees will reach for the yellow. Another serious foul may be if the tackler goes after the ball and strikes the player forcibly without much of the ball, that may also generate the yellow card.
TACKLING IN THE EPL TYPICALLY WON’T PRODUCE HEAD TRAUMA
Today, while watching Manchester City against Watford, I saw a number of tackles that are an integral part of the European soccer game and the good news is they typically don’t involve head trauma or injury.
First, I must explain. A football tackle in England is much different than in New England. It goes without saying that the average NFL player may weigh 240 pounds and stand a few inches north of 6 feet. These NFL players often tackle with their hands, arms, shoulders, check, neck and head. That’s how you bring down the carrier of the pigskin. If you’re the ball carrier in the NFL, regardless of your position, there’s a big target on your chest and back. All opposing 11 players are eligible to take you down to ground within the rules to finish the play. It’s as though there’s a bounty on your head when carrying the pigskin. Sometimes tacking in the NFL is violent and may involve one’s neck and head and sometimes includes your upper extremities. If you’re good, you could play 75 snaps or plays during those 60 minutes. People may argue that there are only 13 minutes of actual action so one may wonder how much damage that occur during only a few minutes. But what really occurs in this violent game over those 13 minutes of intense contact?
Some casual fans of the NFL will wonder how those in the trenches could experience mild traumatic brain injury or Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. Big strong offensive linemen are responsible for creating a path for their running back or a wall for their quarterback to have enough time to move the line of scrimmage all the way to the end zone for 6 points. Strong fast defensive lineman are responsible for plugging the holes to help his team take down the ball carrier or prevent the quarterback from engaging in an aerial pigskin pursuit that may result in additional points for the offensive team. One key thing that may be causing these brain injuries or CTEs is the repeated blows to the head, even along the offensive and defensive line. Not necessarily a severe concussion (although a potential part of the issue) or seeing stars after a play every so often, but the repeated blows to the head that most likely have impacted these players since Pop Warner if not later. It’s subtle and not typically obvious although a current crisis that the NFL is wrestling with.
Back to the EPL, tackling is a legitimate part of the game. According to Wikipedia, a sliding tackle or slide tackle is a tackle in football where a player attempts to take the ball away from an opposing player by deliberately leaving his feet and sliding along the ground with one leg extended to push the ball away from the opposing player. In my mind the key variable in the foot game is using his feet to take the ball away from the opposing player. Of course, footballers have to be careful not to first clip the opponents’ feet or legs before pushing the ball away — that would be a minor or significant foul.
I’ve watched the NFL for over 40 years and can’t ever recollect an opponent pushing a football away from an opponent via a sliding tackle. With the NFL football not being close to ground, that would not be feasible.
I used to subscribe to the saying, We interrupt this marriage to bring you the NFL but I don’t have the same relationship as I once did. My previous romance with professional football is all but gone. Is it partly due to the NFL’s slow response to the head trauma that many of its former players have experienced? Is it the fact that the NFL doesn’t voluntarily do a better job taking care of their former players? Could it partly have to do with the excessive celebrations in today’s NFL — often celebrations done after a normal tackle or defensive play? Some may also say the flow of the game is gone as there are more commercial interruptions than ever before.
The EPL has provided me an alternative to the NFL. I sought an alternative as I was becoming more and more disillusioned with the NFL. Of course, the World Cup and European Champions League may provide some viewing pleasure too. Frankly, I don’t have the same relationship with European football that I had with the NFL many years ago. However, it’s a fun game to watch, especially with all the beauty, athleticism and artistry of the game. Yes, I’ll take a little more scoring although until then I’ll enjoy the incredible passing where players use much of their body (besides their hands and arms), how different teams organize their attack or defensive positioning, and the way good teams know how best to play together.
Indeed, the NFL is such an integral part of our society with gambling and fantasy football that it will be impossible to completely ignore. There will still be certain games I will watch, although I’ll quickly realize my viewing experience will include a lot less passion and pleasure than ever before.