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Ben Smith

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History repeats itself with NFL’s focus on safety

– So I’m driving home from work this week and out of the radio again comes the howl of wounded Neanderthal angst, the wringing of hands and grinding of molars over the awful, nancy-boy things the NFL is doing to our national game.

You can’t hit anymore, the litany goes from the ex-jocks manning the microphones these days. You can’t touch the quarterback. You can’t defend, which has reduced what used to be a man’s game to something your teenager plays on his Xbox or PlayStation 3.

And here’s what I think: Yeah, well. Welcome to 2013.

Look, those of us of a certain age can yowl all we want about the fact the NFL is fundamentally changing the game to try to make it safer, but that’s not going to keep it from happening. The powers-that-be aren’t going backward on this, and that’s just the reality of it. And if you don’t like it ... well, what else is Joe Cheesehead or Da Bearz Fan gonna watch on Sunday afternoons? “Masterpiece Theater”?

So get ready for the Video Game Era in the NFL, and get used to it. If it makes you feel any better, it’s happened before.

It so happens that over these same few days when Ray Lewis and every other manly man has been losing his stuff over Ahmad Brooks’ “illegal” hit on Drew Brees, I’ve been reading “Carlisle vs. Army,” Lars Anderson’s chronicle of the epic 1912 clash between Jim Thorpe’s Carlisle Indians and an Army team led by future military icon Dwight David Eisenhower. There’s a lot more to the story than one October afternoon, and part of it is the backdrop against which it was played.

To wit: The changing nature of the game.

Three years before the Army-Carlisle game, in 1909, 33 players died playing football. As now with concussions and CTE, the reaction was a rising tide of sentiment that changes needed to be made. And so, in 1910, to quote Anderson, “a special committee made up of coaches, referees and school presidents enacted several rule changes in an attempt to make the game safer.”

Sound familiar?

Then so should this: Among the rule changes enacted were the abolition of formations such as the flying wedge, the decree that at least seven players had to be on the line of scrimmage before a play began, and, yes, the opening up of the passing game. Instead of just being allowed to throw no more than 5 yards to the left and right, players could throw all over the field.

Again: Sound familiar?

Anderson doesn’t indicate the reaction to these changes, but I can guess. I would imagine there were a whole lot of old-school types who railed the way the old-school types are now – why, how dare they take the manhood out of the game by abolishing the flying wedge and letting these guys throw the football anywhere they want. What is this, track and field?

The lesson here is that nothing new is ever really new, in the long reach of history. And so the game will evolve, just as it did in 1910. And all the old-schoolers will be aghast.

And 30 years from now, young fans who’ll never know any other NFL but the video-game NFL will howl just as loudly when the league decides to make further changes.

Thus has it ever been. Thus will it always be.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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