The founders of the National Football League were visionaries, but the time has come to jettison the antiquated rules and norms they devised a century ago to govern America’s most popular game, in favor a fairer system. The current outdated arrangement—with endless checks, balances, compromises, and video reviews—works for the few, not for the many. Worse still, it has left a bunch of dead people in charge of how football should be played. The time has come for a people’s revolution!
Some traditionalists say scrapping the NFL charter and rulebook would invite anarchy. They contend that the current arrangement was “divinely inspired.” To that I say, rubbish! Common sense demands that we stop revering the founders, who were motivated by elitism, racial segregation and money-grubbing. We can and should reclaim power over America’s Game from its oligarchical and anti-democratic owners. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote to James Madison about the Constitution, another set of dead-man rules long overdue for retirement, “The earth belongs always to the living generation and not to the dead. … Every constitution, then, and every law, naturally expires at the end of 19 years.”
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I confess a personal stake in this re-founding: The NFL’s rules and traditions have doomed my team, the Detroit Lions, to the lowly status of the one of the worst franchises in the league. The Lions haven’t won a championship in more than 60 years and aren’t likely to win one in another 60. Meanwhile, the New England Patriots have gone to the Super Bowl 10 times in the past 20 years, winning six titles. This provides absolute, irrefutable evidence that the NFL is rigged in favor of a set of powerful, unaccountable elites.
I know my complaint makes me sound like a sore loser who seeks to restack the deck so he can extract a winning hand. I resent that charge. My interest is merely in fairness and democracy and the end of the age of sports hyper-partisanship.
The NFL’s founders, as far-sighted as they were, could never have envisioned the needs of the modern gridiron. What’s needed is a revolutionary rethinking of how the game should be played to restore equality and fairness. For example, when the NFL was founded, it might have made sense to award victory to the team that collected the most points through a combination of touchdowns (for which six points are given), points after (either one or two), field goals (three), and safeties (two). Well, gas lights and ice boxes made sense once, too. Compounding this folly is the playoff system that allows “wild card” teams that don’t even have the best “win-loss” records in their divisions to compete in the season-ending tournament. This system has more than once allowed a team with a mediocre record to win the Super Bowl.
This jury-rigged and archaic playoff system is anti-democracy in action. A more direct and more democratic method for picking the league champ is needed. Instead of a win-loss system (based on points scored, in a byzantine schedule of 16 different games no less) that feeds teams into the unfair playoff system, we should embrace a new way to measure football excellence. First, we would compile all the yards gained by a team over a season and subtract the total number yards given up by its defense. The team with the highest differential would be named Super Bowl champion. If we had taken this path in 2019, the Baltimore Ravens, which gained 5,999 yards but surrendered only 4,687 yards for a differential of a 1,312 yards, would have been the champs, not the Pats, which had only the eighth best differential. “Make every yard count” would be a fine slogan for this reform.
Justice also demands a review of how the games are judged. It’s not uncommon to see partisan flags thrown by the seven umpires, referees, linemen and judges who officiate each game. The best way to restore universal fan trust in officiating would be to pack the field with additional refs and umps until we have as many officials on the field as players on a team (11). Ridiculous, you might say. But there’s nothing sacrosanct about having seven officials judging a game. At one time, NFL games got by with just three. The least bad way to ameliorate the bias of the existing umpires, referees, linesmen, and judges that benefits some teams at the expense of others would be to pack the field with additional officials. To ensure fairness, the new officials should be chosen by the worst, that is, losing teams. Like the Lions.
As noted above, most NFL teams are owned by billionaires, with the richest guys—I’m looking at you, Robert Kraft—and tiny despots like Dan Snyder running the show. Let’s take the influence of money out of the game once and for all by making every team a nonprofit corporation, much like the Green Bay Packers, with stock owned by the fans but banning the collection of profit from the shares. One way to ameliorate the harm the Kraft’s Patriots have done to the league would be to dilute his franchise’s power by breaking it up into eight separate teams, one for each division, and democratically distribute them to deserving metropolises such as Portland, San Antonio, Memphis, and Salt Lake City, which have never had NFL teams, and to cities like St. Louis, San Diego, and Oakland which have lost (or will soon lose) their teams. If we’re going to call it America’s Game, shouldn’t the NFL look like America?
Traditionalists will scoff at these reforms. Many urge incremental tweaking of the rules to remake the NFL instead of a radical reboot. But our important institutions must keep pace with the times. As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “We might as well require a man to wear the coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.”
Act, we must. And soon. Democracy and fairness demand it. Oh, and one more thing. Henceforth, in the interests of increasing turnout, all NFL game days shall be public holidays
Send a scan of your Bobby Layne card via email to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts pray for the return of the Kenosha Maroons, a former NFL franchise. My Twitter feed has the same ambition for the Racine Legion. My RSS feed still worships Barry Sanders.