American rules need to change, and here's how

United Code Gridiron Football.

A Noble Attempt to Make American Rules Football Safer.

American rules football needs to change, and change now, or risk extinction. This is an attempt to do that.


To truly understand the current player health crisis in American football today and the ramifications it could have on the sport for years to come, we must first go back to the first game ever played, in 1869. The legendary game between Rutgers and Princeton was actually played under soccer rules, or something very similar to the rules established by the FA. This is important. Concurrently, rugby was being developed in the years to come, and gridiron rules and rugby would have a push and pull relationship.

One of the most important divergences in American rules from rugby was forward blocking. In both codes of rugby, this is still illegal. A player on the possessing team cannot be downfield between the ball and the goal line. This is interference, and will be whistled as offsides. American rules, such as it existed at this point, legalized forward blocking. The result was a formation called the "flying wedge", also the name of an ancient military maneuver, which basically entailed a team's forwards linking up and charging at full speed downfield, and the defense would respond in kind.

The result was dozens of in-game fatalities and disabilities. Like, actually dozens, possibly in the hundreds.

Football grew out of mob sport, where people would just join in on games if they saw one being played, and by this point it had a decidedly negative public image. Public figures wanted the sport banned, calling it a threat to the health and safety of young people.

It's commonly said that Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban the sport if changes weren't made, but this isn't exactly true. Roosevelt was a fan of the sport and his sons played it. He wanted to save it. The outcome of a meeting between Roosevelt and officials from Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, and experimental reforms by John Outland in Kansas (including three downs, as used in Canada) was what would become the NCAA. The NCAA's original purpose, beyond the python it is today, was threefold: standardize American rules in the interest of safety, regulate intercollegiate play, and regulate collegiate teams.

The mass formation, like the flying wedge, was banned, and the forward pass, which had been illegal but creative types had found sneaky ways of flaunting, was legalized. The number of players at the scrimmage line was mandated at seven, and pushing and pulling were banned. All of these had a radical impact on the game, in that the game was no longer extremely likely to result in someone being literally killed on the field as the result of play.

Fast forward to now.

We are at a similar juncture today.

Concussions and their aftereffects are, very literally, killing players. I saw a man nearly die on the field a week ago. They're not dying on the field yet, but they might as well be with the horrible effects that concussions have on the brain for years.

The sport has to radically change, or it will die.

And I've proposed reforms.

Will it dramatically change the kind of person who plays? Yes. But will it keep the sport alive? Also yes. And is it worth it if what happened to Tua Tagovailoa never happens to another football player during a game ever again? Absolutely. 1000000%.

This is not a new sport. This is not rules for a new league. These are reforms to the existing American rules. This is not a thought experiment. It is a call to action, and I plan on contacting my state's high school athletics association to talk about them.

I will not ever see any player, from youth to hardened vet, experience what I've seen in these last 15 years ever again if I can ever help it.

SAFETY-RELATED CHANGES: Changes that can and should be applied to competitive contact American football, on all levels of play, as soon as possible.

Changes to Equipment.

Protective equipment containing metals and hard plastics are outlawed, except for protective cups and approved metal or plastic studs for cleats.

Team kits will consist of: protective "integrated" shirts and girdles with webbed padding, shirts and shorts made of a breathable fabric, and an adapted scrum cap made to be thicker than its rugby counterpart and with a smooth surface that a team decal can be printed on. The scrum cap will not reduce concussions, but that's also not its purpose.

Use of a sturdy mouthguard is required, as that has been shown to reduce the initial damage of head trauma.

Changes to Tackling Rules.

Tackling rules, the most permissive of any code of football anywhere on the planet, are aligned with those of rugby union:

  • Tackles above the plane of the shoulders are outlawed.
  • Tackles in the air are outlawed.
  • Spearing is outlawed in all instances, not just leading-with-head.
  • The grapple tackle is outlawed.
  • Tripping is recategorized as the slide tackle and is outlawed.
  • The shoulder charge is outlawed.
  • The chicken wing tackle is outlawed.
  • Tackles below the knees are outlawed.

All of these are grouped under an "illegal tackle" penalty and are termed a major infraction. (see: Changes to Discipline.)

Tacklers must wrap up while tackling. Not doing so will not count as a tackle and the ball-carrier can continue moving.

Changes to Concussion Policy.

Players with symptoms of a concussion will be pulled from play immediately and may not return to play that day, and must be evaluated by a medical professional immediately after the injury.

Players with a concussion or suspected concussion must undergo a mandatory 24 hour period of complete rest. This means no driving, no drinking, and no cognitive ("thinking") activities like reading, television, or other media, or body. The player should not be left alone during this 24 hour period.

After this 24 hour period, they must go through a mandatory 6 days of relative rest, that is, rest that does not aggravate the symptoms of the concussion. Cautious reintroduction of cognitive (“thinking”) activities are allowed following an obligatory 24 hours of complete (physical and cognitive) rest as long as symptoms related to the concussion are not aggravated.

After the one week physical rest period the player must be symptom free or if pre-injury symptoms existed, these must have returned to pre concussion level at rest; should be cleared by a medical practitioner or approved healthcare provider prior to starting a return-to-play programme; and must follow (and complete) this return-to-play programme.

The return-to-play programme consists of thus, each stage taking at least 24 hours:

  • IF SYMPTOMS PERSIST AFTER 24 HOURS: Activities of daily living that do not provoke symptoms. Repeat until symptoms are free for a 24 hour period.
  • IF SYMPTOMS ARE FREE AFTER 24 HOURS: Light jogging for 10-15 minutes, swimming or stationary cycling at low to moderate intensity. No resistance training. Must be symptom-free during full 24-hour period.
  • Running drills. No head impact activities.
  • Progression to more complex training drills, e.g., passing drills. May start progressive resistance training.
  • Following medical clearance, participate in normal training activities.
  • Full game play.

It is strongly recommended that, in all cases of concussion or suspected concussion, the player is referred to a medical professional for diagnosis and guidance as well as return to play decisions, even if the symptoms resolve.

Players with a history of two or more concussions within the past year maybe at greater risk of further brain injury and slower recovery and should seek medical attention from practitioners experienced in concussion management before return to play. In addition to a history of multiple concussions, players with unusual presentations or prolonged recovery should be assessed and managed by health care providers with experience in sports-related concussions.

For players under 18, the durations of each step should be doubled.

Changes to Gameplay.

The number of downs is reduced from four to three, to avoid the grinding trench combat that leads to most line injuries.

The neutral zone is widened to a full yard, allowing linemen to form their stances before contact.

Illegal shift is abolished, allowing multiple players in motion and for recievers to get a head start from behind the line of scrimmage as long as they do not cross the line before the ball is snapped; a head start reduces the risk of injury from starting off-the-burst. Consequently, the pre-1978 rules regarding reciever coverage are back, and "illegal contact downfield" becomes redundant, since that rule was implemented to allow recievers a freer burst from the line of scrimmage.

Sprinting, or "full speed" (which is what the game is played at presently), is heavily discouraged unless in bursts in open field without a risk of injury. The speed of the game is the leading cause of serious injury in the game today, and the co-factor in why tackles are so lethal (due to the basic laws of collision physics).

Kicking rules are significantly overhauled:

  • The standard kickoff is abolished in favor of a punt-off from the scoring team's 35 yard line.
  • PATs become an unblocked placekick from a tee or a drop kick from the 25 yard line at the closest marker in line with where the touchdown was scored: the left sideline, left hash, midway, right hash, or right sideline.
  • The "no-yards" halo rule of Canadian rules is made the law. Returners are given a five yard "halo", allowing them five contact-free yards to recover the ball.
  • Changes to Discipline.

    The penalty system is completely overhauled, with penalty now being graded into 'minor' infractions, concerning matters of procedure, and 'major' infractions, concerning unsafe play and objectional conduct.

    Minor infractions by the offense are enforced with a plus-half yardage penalty (half the distance to the new set of downs added on to the existing yardage, rounded up to the nearest whole number; 1st and 10 becomes 1st and 15, 3rd and 6 becomes 3rd and 9, etc) and a repeat of the down. Minor infractions by the defense are enforced the inverse way; the distance to the new downs are reduced by half. If the yardage was already at 1 yard, the new downs are awarded.

    Major infractions by the offense are enforced with a double-yardage penalty (the distance to the down is doubled and added to the current down) and loss of down. If committed on 3rd down, it would mean an automatic turnover on downs. Major infractions by the defense, again, work in the opposite way; 3rd and 6 would become a 12 yard gain, and the gain of a new set of downs.

    Offensive pass interference is deemed a minor infraction, and defensive pass interference can be graded as either depending on the severity of the interference.

    Additionally, on a major infraction, the offended side can choose to take a free penalty kick at the spot of the foul. The new PAT rules apply here: it is an unblocked place or drop kick, but placed at the hash the ball was snapped from on the offending play. This kick is worth 2 points. The offended side then gets the ball back, regardless of if the kick is made, after a punt-off from the 35 yard line.

    Players guilty of a major infraction must be carded.

    A yellow card is a warning and means that the player must sit for 7 minutes. Players who get two yellow cards must sit for the remainder of the game.

    A red card means immediate ejection from the game, plus an automatic one game suspension, and is only given in cases where the guilty player seriously endangered the health or life of another player, or guilty of objectionable conduct worthy of dismissal by the official.

    Carded players can be substituted.

    OTHER GAMEPLAY CHANGES: Changes to the rules of American football that are not directly related to player safety, but compensate for the new look and speed of the sport.

    Only one foot in-bounds is required to complete a legal catch.

    Kicking rules are aligned with rugby union and Canadian football:

  • The ball can be kicked at any point on the field of play by any player, but may only be recovered or touched by players of the kicking team who are behind the ball from the spot of the kick.
  • A kick that clears the uprights is deemed a field goal and the kicking team is awarded 3 points.
  • A kick that goes out of the back of the end zone is deemed a single and the kicking team is awarded 1 point.

    Teams will have three kits: a primary color kit to be used at home, a secondary color kit for away matches, and a white kit to be used at away games if the kit of the home team is of a similar color.


    this is amazing. while i don’t agree with all the points, i’m quite impressed at the thought put into this. if you wrote this, i commend you. i suspect it’s a bit above some of the people here, but i love the boldness of the proposed changes. i also do believe that the game of football needs to evolve to be safer. thank you.

    i’m a bit drunk and in bed. i am going to think about this for a while and i will respond after some further meditation on this well-presented discourse.

    only reason i haven’t liked your post is i’m out of likes. again. :neutral_face:

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    I did! Pounded it out in a night and gave it out in a couple of groups with other American rules and rugby fans I'm in for feedback. Thanks for your comment and I have, just, way too much to say about all of these, so I'm looking forward to your further commentary.

    you are kidding right?

    I was expecting a serious post until I took at close look at some of the things you said.

    I mean there is a lot of commonsense stuff there but.......

    No, I am not. I am deadly serious.

    Everything I say here is backed up from experience I've had with the sport, as a player, sportswriter/historian, and fan, from the age of 8. These rules are pulled from other codes of football being used today and adapted to gridiron use. Everything has a very specific reason for being here. I didn't just throw a bunch of cool rules into a list. I focused on the reforms most concerning safety first, and everything else is an effect from that cause--you can't just reform the sport totally in one aspect and expect it to be played remotely the same.

    If you have specific commentary about these reforms, I'd like to hear them.

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    i love that you actually use the word gridiron.

    this sleep is not going well :dizzy_face:

    i was having the weirdest dream about cats

    Ok, my apologies. I just wasnt sure. I will try to tell you why and maybe you can clue me in some.

    Changes to Equipment. I can not see how any of this would be safer for the person wearing it. Can any kind of padded cap be safer than a helmet? How about not having a face guard? Girdles? Having trouble picturing protective "integrated" shirts and girdles with webbed padding, shirts and shorts. Is this supposed to mean no shoulder pads? What about the rib protection thing that some QBs wear? The scrum cap will not reduce concussions. So more concussions then?

    Pretty much agree with you tackle rules.

    • Tackles above the plane of the shoulders are outlawed. Isnt this mostly so now?
    • Tackles in the air are outlawed. If this means what I think it does, then I really agree. Been wanting this for a long time.

    Agree with all the rest although I am not sure I have noticed grapple and chicken wing tackles in gridiron football. I am thinking that if they happen it might be hard to call in real time and could lead to extra stoppages.

    Changes to Concussion Policy.

    I have no medical knowledge to opinion most of this, but a couple of thoughts or questions.

    How do you stop a person from doing any cognitive thinking? I spend a thought of time deep in such thought and could not stop if I tried. How do you make sure a player is not alone for 24hrs and that whoever is with him knows enough about this stuff.

    Changes to Gameplay.

    Has their been any kind of study to compare number of grinding trench caused injuries between the NFL and the CFL?

    Sprinting. When I played ball full speed running was half my game. How do you stop people from doing so. How do you ref it? Do they have small wrist watch type radar where anyone running over a certain speed gets a 15 yard fine? I dont mean to be offensive but I just cant wrap my head around it.

    I dont understand your standard kickoff change. How exactly would it work and what would be the safety benefit?

    Why the PAT change?

    This will do for starters

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    why can they not be serious? just because they propose some drastic changes?

    i think these ideas are wonderful discussion and i commend them for the boldness and objectivity in the face of a stubborn clinging to an outdated form, and because as this past couple weeks’ play alone have demonstrated (both NFL and CFL), the game is pretty flawed, both safety-wise and from an entertainment perspective.

    i love that there is rugby and real football, er, soccer influence here too because that’s where it all started.

    i’ve always wished football teams called their uniforms kits!

    i’ve watched a lot of football in my life and love the game and it’s history. but i also believe in change and evolution for the better and we have to start somewhere.

    now back to the cats… zzz

    anyone who thinks you can’t make significant changes for the better to a historically classic sport hasn’t watch F-1. they overhauled the whole thing in one off-season because the product was stale and unexciting.

    With all due respect...
    The Thread title is American rules need to change
    Your profile says Washington born
    Yet you post this on a Canadian Football site?
    Most of your rules are already in effect in Canada

    it is still stale and unexciting. Not to mention waste of gas and over contributing to climate change. But then, I am somewhat fanatical about that.

    because they can?

    i disagree but i don’t want to derail this thread.

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    No problem, I love explaining maybe a little too much, lemme help you out.

    This is just aligning gridiron's equipment rules with rugby's. The reforms are more or less copied from what has been standard in both union and league for a very very long time. The scrum caps are not meant to reduce concussions, as I said above. They're largely to protect the forehead and ears. "Integrated shirts" are something more recent, we used them in high school. They're an athletic shirt and girdle that you wear underneath everything that also has padding on the shoulders, ribs, lower back, thighs, and tailbone made of a very dense foam that's not hard like shoulder pads, but will keep you protected during a tackle. Pretty much all contact football codes use them. Rugby might use something slightly different, since their equipment is much more highly regulated.

    More importantly, these equipment changes alone will not reduce concussions. They would need to be implemented alongside everything else, since "reducing concussions" is so much more than "uhhhh let's throw more flags for hits we don't like without actually changing the tackling rules".

    I'm actually gonna knock this and your sprinting question out in one go. In terms of physics, a collision is made up of speed and the mass of the objects. Gridiron's grislier injuries--not just concussions, but also Achilles tears, knee injuries, damage to deep tissue, injuries that are all comparatively rare in other codes of football, maybe besides soccer--are largely due to the fact that the human body is simply not built to move at a full sprint, at least not off the jump like the pace of gridiron dictates now. By eliminating 30 pounds of solid plastic and metal (both of which are much harder than the human body), reforming tackling rules, and slowing down the game (which I'll address further along), all hits become quite a bit safer by default, since you're removing the risk factors that caused them--that being, people covered head to toe in metal and plastic running into each other at a full sprint.

    As for your speed question: that's just gonna have to be trained out. The important part here is that sprinting into a tackle needs to be eliminated entirely. It's not an issue if a player sprints into the gap in the open field, or if a player sprints after catching the ball. The issue is sprinting into the defense, or the defense sprinting into a tackle. That, specifically, is what causes a lot of injuries in this case. It's gonna be like training how to properly wrap up and tackle.

    Not consistently. This makes that issue much more clear.

    I'm pretty sure it does mean what you think it does, and I have too.

    Again, inconsistency. Grapple tackles are usually flagged as horse-collar or something similar, but it can and does happen, although much less than it used to. Chicken wing is rare, but isn't forbidden.

    The concussion protocol listed here is very literally lifted straight from World Rugby's website. It's not about making sure they don't think, it's about strain. Certain non-physical activities, like reading and whatnot, can cause concussion symptoms to worsen. That's what that means--not that they can't think, just that they shouldn't do anything, physical or not, that can worsen symptoms than they already are.

    In North America, this would essentially mean a stay in the head and neck trauma ward of a hospital for a day.

    Not that I can find, although the idea of one fascinates me. I know that in American rules, line injuries are frequent and often very serious. When I played in high school, a lot of line injuries came from linemen who couldn't set their stance, or set their stance incorrectly, in the approximately tenth of a second they have to do so, and this has resulted in knee injuries and even paralysis at the NFL level.

    Addressed this one above, but the long and short is that sprinting into contact is going to need to be trained out.

    It's just a punt at the 35 instead of a kickoff formation. That's the difference. Safety wise, there actually is evidence of this. The kickoff has long been on death row, since it's not much different from the flying wedge formation that killed people a 100 years ago (two sides sprinting directly at each other over the course of however many yards) and usually results in the same thing (a touchback or a small return), and experiments at changing it just feel like another band-aid measure. The punt is much more open and exciting in terms of results and replacing the kickoff with a punt-off is not a new idea.

    It's a relatively low-stakes play where risking injury feels counterintuitive and needless. It's why I reformed the PAT, but not the field goal.

    Hope that answers some stuff.

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    Did you understand the question?
    Who is they?

    That's why this is in the Other Leagues and Entertainment section, not the CFL section. I'm pretty meticulous about where I post. I keep my Canadian rules content in the CFL sections, and my American rules stuff here.

    Fair enough, but it does not answer the question why.

    Why not? Reforming American rules football has a wide-ranging impact on both American and Canadian rules. The same reason anyone posts: to see what people think.

    Again with all due respect, It strikes me as ridiculous for you as an American to come to a Canadian site and try to convince us what what should be done in your (too us) foreign country

    In what universe is posting about American football in the American football section of a site used by not just Canadians trying to "convince" Canadians about changes that need to be made to American football? Why would I be trying to convince you? I wanted to see what people thought, not sell them something.

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