American football is silly and dangerous, but I love it

The strength, athleticism, complex rules and tactics make it a spectacle

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American football is ridiculous, but I love it. We are into the play-offs now, the knock-out stage leading to the Super Bowl, the cup final, on 2 February. The strength, athleticism, complex rules and tactics make it a spectacle, a drama and a clash of pure intellect: brawling, ballet and chess in one.

There are two daft things about it that ought to worry me. One is the unlimited substitution rule, brought in in 1943 and made permanent in 1950, which allows teams to change all 11 players on the field in between plays. This means that each team is really two separate teams, an offence and a defence, depending on which side has the ball. 

A match therefore consists of a tournament of offence A vs defence B, alternating with  one that is offence B vs defence A. Each pair of teams wears the same uniform and is governed by the same head coach, but that is all, and the offence and defence have their own subordinate coaches. Still, I am happy to suspend derision and pretend that my team, the Philadelphia Eagles, is a single entity worthy of support.

The other daftness is harder to shake off. American football is safer than it used to be, which is one reason the rules are so complicated, but many players suffer brain damage from the helmeted collisions.

This week I discovered, reading Collision Low Crossers, one of Barack Obama’s favourite books about American football, what I should have known: that the players do not tackle each other in training because it is too dangerous. This may have to be my last season as a fan.

Twitter: @JohnRentoul

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