The Thin Lines

By Rich Gapinski

Special to Pro Football Guru

Before the start of the annual sale of football players at high, high prices; the NFL experienced a recent story that involved eliminating the “n” word from the field. It was implied that the proposal would be given to the owners in hopes that the rule would be considered. The term “15 yard penalties” was used. Like many stories from the NFL, the issue had out-spoken parties on both sides.

Before we continue on, I want to make it clear that I am a Caucasian, middle-class guy who likes to write about football. I don’t think it is my place to form an opinion on the word itself. I do think it is obvious that the idea either doesn’t go far enough or could unintentionally find the wrong targets. We could discuss that all day. I’m not going to do that here. In fact, an idea like that is actually one of reasons we love football and it is a microcosm of a much larger idea that helps make football the most popular sport in the United States. Thin lines are incredibly important.

The basic concept of football is a form of controlled violence. At first, the game was nothing more than a violent scrum that could have ended in death. In 1904, The Chicago Tribune wrote a story about 18 deaths that occurred on the field that year. The game came close to being so unsafe that it was in danger of being banned. The suits in New York that run the league can thank the fact that the game was very popular at American universities and that Teddy Roosevelt got involved.

In 1906, the forward pass was created and the scrum-like carnage was made illegal. Within two decades, the NFL was created and the league was in full swing; two events that were greatly influenced by George S. Halas and Harold “Red” Grange.

The league skirts a similar line today as the players have become bigger, faster and stronger. The field has remained the same size. Such violence has led to lawsuits from retired players and a new investigation into a previously un-researched thing called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Not much has changed in the last twelve decades, really. The league continues to toe what seems to be a thin line.

Certainly, the athletes on the field are always toeing lines. They may be worrying that the rookie that just walked into the locker may get their job. Physically, there is no doubt that the players are always seeing how the limits of their own pain tolerance and athletic ability can go. Football is the sport where this fight is the most obvious. 

The field is defined by thin lines. Each successive first down is designed so that a team has to transgress past ten more of those thin lines that regulate the playing surface. The success of the offense to gain that slice of the field becomes so close that slow motion replays and perfectly-measured first down chains don’t always provide an exact answer.

Touchdowns are defined by thin lines. Scoring a touchdown occurs when possession of the ball crosses the final boundary. Of course, the rules are completely different whether or not a running back scores with his legs or if a receiver is able to possess the ball and contort his legs in the needed fashion for the score to count. Again, replays can’t seem to tell us the result with 100 percent certainty.

Fans follow another path defined by lines. They may root for a certain team due to district, county or state geographical limits near them. Sometimes, that fandom is determined by family lineage. The true fanatics of the game might toe the line in between caring family provider and raving lunatic over the course of three and a half hours. Fans stand in large queues for the privilege to see the thin of controlled violence. What occurs on the field leads to lifetime expulsion if it were to occur in the stands.

Teams are about to experience the yearly tip-toeing across the financial rule known as the salary cap. As DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys found out, the line between cap casualty and superstar can often be a pretty thin one. Deals that have been signed within the last 72 hours are ones that are written in such a way that most of the teams in the league know their payroll burden will be able to adhere to the league law during the coming season.

When we see an idea that seems misguided on the surface, it will often be easy forget that said notions are what are good about football. Creating lines through loud discussion is what makes the league grow. Word of mouth and getting the public to talk is what eventually leads to adulation and adaption. When these controversial subjects come up, all the league is doing is moving a current line or creating another one. These thin lines are the reason why the league is popular in the first place. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the forward pass is drawn as a thin line between the quarterback’s arm and the hands of a waiting receiver. The on-field representation of that once helped saved the league. I’m pretty sure that another thin line will save the league in the future.

Rich Gapinski is a part-time football writer for Football Pros and Polish Guy Podcast as well as a full-time sports fan and husband who lives in the Cleveland area. Just once, he would like Matt Suhey to throw a block for him so he can feel like Walter Payton. You can follow Rich on Twitter at @PguyPodcast