126 Simple Rules

By the end of this week, I will have shuttled my two sons to four different flag football practices. I should preface this by stating (and I really cannot stress this enough) that I am not a football person. I know, some women are huge fans of the sport and understand every tiny rule and obscure penalty on the books. Many may even know a thing or two about the players and can be described as genuinely dedicated fans whose loyalty is based on more than simply the color of their favorite team’s uniforms. I’m just not one of those women. Of course I am handy to have around when you’re watching a game because I’ll happily run to the kitchen for snacks.

And it’s not that I can’t understand the game (which I readily admit I don’t). I am a reasonably intelligent person after all. It’s really that, try as I might, I don’t want to. It just seems to me that it may be the most unnecessarily complicated game in history. But then perhaps for some it is this excessive complication which makes it (allegedly) so great.

The origin of the sport known the world over as American football (not to be confused with soccer with which, historically speaking, it probably has a great deal more in common than most hooligans would care to admit) has been traced, by people with far too much time on their hands, to the ancient Greek game of harpaston, a game with almost no rules at all. Here’s all you need know to play the game of harpaston:

  1. If your team has the ball (may also sub ripe melon, small animal, or severed head), score by running, kicking, or passing across the designated goal line.
  2. If the other team has the ball, get it back.

There were no cumbersome boundary lines or regulations about numbers of players or lengths of fields. Harpaston was true sport in its finest potentially deadly form.

Little seems to have changed by the time the game shows up again, this time in 12th century England, where it was a game most often enjoyed during Carnival week (the week leading up to Lent). Two teams, again made up of an unspecified number of players, started in the market square and attempted to score goals in gates set up some distance from the square. Still there were apparently no confining rules, which served to heighten the excitement, even encouraging merchants to close up shop and board their windows as mothers enthusiastically whisked their children indoors.

The playing of this classic Carnival week ball game continued relatively unmolested for over a century until one fateful February morning in 1314 when a gifted archer (whose name is sadly lost to history) in loyal service to King Edward II, lost his bow drawing (or yew plucking) fingers to the teeth of an over-eager Duke on the opposing team. Edward was faced with a choice:

  1. Ban the sport altogether (a move that though popular amongst merchants and mothers, was not supported by the unruly hooligans who closely followed the progress of the sport and whose antics, frankly, made the king a little nervous)
  2. Introduce a controversial no biting rule

Edward chose to ban the sport, as a matter of general safety. In response to the king’s great concern for the well-being of his subjects, the Carnival ball game hooligans set his car on fire (after flipping it over of course).

The sport resurged at various times through the years, but even the whisper of additional rules and safety regulations forever altered the course of football, which explains (just trust me on this) why in 1940, the sport of flag football began popping up on military bases in the US. Out of fear of the potential injuries caused by the now much more heavily regulated, though still brutal game of football, and an unwillingness to risk the able bodies of our men in uniform, a new version of the sport was born.

After the introduction of flags, the two parallel versions of the game developed more or less separately though in many important ways are still roughly the same game. So just how many rules are there? According to one person on Answers.yahoo.com (whose moniker “Cu Tie” leaves little doubt in my mind that he or she is a football expert) there are approximately 11,500 rules listed in the 2011 NFL rule book. Of course human error being what it is several less reputable people have sought to debunk this, claiming instead that there are in fact only 367. Either way, it’s way more than 2.

And I don’t know about the average flag football league, but for the one in which my sons (who are entering Kindergarten and 2nd grade) participate, I count 126 separate rules, neatly listed on a parent handout (surprisingly “no biting” isn’t included). And yes, we want the kids to be safe, and to play fair, and to have a great time. I have to wonder, though, how many of these 126 rules will really be followed by a bunch of Kindergartners who still require daily reminders as to which side of their pants goes in the front. I would keep track, but honestly I’d rather run to the concession stand for a snack. I’d be happy to bring you something.

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