Set The Edge: ”Do you play rugby?”

“Oh, so you wear pads?’’

The excitement of meeting someone new has somewhat declined for me over the past few years. Typically, my new acquaintance will recognize that I am larger than most, and ask the question, “Do you play rugby?”

Now on the surface this is a perfectly fine question. Maybe even complimentary, along the lines of, “have you been working out?” However, it’s their reaction to me telling them I play American Football that has dulled my enthusiasm for sharing.

“Oh, so you wear pads?”

Only five words, but laced with so much judgement and disappointment, that it makes me want to cry; in a manly way.

It is for this reason that I attempt to defend American Football, make the proper comparisons with rugby, and educate the population of the UK (and the world) about one of it’s fastest growing sports.

Let’s start with pads

Without doubt, the wearing of pads is the most criticized aspect of American Football (from now on referred to as football). If rugby players don’t wear pads, then why should football players?


My first rebuttal is simple; football has harder hits. Let me stress, I have great respect for the physical demands of rugby, and the danger involved in hitting flesh on flesh, but it isn’t the same.

This ESPN Sport Science video illustrates it perfectly. The football hit is measured at 4,800 pounds of force, compared to the 1600 pounds rugby hit. However, in an average game the rugby player will give three times as many hits, meaning that aggregate force of hits in a game by a player is about the same.

So while wearing pads allows the absorption and distribution of a hit, the helmet and pads give the hitter psychological armor. Simply put, this is why there is no sport when a padded guy can hit a unpadded guy! But wait…is this the case? Sure, a football player may hit with his shoulder pads and helmet, but what of the guy taking the blow? The Sport Science video fails to take into account a key factor.

You do not always get hit square in the chest. In fact, I played on both sides of the ball, and rarely did I give or take a perfectly lined up hit. An observer can be forgiven for seeing the helmet and the oversized jerseys on the big shoulder pads and thinking that this padding continues all over the body. However the truth is, after the helmet and the shoulder pads, you are left with some flimsy leg pads, and that’s about it. These so-called ‘padded hits’ often consist of taking a shoulder to an unprotected stomach, or smashing an elbow with a metal face-cage, all dealt out by a hitter with armor both physical and mental. In terms of football and hitting, it is definitely better to give than to receive.

Back to my new friend, and they have been captivated by my speech on why it’s ok to wear pads, despite glancing at a clock or watch every few minutes.

“Fine, but why does it stop and start all the time? Do they need a rest?” they continue, clearly not fully convinced.

What is with all the breaks?

I feel for them at this point, since part of the reason is that American sports are filled with tons of advertising, and they’ve been listening to me talk for a good twenty minutes already. However, the crux of the matter is this. Football is very different from rugby. The British public are so sure that football is just rugby in pads, that they assume our American cousins don’t work hard enough, or need to stop for a burger-break.

The truth however, is that the sports of rugby and football are very different, and require different types of fitness. Football is an hour-long game played over three or four hours, with a single player often on the field for only half of the time; but for these 30 minutes of playing time, a player is going at 100%. In an 80 minute rugby match, there are far fewer breaks, but some of the game time involves jogging, waiting, regrouping, watching, and laying in a pile.

line of scrimmage

I do not mean to disrespect any rugby players, in fact, quite the opposite. Rugby requires speed, strength, and stamina, but in an entirely different way than football. The differences required in fitness can be seen in the athletes themselves. A 350 pound rugby forward would not be conditioned enough to run up and down the pitch for 80 minutes, but a 350 pound football lineman can have the stamina to recover from hitting a guy for 10 seconds, so that he can do it again and again.

Rugby players need stamina to keep going at a consistent level for an entire game, but in football stamina is required to recover between short bursts of very high intensity. The same goes for the types of speed and strength required in each sport. This difference with rugby enables players to concentrate on power and explosion, giving us the hard-hitting, high impact sport that is football.

Rules, on rules, on rules

‘’Blah, blah, blah, I just don’t get it.’’

While my new, but somewhat inevitably former, friend has now decided to leave or talk to someone else, he has unknowingly hit on what I consider to be the biggest problem.

As a nation (the UK), we just don’t get it. Pop on a game of soccer or basketball, and even a layman can follow what is happening. Put the ball in the goal or hoop. Football however, with it’s seemingly endless intricacies, statistics and tactics, is not a game that can be enjoyed without proper knowledge of what you’re seeing. Sure, you can appreciate a touchdown if you’re paying attention, but knowing that the touchdown was thrown into double coverage by a rookie quarterback, makes it all the sweeter. It is truly a case of you only get out what you put in.

The complexities in the game of football are what make it so enticing to fans both in the U.S. and in the UK. It is not simply a sport of big men hitting other big men, but also of giant play-books, comprehensive game-plans, and endless possibilities. It allows fans to become so deeply involved, that it is so much more than just watching a game.

So to all of you naysayers, I challenge you to give football a chance. I have linked a simple video below with the key rules of the game, and from there you can get into it as much or as little as you like. If not, I hope you have a better understanding of why football is not rugby played by fat cowards in pads.

To my fellow fans, I hope this can be of some use to you with non football loving friends, and I salute you for being among the first when the NFL comes to the UK and takes over!

As for me, I will have to hope that the next time I meet someone new, they have read up on the NFL so we can have an in-depth conversation.

Or I could find something else to talk about.

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