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Baseball is America’s pastime, but football is America’s daytime, primetime, and all the time. Each week, despite recently reported dips in the ratings, the NFL still performs its own three and out by dominating Sunday, Monday, and Thursday night programming. Fall Saturdays belong to college football. Friday night lights still shine on high school fields and draw huge crowds all across the country.
As Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown would say, “Business is booming.” But that’s the present, and for those who have been paying attention to the growing chorus of doctors, scientists, parents, and other American football critics, it’s clear that nothing is promised for the future.
The A7FL is a seven-on-seven full contact football league played with no helmets and no pads that’s growing in popularity across the nation. According to co-founder Ryan DePaul, the A7’s style began in New Jersey in 2006, although it wasn’t officially branded A7FL until 2014. Yet, despite the total lack of protection, he and almost everyone associated with the league are touting it as a safer alternative to traditional tackle football.
Could a full-contact game with no pads and no helmet somehow actually be safer?
“We see the A7FL as the future of football,” says A7FL co-founder Sean Korkusuz. “We’re pushing it as hard as we can for safety, morality, and promoting football internationally. There’s an ongoing CTE epidemic. We feel our format is the sport that will pick up internationally—seven-on-seven is an international format, easier to play, no equipment cost.”
Although TV ratings remain relatively high, the figures most people don’t see are the declining number of kids participating in youth league football. Parents seem more cautious of their children getting hurt. With the general public’s increasing awareness of the long-term, life-threatening effects of head injuries, Pop Warner numbers are dropping and more NFL players are retiring before the age of 30.
One of the A7FL’s stars, New Jersey Chiefs defensive lineman Mahmoud Ramadan, also coaches a full-pads Pop Warner football team.
With A7s you don’t have to worry about the bull**** of someone targeting you with a helmet.
“I have no problem having kids play the A7,” Ramadan says. “They play flag football and I’ve seen kids get hurt playing that. A7s is teaching proper technique. Now, I would worry about smaller kids who aren’t fully developed, but kids in junior high heading into high school? I’d definitely let them play A7s.”
The game of football was “born” in 1869. In 1888, players were allowed to tackle below the waist and it was decided that pads should be worn, although no one considered that they should also be protecting their heads. The first football helmet wasn’t used in a game until 1896, and wasn’t mandatory until 1939. The game was played for 51 years before players ever started using helmets.
Lately, there have been rumors of the NFL eliminating kickoffs as a way to reduce player collisions. One major difference in A7FL is the kickoffs, which are actually throwoffs—three men from the throwing team run down the field attempting to tackle a lone return man. Watching the highlights, you might think the league is about as safe as a bar fight with Conor McGregor. But, according those close to the A7FL, perception isn’t necessarily reality.
“People think it’s nuts because there are no pads and no helmets,” says Ramadan. “Football is football, so you’re going to get inevitable injuries—the bumps and bruises. With A7s you don’t have to worry about the bull**** of someone targeting you with a helmet.”
Whether or not A7FL players actually have fewer concussions is still up for debate. The league hired Dr. Bryan Pfister, a Traumatic Brain Injury Specialist at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, to implement mouthguards that can measure impacts that occur during games. When it comes to head injuries, Dr. Pfister believes what almost everyone associated with the league believes—A7FL is safer than traditional football.
“What I see is a safer game,” Dr. Pfister says. “There is a belief there is a mental aspect to not wearing a helmet. You pay more attention to how you hit and tackle. They tackle by wrapping up as opposed to hitting each other. Hopefully we’re going to see how this plays out after analyzing the i1 Biometric Vector Mouthguard data.”
The game itself is played in eight states. The talent level ranges from players holding onto Al Bundy-style high school glory to real-life ballers who’ve come within inches of making an NFL roster. The league isn’t technically professional since not every player is paid, but a few players do receive some compensation for their play. But paid or not, the league doesn’t offer health insurance, so players must sign liability waivers before taking the field.
A7FL is played in the spring when football fans only have the NFL draft and arena football to get their football fix, but the main draw aren’t those starved for NFL-style football. What makes the game so interesting is its visual and visceral nature. You can see players’ faces, you see the violence, you watch in awe because they seem to be tremendously reckless. For generations fans have been told football should be played in pads, so first exposure to the A7FL is similar to first exposure to UFC. It’s raw. But, like many argue when comparing UFC to boxing, this version may actually be safer.
“Playing without pads raises your awareness,” says Marcus McKinney, a two-time A7FL champion. “With pads, you play with reckless abandon. You have security so you think, ‘I can be a little crazier.’
The NFL can’t make the necessary changes to their game without becoming the A7FL.
“I haven’t had any concussions or injuries in A7s. I feel like it’s safer. In college, I separated my shoulder, took helmets to the shin and hand. Concussions can still happen in A7, but not from helmet-to-helmet contact.”
It is said that a helmet and pads can make a player feel invincible. The intent of a helmet is to protect those wearing them, but certain players, be it malicious intent or poor fundamentals, use their helmets as a weapon.
Last season, the A7FL outfitted ten of their players with i1 Biometric’s Vector Mouthguards that can measure head trauma via g-forces. The findings from the data are not yet available, but if you ask anyone associated with the A7FL, they’ll tell you you’re more likely to get a concussion in helmet football than A7FL. “The University of New Hampshire football team practices without helmets,” says Dr. Pfister. “By practicing without helmets, you learn how to play the game correctly.”
Could this barbaric-looking, stripped-down version of America’s favorite sport really be a glimpse into the future? Co-founder Sean Korkusuz is counting on it.
“The NFL can’t make the necessary changes to their game without becoming the A7FL.”