2:24 pm
Fri November 22, 2013

The Science Behind Hard Hits And Touchdowns

Originally published on Mon November 25, 2013 3:18 pm



This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, Grammy award-winning musician Esperanza Spalding gets political with her new song. We'll talk to her about her battle to close Guantanamo in just a few minutes.

But first, we are in the middle of football season if you haven't noticed. If you've listened to this program at all lately, you'll know there's been a lot of controversy off of the field - from team names to health concerns and bullying. But we wanted to zone in on what actually happens on the field today and the many scientific principles that govern America's most popular sport. Joining me now is materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez and journalist Allen St. John. They're the co-authors of the new book, "Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game." Welcome to both of you.

AINISSA RAMIREZ: Oh thanks, delighted to be here.

ST. JOHN: Great to be here.

HEADLEE: So Ainissa, out of all the different sports you could use, or anything you could use to explain scientific principles, why football? Are you a football fan?

RAMIREZ: Well, I'm a scientist, I grew up around football fans but I cannot say that I am one officially. But, why not football? If you're going to do it, go big or go home. So we thought that this was a great opportunity to showcase science that's already in people's living rooms.

HEADLEE: And yet, to a certain extent, maybe there was another book waiting to be written that might attract more women. I mean, I know that there's a gender gap in the STEM fields especially. And what could we use to maybe reach young girls in the same way that, say, a football book might reach young guys?

RAMIREZ: It's a great question. You're right. Only about 26 percent of degrees are girls when it comes to STEM. I think a book on projects that are relevant on solving issues is the way to approach girls. Perhaps not football.

HEADLEE: What do you mean by that?

RAMIREZ: Well, there's data that say that girls like to solve problems that help people. So whether it's putting up solar panels or deciding ways to make water that's efficient in villages. Those are the kind of problems that make girls excited.

HEADLEE: OK, but let's get back to football 'cause that's what this book is about and it's very readable if people are nervous about picking up a book about science, this is a really entertaining book. But Allen, are you a football fan?

ST. JOHN: Yes I am, actually. I wrote a book called "The Billion Dollar Game" about what goes on behind the scenes of the Super Bowl. I think, you know, that's kind of been what I do - is really sort of take big complicated things and sort of, you know, explain them in a way that's fun.

HEADLEE: So Ainissa, let's kind of get into some of the science here. For example, you link the no huddle offense with Chaos Theory. How does that work?

RAMIREZ: Well, Chaos Theory tells us that, if you change the way you start, you're going to drastically change the way you finish. And that kind of wraps up what Chaos Theory does. So the no huddle offense, by not having players gathered together before they start a new play, what you're doing is you're not allowing the other team to prepare in time and so that gives you an advantage.

HEADLEE: So Allen, there's actually a chapter in the book where you talk about fantasy drafts, and you talk about Isaac Newton's ultimate NFL fantasy draft. It comes down to a very simple formula - I mean, obviously Isaac Newton was not part of any fantasy football league, just as a disclaimer out there. But, in your idea, there's a very simple formula behind putting together a fantasy team. Break that down for us.

ST. JOHN: Well, you know, simply, I mean, what Newton was all about were, again, these really very basic physical rules about the world, and one of them is momentum. And it's basically mass times velocity. And when you're talking about that, and the velocity is of course, the speed of the player - can the guy run - and the other side of it is of course mass. And the thing that we noticed is that there was actually a much bigger disparity between the biggest guy and the smallest guy in the NFL, then for example, the difference between the fastest and the slowest guy.

And we were actually surprised at that. And so really, when we crunched the numbers we ended up looking at, you know, the very biggest guys in the NFL as just really having the most momentum. And initially, we thought wow, that's a little strange. And when we actually looked at not what teams say they want in a player but what they actually are willing to pay. When it comes to that, you know, as simply, teams are willing to pay more for bigger players. That's where they spend their money.

HEADLEE: You must have ended up having to watch a lot of football, Ainissa.

RAMIREZ: I watched a lot of clips.

HEADLEE: And are you a football fan now?

RAMIREZ: I tell people that I started off not knowing very much, and now I'm still very much a newbie. I think I look at football a little differently. I think I think of it from a scientific point of view, so I don't have a favorite team yet. But, I do enjoy it because it just looks like a very large chess match.

HEADLEE: Well, that's an interesting, you know, Allen, I have to ask you because, you know, I'm a Detroit fan. A long-suffering Lions fan. And to a certain extent there's almost - the psychological portion of the science was missing for me. You know, people point to the Lions, for example, or any team that loses a ton. And they point to this particular phenomenon that a great player will get to a losing team and start losing, and not play as well. Then you move him to a winning team and they start winning again. And I wonder to what extent are all these very strict scientific principles then kind of thrown out of whack because of the human psychology?

ST. JOHN: Well, again, I mean, the thing is that, you know, when you're looking at a team, you know, of course it's what the individual players are doing, but the other thing is of course it's - they're guys and unfortunately mostly guys in the front office who are basically getting a team together. On the other hand, also, you know, they're - just simply, luck plays a huge, huge role in football. I mean, for example, just, you know, one of the things that we noticed in the book was that your Lions were especially unlucky at recovering fumbles.


ST. JOHN: And again, the ball is shaped in a strange way and you bounce it on the ground and sometimes it's going to come right back up to you and you're going to end up taking the ball and going right in for a touchdown. Or, if that doesn't happen and it squirts away now it can be a 14 point swing. And in a very short season, you know, it's a small sample error. So, you know, some of it's about having the right players. Some of it's about having the right people running your team. And a lot of it is just plain, sheer luck.

HEADLEE: So Ainissa, what is one thing in football that is consistent enough for us to track all the way through the years that the game has been played? Is there anything?

RAMIREZ: Well, we have on the cover of "Newton's Football" F equals ma - force is equal to mass times acceleration. And I think that's a strong candidate. But, I also think that it's really momentum equals mass times velocity. It's a momentum game, it's a collision game and that's what the premise of football has been all about.

HEADLEE: Can I ask you where you fall on the helmet issue? I mean, you have a lot of evidence in there and the fact that football players might be safer without the helmets.

RAMIREZ: Well, it's an intriguing question. We state should we ban helmets?


RAMIREZ: We should back up and really think about what was the origin of the helmet to begin with? It was designed to prevent skull fractures, not concussions. And Allen and I, when we looked at the development of the helmet in "Newton's Football," we looked and saw that when the facemask was attached, then new human behavior started. We stopped tackling with our shoulders, we started tackling with our heads. And we set up this problem that we were going to have this concussion epidemic that we have today. So we have to realize that the helmet was never designed to mitigate concussions from the beginning. I think what we have to do is train players to hit differently and also develop new materials in the helmets.

HEADLEE: OK, so, Allen, Ainissa says she's still a football newbie. Who are you rooting for on Thanksgiving day?

ST. JOHN: Well, strangely I'm actually, kind of a Minnesota Vikings fan of all things. But basically that was because I liked their uniforms. I mean, you know, I'm all about the purple.

HEADLEE: There you go. Journalist Allen St. John and a materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez. They're the co-authors of the new book, "Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game," which is out now. They both joined us from NPR studio in New York. Quick trivia for both of you - do either of you know where the very first Thanksgiving football game was played?

ST. JOHN: Can't say that I do.

RAMIREZ: I definitely don't know.

HEADLEE: Detroit.

RAMIREZ: Oh, how did that happen?

HEADLEE: Oh, I just don't know how I know that. Thank you so much.

ST. JOHN: Snuck that one in.

HEADLEE: Thanks for joining us guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.