American Football Needs a UX Update

Football is the perfect sport for modern America. It is hyper-technical, regimented, and increasingly data-driven. But when 100 million Americans tune into the Super Bowl this Sunday, they will be watching a game of controlled violence that has gotten too complex and too fast for its own good. Does American football need a user experience update?

To borrow the language of user-first (UX) thinking, for most participants inside the game and out — the players, the coaches, the refs, the fans — football has simply become too complicated to be managed at the speed it’s played. The sport features high stakes games where a single, often subjective judgment in a limited 16-game season can make or break a drive, a game, a season, even a career.

The rules of football now require so much subjective judgment that players, coaches and fans struggle to define the simple things like, say, what constitutes ‘a catch’? Did the player make a football move? Was his arm moving forward when the ball came out? Did the linebacker use his shoulder legally? Did that substitution violate Rule 5–2–8, or was the coach just showing superior gamesmanship?

Mastering the rules as a coach, player or referee is no easy task. The NFL rulebook itself is 86 pages long, and is updated annually. There is a Competition Committee that considers rule edits and additions each year, sometimes chewing on potential changes for seemingly decades. At the start of every season players are not only introduced to the new rules for the year, but briefed by the referees on how those new rules will be interpreted on the field. No sport changes the rules as frequently nor as fundamentally, which adds to football’s complexity.

This has contributed to what is widely regarded as a tough year for NFL officiating. But is that the fault of the refs? Even the head of officiating is asking for the rulebook to be simplified. Historically in the NFL, calls for clarity have resulted in more rules, not fewer.

Most sports are much simpler to play and manage. Soccer, the world’s most popular sport, is governed by 17 Laws that can be written on the inside of a matchbook, and were originally codified in the mid 19th century. Baseball is more complicated than soccer, but it remains a leisurely, pastoral sport from a more pastoral time.

American football is very different. Now that’s not to say the sport’s complexity is necessarily bad. For many football fans the complexity is part of the allure. While football is often regarded as brutish and violent, it’s also deeply intellectual, an intricate chess match with countless moving parts working in chaotic unison all over the field. Or more accurately, it’s a layered series of chess matches: a competition between two head coaches, between a defensive coordinator and the opposing quarterback, between linebackers and a talented RB, between edge rushers and the o-line.

Football also has an unusual tension between modernity and anachronism. The sport features numerous characteristics of our modern age — it is technical, fast-paced, iterative, and built for commercialization between small-bites of action. But football is at the same time hopelessly slow-moving when it comes to change. Whether it be in recognizing the clear bodily harm being done to the brains and bodies of players, or the game’s love of arcane rules.

For example, football’s extra point kick (or “try” if you’re a purist) has been one of the most long-standing yet punishingly uninteresting scoring activities in the history of sport. Originally imported from the sport’s rugby roots, the extra point try in professional football went nearly 100 years with no real change, despite it boring all participants to tears. Up until this year, an extra point was simply the warning that a commercial was coming. Most people didn’t even watch it, instead taking it as a Pavlovian cue to hit the bathroom and grab some guac. This year’s revelation of moving the try back from the 2-yard line to the 15 has been surprisingly brilliant, introducing real risk into a part of the game where there previously was almost none.

Football should continue to press for change and consider a substatial UX update. The rulebook should be reconsidered and simplified to make the game easier to manage and to play. Rather than its typical incrementaling, the NFL should consider a Football Constitutional Convention that takes into account the modern realities of football — the game has gotten too fast, too complicated, too subjective to continue to be credible. It’s also gotten too dangerous for it to exist in its current form, despite whatever Commissioner Roger Goodell says about his imaginary sons playing ball. Taking into account the new realities of technology and safety, the rules can be re-thought with all users in mind. It might even make sense to convert the refs to fulltime experts, rather than weekend zebra warriors — for God’s sake there are barely 125 of them, it can’t cost that much.

The NFL should consider an overhaul of the rule book for the sake of all users; for the players and coaches who don’t know what a catch is anymore; for the refs who are losing credibility with fans and confidence on the field; and for the NFL league itself which has turned into a cacophony of PSI measurements and questionable outcomes in big games. This is especially true when nearly everyone on the field admits they don’t know the rules.

But most importantly the NFL should do it for the fans. Those crazy, passionate, face-painted whackos who love this amazing sport. Fans who want to know that if their team does indeed lose, it’s because the other team outplayed them, and not because the other guys were better at manipulating an overly complex rulebook, or by losing key players through the attrition of brutal injuries.

Right now the user experience of NFL football is in many ways well-suited for the deliberations of the lawyers now running the league. But that’s not for us, not for the fans. Instead the game should be suited for us — it should be for the players, the coaches, and the fans that are the real lifeblood of America’s most popular sport.