Every aspect of the Super Bowl is scrutinized in detail, but this year I watched the hash marks, and as always, cursed them between each play.
I think back to 16 years ago, when I took a Dutch sports field professional to an NFL preseason game. Having never seen an American football game, his first question came after the third play: “Why do they keep bringing the ball back to the middle of the field after each play? That must be hard on the pitch!”
Surely, you too have pondered the same question. I blame a nasty snow storm that took place in Chicago, during December of 1932.
The 1932 NFL season had ended in a tie between the Chicago Bears and the Portsmouth (Ohio) Spartans, who would later become the Detroit Lions. (Before the 1932 season, the team with the best record at the end of the season was crowned pro football’s champion.) It was decided to stage the NFL’s first championship game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. But there was a problem – a nasty storm blew in with deep snow and high winds. In need of a solution, George Halas remembered how the Bears had played a preseason game a few years ago inside the Chicago Stadium indoor arena. So, it was decided to move this first championship game indoors in what may have been the first NFL night game. The circus had just moved out of the arena and left the soil base down that had been used for the animals. There may or may not have been some grass on the surface. A single goal post stood at one end. The end zones were curved in at the corners by hockey boards which were essentially the sidelines on the field, shorter and skinnier than regulation.
There were no hash marks in football in 1932. Like rugby, a play started at the spot where the previous play ended. It must have been a glorious time to manage football fields, as traffic was distributed more or less evenly over the entire field. But in the 1932 championship game, this meant the defense would have a terrific advantage when a play started near the walled sidelines. It was agreed to create a set of “in-bounds lines,” or hash marks, 30 feet from the sidelines. Teams could choose to start where the play ended, or if they gave up a down, they could move to the hash marks.
It’s safe to say that 1933 was a bad year. The Great Depression was at its worst. Hitler gained the chancellorship in Germany. And against what I’m sure must have been stiff complaints from any football field managers at the time, it was decided to make the hash marks a permanent part of American football.
These original hash marks were wide, 6 feet outside the current-day NFL numbers on the fields. In 1935, they were moved inward to 45 feet from sidelines, or just above today’s NFL number sets.
In 1945, hash marks were moved inward again, this time to 60 feet from the sidelines – this put them 40 feet apart in the middle of the field, which is today’s collegiate hash mark specification. (High school hash marks are 53 feet, 4 inches from the sidelines.)
But professional football wasn’t done tinkering yet.
Fans began complaining in the late 1960s of too many boring 9-3 games. Subsequently, the league wanted to increase offense and passing. Imagine that!
It was thought narrowing the hashes even further would eliminate the wide-side offensive running advantage and open up the game. So, for the 1972 season, the hashes were moved in yet again for the pro game, to 18 feet, 6 inches, where they remain to this day. In what I’ll call the groundskeepers’ revenge, the plan to open up offense and passing backfired. Note that 1972 would be remembered as “The Year of the Runner” in the NFL, with a record 10 backs rushing for over 1,000 yards.
The moral of this story? If you want to liven up the game and instantly increase the field quality on every football field in America, get rid of the hash marks!
If my Dutch friend noticed this problem right away, why can’t everyone else?