A Pigskin’s Progress

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As American football has evolved over the years, so has the ball used by players on the gridiron.
As American football has evolved over the years, so has the ball used by players on the gridiron.

Football season is in full blast and whenever the subject is the ball itself, the moniker “pigskin” isn’t far behind. Clichés about the pigskin are as old as the game itself: “He sure can throw that pigskin!” or “Fellows, let’s move that pigskin down the field!” and “He kicked that pigskin right through the goal posts!”

From 1990 to 2002, there was even a Pigskin Classic, the opening game of the college football season played at Disney World in Anaheim, CA.

So, was the football ever a pigskin? The answer is a resounding “yes.” The first American football game was played on Nov. 6, 1869, between Princeton and Rutgers in neighboring New Jersey. At that game and at games for years afterwards, the footballs were inflated with the bladders of animals, often those of swine. More specifically, the insides of the leather cover included swine bladders. Designers of early footballs inflated pig bladder into a more oval shape than today’s footballs, which are pointed on both ends. Football, in those days, was primarily a running game with the forward pass not yet in fashion. Either way, news of swine bladder inflating the football gave rise to the term “pigskin.”

Also at the same time that the game was taking off, a young chemist named Charles Goodyear was perfecting his invention of vulcanized rubber. The pigskin would, in time, be inflated by such rubber. Still, the term pigskin has remained part of football lore.

The footballs you see today being thrown around high school, college and professional football fields are made with cowhide leather. A football with synthetic material or vulcanized rubber is used in recreational and youth football leagues.

Just as American football was originally modeled on rugby football, so, too, is the football modeled on the rugby oval ball, used in that sport and also in Australian rules football. There are differences between football and rugby. In the mid-1980s, the National Football League played its first game in Europe, with the Chicago Bears taking on the Philadelphia Eagles. Local rugby stars weren’t impressed. These American footballers were decked out in helmets and shoulder pads, while rugby is a rough-and-tumble game, full of the same kind of tackling you see in American football only without the protective gear.

At all levels of play, the football is inflated to  12 ½ to  13 ½ pounds per square inch and weighs 14 to 15 ounces. In the pro game, the ball has a long axis of 11 to  11¼ inches, a long circumference of 28 to  28½ inches and a short circumference of 21 to  21¼ inches. Footballs used in high school and college games use a ball with a long axis of  10⅞ to  117⁄16 inches, a long circumference of  27¾ to  28½ inches and a short circumference of  20¾ to  21¼ inches.

The ball itself came into some controversy recently when New England Patriot employees were accused of deflating footballs used in the 2014 American Football Conference championship game. An NFL-published report declared that star quarterback Tom Brady “more likely than not” was aware of the intentional deflation. Brady was charged with a four-game suspension at the start of the 2015 season for his infraction, one that was later overturned by a federal judge.

In 2016, the NFL has bigger problems than accusations involving Brady and his own pigskins.

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