The History of the Game
While the rowdy British sports of rugby and soccer may have provided the origins for the concept of running toward a goal while holding a ball, American football with a set of rules and markings on the field began in the late 1800s at Ivy League universities in the Eastern states. Walter Camp, who played during those years at Yale University, formed the professional Intercollegiate Football Association and is now called the "Father of American Football." In 1922, various professional leagues became today's National Football League and fielded 18 teams, including the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears.
Basically, the offensive team of 11 players tries to advance across the goal line by running or throwing the football on a 100-by- 53-yard field, marked off in 1-yard intervals, while the defensive team tries to stop them by tackling players and blocking their forward motion. The teams switch roles when the offense hasn't gained 10 yards in four tries, or "downs." Specific rules cover all aspects of the game, such as one or both the runner's knees need to touch the ground for a tackle to stop the play, and that no more than 40 seconds can elapse between plays.
High School and College Football
Football permeates America at all levels, with elementary-school-aged children playing both touch and tackle football, high-school football defining recreation in small towns throughout the country and college football providing what amounts to farm teams for the professional game. Some football programs operate year-round, such as the high school seven-on-seven teams in Texas where only quarterbacks and receivers play a variation of the game in summer to keep their skills fresh.
NFL Conferences and Divisions
In 1970, the NFL reorganized by merging with the American Football League, and formed two conferences; the two now field four divisions, each containing four teams: North, South, East and West. As of 2015, the NFL's 32 teams play 16 games against each other on a rotating schedule each year. A complex system has the teams playing other teams within their division; a few other teams in their conference; and teams in the other conference based on the prior year's standings.
Issues in the 21st Century
Concerns about money and the violence have plagued football since its inception. In 1894 the leagues banned nails on shoes, and in 2013 the NFL created a "Head Health Initiative" to develop new helmets that reduce the risk of dangerous concussions. In the 1960s rights for lucrative radio and television contracts became the subject for governmental action and in 2013, a congressional bill to remove the NFL as a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization became stuck in the Senate Finance Committee, where it remains as of 2015.