January 11, 2015


The Rise (and Fall?) of the NFL : There were Giants in the earth in those days .  .  . and Colts (Geoffrey Norman, January 19, 2015, Weekly Standard)

Hard to imagine, as the ratings climb and the revenues roll in, that there could be honest speculation about "death of the NFL." But that is the theme one encounters more and more often, and from sources that cannot be dismissed as crackpots. Troy Aikman (another of those quarterbacks with a name that might have destined him for the role) won three Super Bowls with the Dallas Cowboys and has gone on to a career in broadcasting. His life, then, has been football. And it has been a good life.

But recently Aikman was quoted as saying, "If I had a 10-year-old boy, I don't know that I'd be real inclined to encourage him to go play football, in light of what we're learning from head injuries. And so what is the sport going to look like 20 years from now? I believe, and this is my opinion, that at some point football is not going to be the No. 1 sport."

Aikman suffered several concussions as a player. They came with the territory. He was tough, stood in the pocket, and took the hits, one of them in a championship game that left him, several hours later, lying in a hospital bed and asking his agent if he had played that day, and if so, how had he done. The next week, he suited up and led the Cowboys to a second consecutive Super Bowl win over the Buffalo Bills. 

Aikman has said he is fine now and feeling no long-term effects. Other players, most of them less celebrated than Aikman, can't say the same. Some former players have experienced the early onset of dementia and other debilitating conditions, to include extreme depression and violent mood swings, that can be traced to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). A number of them have joined in a lawsuit against the NFL that the league is eager to settle. A trial would be exceedingly harmful to the NFL's image, win or lose.

The legal maneuvering goes on in relative obscurity. Not so the suicides of several players and former players with CTE considered at the very least a contributing factor. Junior Seau, a star linebacker, killed himself at 43, two years after his retirement. Interviews with his family suggest that Seau, who had been notable for his ebullience as a player, had become depressed, withdrawn, and subject to silences and exceedingly dark moods that were entirely out of character. He shot himself in the chest so that his brain would not be damaged and, thus, would be available for study.

Research of that sort goes on, and science learns more--none of it good--about CTE. Meanwhile, football, at all levels of play, does what it can about concussions. Players are pulled from games when they show symptoms. They are not allowed to return to games when it has been established that they have, indeed, been concussed. Protective equipment has improved and the rules are rewritten to eliminate, to the extent possible, those hits that cause concussions.

Still, Lombardi (or whoever it was) had it right. Football is a collision sport. The equipment can pad the head but it doesn't do anything about those sudden stops where the brain keeps traveling and slams into the inside of the skull. Eliminate those big hits and you have .  .  . soccer, which works perfectly well, football critics might say, in most of the world.

One can almost sense a movement to ban football coming. It would start, of course, with the children. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that some 4 million concussions occur annually in high school football. A ban would be sold and justified as necessary to protect the health of boys too young to know any better. (And, not incidentally, too young to vote.) Many of their mothers would join the movement or, at least, pray silently for its success.

And there would be lawsuits, class action and otherwise, that could mean bankruptcy for high schools and even colleges without the resources of the NFL. Who would want to be a volunteer referee or coach if there were a risk of being named as a party in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit resulting from an injury suffered under those famous Friday Night Lights? Sponsors, too, might be sued. Why would the owner of a car dealership want to take on the risk? 

This is not a hard scenario to imagine in a world where playground jungle gyms are disassembled and sledding hills closed as a way of avoiding "legal exposure." And it could happen even though one feels certain that almost everyone playing football at what is called a "high level" is willing to live with the risk. Many, no doubt, embrace it, risk being a narcotic of sorts, like adrenaline, which is the first drug that football players become addicted to. Knowing that they will pay, somewhere down the line, makes their time in the arena that much more intense, that much sweeter. As Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte put it recently, "I'd rather have the experience of playing in the NFL and die 10 to 15 years earlier than not play in the NFL and have a long life."

When we were kids, track and field used to be a major tv sport and the participants used to say the same thing.  No one watches track anymore because the athletes acted on that impulse and used PED to corrupt the sport.  Boxing used to be even bigger--Ali fights were pay-per-view at movie theaters.  No one pays any attention to boxing anymore.  

A friend was with the Patriots those last couple years that Seau played and he had to sing the poor guy to sleep at night. The brain damages are too high a price to be paid for mere entertainment.

The solution is technology.  Either helmets become so safe that the brain is protected or the networks show a virtual reality version of Madden.   Viewers won't know the difference soon.

Posted by at January 11, 2015 9:17 AM

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