By Josh Orum
Now that the NFL season is over and we have a small break until the draft, it’s a good time to sit back and reflect on the game’s larger challenge: how to deal with its concussion problem.
If you follow sports news, you’ve probably heard something – or a lot – about this issue. In summary, it turns out that repeated concussions lead to a brain condition called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, also known as CTE. The symptoms evolve slowly, and don’t show up for a while. They basically they start with psychosis, and end with a combination of Parkinson’s and Alzheimers type symptoms.
On the Atlantic Monthly, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about whether football players can truly assess the risks that come from playing football. A lot of people have responded to the whole football-is-surprisingly-dangerous idea by saying that football players know the risks and have the personal responsibility to decide on their own.
This avoids the larger point, which is that football players – in fact, no one – knew the true dangers of the sport. Even today, we still don’t know the extent of those dangers.
Many sports are dangerous, and participants must take that into account when they decide whether to play or not. Participants in every sport – baseball, basketball, race car driving, big wave surfing, climbing, cycling, skiing – know the risks because they are clear. Injuries happen on the field and on the track. People get hurt, and even die in full view.
And that’s what’s different about the brain injuries occurring in football. They aren’t clear. They’re revealed years after they’ve occurred. And they aren’t just something that players can “deal with” like a knee injury or bad hip – these are ticking time bombs that change them as people and kill them.
Even knowing this, I’m sure people will still want to play football. It’s not a decision I’d make, but I don’t have a problem with others making it.
The NFL faces several problems:
- Given this knowledge, there will almost certainly be a decline in kids playing. This won’t directly effect the NFL – it’s not like there will be a shortage of players, but if their kids aren’t playing, it will have less hold on communities, and become a smaller part of the national conversation.
- Greater understanding of the true damage the sport does will turn some people away, people who can stomach physical damage but have a harder time accepting brain damage.
- There will be intense pressure to introduce things that improve player safety. I don’t expect these to actually improve safety that much (the hits that are the real culprits aren’t the big hits that make highlight reels, but the small happen on the line and occur every down), but they will change the nature of the game.
- Finally, and most potentially most damaging, it appears the NFL knew about the problem and hid the information (the same problem the tobacco companies faced). I wouldn’t be surprised if this has a legal and financial impact on the NFL.
In the end, I think the NFL is currently at the apogee of its power and popularity. I’d be surprised to see it exist in the same form in a decade or two. I expect it to face significant declines in popularity, and the style of play to change dramatically.
It’s unfortunate because American-style football gives us some of the best combinations of strategic and tactical brilliance viewable today.
So what changes are needed? I expect that the NFL will focus on rule changes that lead to fewer “big” hits. As I wrote earlier, these won’t really make a difference because it’s not the big hits, but the routine hits that matter, but they may also negatively change the nature of the game.
On the other hand, there are two changes the NFL could implement that would not only reduce the likelihood of CTE but also improve the quality of the game:
- Make smaller helmets. Though they purportedly exist to protect, helmets lead to bigger and harder hits. If you’re using your head as a welcome without a helmet, you’ll immediately feel the impact. If you have a big helmet, you’re more likely to use it.
- Dramatically increase the size of teams. What if a coach was able to completely shift out the offensive and defensive lines every down? Not only would linemen have a chance to recover a bit, but they’d stay fresher throughout the game, and have less wear and tear throughout the season.
What do you think about this?
By Josh Orum
You can contact Josh at firstname.lastname@example.org