By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

The crisis that threatens to marginalize football

Former NFL player Nate Jackson’s commentary in today’s New York Times underscores the crisis that football faces over concussions and their lasting effects. The league’s crackdown on unnecessary roughness will accomplish almost nothing, Jackson argues. And needless to say, it is worthless with respect to college, high-school and youth football.

It may seem unimaginable today, but I honestly believe we may be at the beginning stages of a national shift that could relegate football to the margins, like boxing. With permanent after-effects, including dementia, a not-uncommon outcome, who would want their sons to risk such a fate if they fully understood the danger?

I’m not a football fan, but I don’t dislike it. I’ll watch a few games a year, depending on how the Patriots are doing. So don’t take this as an anti-football screed. I just think it’s become clear that the sport is too dangerous.

A couple of days ago, on MSNBC, I watched Gregg Easterbrook show Chuck Todd a super-high-tech new helmet that’s supposed to offer greater protection. But will that really help? Won’t players hit even harder?

Given all that, I wonder how the game might change if the NFL were to take a radical step like returning to 1940s-style gear — that is, leather helmets and minimal padding. As Jackson points out, it’s the helmets that allow players to turn their heads into a weapon. Combined with a common-sense weight limit of, say, 250 pounds, it might just make football safe enough to play.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. Michael Pahre

    While it’s hard to compare the style of play in football today with that 70 years ago, the better comparison is with modern-day rugby.

    Rugby players (= Brits) routinely say how American Football players are total wimps, because of all the pads and the silly helmet. Real men don’t need that kind of stuff.

    But then when it is pointed out to them just how hard football players hit each other, including regular drills — yes, drills — at the junior level that involve helmet-to-helmet hitting at speed, they realize that the pads and helmet allow for far more aggressive or even violent play. And, yes, I can personally vouch that I had such drills in 8th and 9th grade football practice.

    Boxing may have been marginalized when people saw it’s (likely) effects on Muhammed Ali. Will football ever have an equivalent poster child?

  2. Steve Stein

    How about padding the helmets on the outside as well as inside? It might ameliorate their weapon-like qualities, while still protecting the head and neck.

    As for the game of football, it necessarily includes violence, and that’s part of why it’s interesting to watch and fun to play. The league has to incorporate and enforce rules to make it less dangerous, and manage the harmful effects that result from repeated injuries.

    I think the league is taking meaningful steps in that direction. If they don’t succeed, then the game may indeed go the way of boxing.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Steve: I agree that league officials are serious about trying to address the issue. The NFL is far, far better run than Major League Baseball, which bugs me, since baseball is my main sports interest. The dilemma, though, is that it’s hard to see how the problem can be solved without football ceasing to be football.

  3. Violence in football is not a new development in the history of the sport. Go back a century–long before the current armor-like uniforms and helmets– and football was a terribly brutal game that was at a crossroads that threatened its very existence. In 1905, there had been numerous deaths in college football games in the prior two seasons, some estimate as many as 40 fatalities. Teddy Roosevelt had to convene the heads of the college football powers, which at that time included Harvard and Yale, and told them they needed to do something to clean up the sport and make it safer. Out of that White House intervention came changes to the rules of the game (banning mass formations, first downs) that were the basis of the modern sport.

  4. Dan,

    I hope you’re right about football’s place in the American psyche but I fear that you overestimate the role of facts in people’s decision-making process. As to football being better run — I agree with you as far as the detached fan. More often the better run team wins in football rather than the better funded team as is often the case in baseball. But from a players perspective football is a disgrace. Players die young, get debilitating brain and body injuries and their contracts are often not guaranteed. Most make a fraction of what baseball players do and most have shorter careers. Meanwhile ownership makes a killing.

  5. Jess Nevins

    What John Scott says. I think most football fans just won’t care, and will come up with ways to justify their affection for the game. MMA fans have no trouble enjoying their sport, despite the undoubted effects it has on participants.

  6. Mike Benedict

    The weight limit idea is one I’ve considered too. Not only would it likely reduce the problem mentioned here, but it would take away a major incentive for players to use PEDs.

  7. NFL football’s never going to be marginalized for a big reason–gambling. Don’t underestimate how much interest is due to that. And I can’t see its popularity as a TV sport diminishing that much. That’s not meant to trivialize the issues of crippling, permanent injuries but I can’t see a scenario where it goes to the margins, as you say.

  8. I am totally on the fence with issue. First, I am an ex-football player and avid fan. However, I am also a clinical mental health counselor who has specialized with people who have had traumatic brain injuries. Clinically the definition of a brain injury is when the brain bumps the skull. It does not take a lot of impact of a blow to the head to do this. I agree with the comment that less equipment may be the only way to minimize contact to the head. With how little the brain has to move, the game needs to be slowed down first before any significant change can make. That slow down has to come from the players and protecting them less is the best way.

    Like high stick penalties in the NHL gradually has gone down over the years due to the players taking responsibility to minimize mouth and eye injuries that have long been associated with hockey.

  9. Mike Benedict

    Anyone know how/whether worker’s comp laws come into play with pro football?

  10. Right back to Dan’s supposition, and the first comment: Take away the pads and helmets, gain a less-violent game as a result. As long as the players are suited up in a way to make them feel somewhat invulnerable, then they will play accordingly and get hurt commensurately.

    The other option is to overhaul the rules in such a sweeping fashion as to create a new game. The NFL has shown no reluctance to tinker with rules. Every year something changes – goal posts moved back from the goal line; kickoffs from the 30 rather than the 40; intentional grounding no longer enforced if the quarterback is outside of the ‘tackle box’; quarterbacks ruled ‘in the grasp’ of a defender and the play called dead as a result. Many other examples can be cited. I suspect they’ll be able to address this in a reasonable fashion. It will just be a matter of time.

    And, yes, gambling wildly drives football’s popularity. Without some sort of wagering or contest (fantasy leagues and whatnot) nobody in New England would truly give a rat’s ass about St. Louis playing San Francisco at 4pm. It would be like baseball fans caring about the Cubs versus the Diamonbacks on a Wednesday in September when both are 10 games back. Hard-core fans might watch it, but only the truly demented 🙂

  11. Bill Peregoy

    I’ve always been curious as to why football players have never developed a strong union like baseball players have. It amazes me that football players have expected careers in the three year range yet largely have non-guaranteed contracts that offer them no long-term protection against career ending injury. I expect a stronger union would bring about safety improvements but I don’t see that ever happening in this sport. It’s clear that Marvin Miller was a one of a kind guy and made changes that athletes in other sports can only dream of.

  12. Ron Newman

    Isn’t there also an issue with ‘heading’ in soccer causing concussion injuries?

  13. LFNeilson

    One reason football is able to continue is that few young people have any concept of chronic pain. Perhaps some interviews with retired NFL players would show what they face. I spoke with a former Patriot who was working PR for Textron. He was 47 and said he was in constant pain.

  14. ben starr

    Dan – I think the NFL is far better at PR than MLB. Not clear that it is far better run. They attempted the MLB move of complete denial on the violence issue until the NYT just would not let the brain injury story (based around BU’s studies) die. Incredibly, they had doctors on their payroll denying the longterm impact of all the concussions.

    As your earlier commenter (Al Quint) points out, football is so much more popular than any other sport in this country that they are not at much risk of being marginalized like boxing (boxing has been marginalized by poor management rather than the violence). They are, however, at risk of litigation from former players if they don’t take measures that give the impression that they care about the potential damage. Thus, they chose to turn 180 degrees and act.

  15. Tyler Brown

    Football is a lifestyle not a sport to a lot of people i know this because i grew up in Texas If anyone tried to make any of thos bs rules or “pad helmets on the outside” there is no telling of what some people will do and quite frankly it just wont happen football will continue to be dangerous and violent as it always has

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