Some Sunday’s it is hard to be an NFL writer and a fan of the league.
It never used to be that way, before it became clear that we couldn’t ignore the league’s growing concussion epidemic and the obvious link between concussions and brain trauma. Those effects have led to the rapidly growing decline in the health of former Sunday afternoon heroes from every team in the league. There is a chance your favorite player growing up has some sort of brain injury.
Over the past seasons the NFL has been far more aware of managing concussions in a safe manner, but as early as 2007 the league was denying the dangers of not properly recovering from a concussion. PBS Frontline’s controversial documentary League of Denial premiered yesterday night and put out in the open (despite the pulling of support of ESPN to protect their best interests) what many have already known. That the league has been trying to cover up the damage of playing the sport to avoid seeing the demise of the sport.
Since the turn of the century it has been undeniable in the news that playing football caused CTE damage that led to the deaths of many of the games former stars. From Mike Webster dying at the age of 5o and being literally put together at the legs by duct tape to the suicides of Tom McHale, Junior Seau and other former football players after depression stemming from CTE brain damage, football fans can no longer hide from the fact that the trade off for one of the most popular sports in the world is a health risk for its players.
It doesn’t mean that football is going to go extinct, and it doesn’t mean that you should stop watching football. But it does mean that a culture will likely need to change if the game is going to survive and we have already been seeing it unfold.
From the youth level to the NFL, hits to the head are being outlawed. If you hit a defenseless player in the head in 95% of scenarios you are at risk for a penalty. In the NCAA it earns you a suspension in most cases. Now NFL players have to go through an extensive concussion protocol before going back onto the field. Oakland Raiders star quarterback Terrelle Pryor is the most recent instance of this protocol program, sitting a game against the Washington Redskins after being taken out of the game on Monday Night Football after a legal helmet to helmet hit with Broncos linebacker Wesley Woodyard. In 2007 Pryor would almost undoubtedly have played and put himself in danger, but now at least his risk was minimized. Head coach Dennis Allen even went as far as to ensure that everyone knew that Pryor’s safety was the number one factor in his return saying, “I feel confident that we followed the protocol and did what we were supposed to do.” “We all understand the emphasis placed on player safety specifically in this regard. We don’t ever want to put a player out there and put him in danger.”
We see these types of storylines each week now, and players now at least have some sort of imaginary barrier between them and the field when they suffer a brain injury. It is a small step to curb something that needed to be addressed likely 30 years ago.
Still the effects of a concussion were no more clear than when Pryor tweeted the following day that he couldn’t remember much of his first appearance on Monday Night Football, the price for putting his body on the line to attempt to score a second half touchdown near the Broncos goal line.
League of Denial profiled stories on Steve Young and Troy Aikman, two of the greats of the 1990’s, both who had long concussion injuries that eventually ended the career of Young. Careers of many athletes in both football and hockey now are shortened by multiple concussions, with a culture of the big hit effecting more than just football.
Body checking has been banned in hockey across North America at the PeeWee level, with doctors saying tackling is unsafe until age 14 expect the move to come to youth football, who have already been instituting a Heads Up Football campaign, sooner and rather than later. Does this mean that football will die? No. Does this mean it will be safer? Yes.
It is quite clear that the game of football and its popularity is not going away any time soon, but it is just as much of a fact as that preserving the game as one of the best in the world hinges on continuing the pursuit of player safety. A game being played at high speeds between the best athletes in the world will always feature high impact collisions, but the effects of those collisions need to be minimized because it is the right thing to do. If it doesn’t happen there will be more League of Denial’s and more outraged fans being forced to choose between their morals and the game they grew up loving and likely have played as a youth.
I won’t lie knowing what I know about concussions and brain injury that when i see the replay of a helmet to helmet hit I cringe. But a big hit still excites me and gets me off of my seat. We say “It is a part of the game” well the uncomfortable feeling of seeing a player knocked out cold is a part of the game and a price of the ticket now. There is no getting around it.
Harry Carson summed it up by saying “The human body wasn’t designed to play football” and he is right, but so is playing countless of other sports. Physical risk is a warning before playing the game, but I made the risk to play at the high school level knowing that it is a high collision sport and millions of football players do the same each year. That won’t go away.
NFL players fall to dementia and other memory based damage at a higher rate, and the effects of CTE damage have ended the lives of handfuls of players. Hundreds of more players currently go through each day struggling to make ends meet and pay skyrocketing medical bills after making the NFL a billion dollar industry. We can’t ignore that, and we probably never should have been so blind from an obvious epidemic.
Football in this decade will be at a crossroads each year from this point on. I have already asked myself the question and have decided that I can be a hypocrite, but we all are. The game we loved as kids and enjoy as an escape from our daily lives is not immune from the harsh realities that we see outside of the three hours each Sunday we watch our favorite team. From now on, we have to deal with that reality. It is a small price compared to the permanent toll that the players we watch put themselves at risk for by simply playing the game that they love. I don’t have to stop loving football because the NFL committed an appalling set of acts in trying to sweep the link between football and permanent health risks to turn a profit, but I do hope that the league continues to finally do the right thing. They are still a long ways away.