Without question, the single biggest development in sports over the past several years has been the increased revelations regarding concussions in the sport of football. Every day it seems there is another story, piece of research or new narrative piercing the façade of the heretofore seemingly invincible armor of King Football. It has reached a point where the issue has become so big, with so many implications and possible outcomes and influences so profound and potentially long lasting that it’s hard to get your head wrapped around it.
That said, here are a few thoughts on the issue.
It’s Here to Stay: Anyone who thinks that rising concern regarding the potential damaging impact of football on brain function is going to be placated by the announcement of a few safety programs, more testing requirements and procedures, equipment improvements or slick public relations campaigns is living in a fantasy world. This is big stuff and the impacts will be broad, long lasting and profound, not only on the game itself but on its enormous cultural influence. In short, this issue is here to stay.
Football is Also Here to Stay: Let’s be clear. Football will continue to be a significant cultural force in our society for years to come. The NFL will continue to exist and even thrive. Maybe not quite at its current level, but it’s not going anywhere. This is because fans can easily get over the fact that it is such a brutal game fostered by an over the top macho culture because the players are all adults, are well compensated and are well aware of the dangers. Thus, there will always be a sizable segment of our population who will continue to watch and support it. Let’s be honest. At its most base level, football serves a very real societal function. Not only is it perfect for television, extremely entertaining and a great sport for gambling, but it also satisfies our bloodlust. Like a moth to a flame, there will always be a segment of our population that enjoys the carnage and violence. If that weren’t the case, how is it that boxing is still in existence?
The “Football Industrial Complex” Will Play for Keeps: Football is big business. Whether the NFL or major college football, it’s all part of an enormous “football industrial complex”. As we have already seen and will continue to see, this big business plays for keeps. Simply consider the great lengths the NFL has gone to deny and obfuscate the negative effects of football on the body and brain. Currently, the narrative from the football industrial complex has centered on efforts to make the game “safe”. As if a game that, at its’ core, is predicated on inflicting bone crunching, brain rattling physical punishment on opponents can be made suitably safe. Let’s say that football’s damage quotient is at 9 on a scale of 10. Even with great effort, the most that could be expected would be to move the needle from 9 to 7, would that be safe enough? No. The game is inherently, fundamentally violent. That won’t change. It is what it is, a violent, brutal game. Instituting a few rules that will only marginally improve player safety and launching glitzy public relations efforts to sell those rule changes as having a meaningful impact won’t change that reality. But make no mistake, the football industrial complex will do whatever it needs to do to save itself.
As a side note: If you’d like an interesting and informative take on the various efforts to convince the public that the game can be made suitable safe, read Concussion Inc.: The End of Football as We Know It. Written by Irvin Muchnick, it paints an interesting picture of the various connections, alliances, business relationships between and among the various “players” (NFL, team doctors, researchers, media representatives, etc.) in what has become a small cottage industry – the effort to convince the public that football is suitably safe for young people. It leaves you wondering whether many of those who are supposedly working to make the game safer are actually more interested in serving their own interests, financial and otherwise and protecting the industry, than in serving the interests of the players.
Where the Change Will Take Place: While life in the NFL will go on largely as before, where the game will change is in our educational system. In particular, at the high school, junior high and youth league levels. Gradually junior high and high schools will begin to drop programs as the increased expenses relating to liability concerns become too great for school budgets that are already financially strapped. To date, the primary response to safety concerns has been a call to increase investment in concussion testing and assessment programs, coaches training requirements, increased medical staffing and improved equipment. Where are school districts going to find the money for these additional, expensive safeguards?
Simply put, the cost associated with making the game suitably safe, which frankly, is impossible, are going to place a financial and liability burden on school systems that will be unsustainable. There is also a moral issue at stake. The role of our schools is to strengthen and build young people’s brains. That being the case, how can a school continue to justify and invest significant amounts of money, time, effort and emotion in an activity that scrambles them?
The result is that youth leagues will continue to see a gradual decline in participation as parents will refuse to allow their children to play, opting for sports where the potential for sustaining brain trauma is not as great. And while there may not be significant change at the major college football level in the foreseeable future, small or medium sized schools will begin to drop programs. Yes, there will continue to be “pockets’, most likely in the South and scattered regions throughout the country such as western Pennsylvania, where high schools will continue to play the game. But the fact is, the only way football, in some form, will be able to remain a part of most schools will be if the format is changed to a flag football model. This would not be the end of the World. Young people could still derive the benefits of physical activity and continue to learn the positive lessons that can be taught through participation in sports without the potential of life altering damage to the brain. If the football industrial complex was interested in “saving” football they would be embracing flag football for youth, junior high and high schools rather than spending so much time, energy and resources on trying to convince the public that the game is safe, despite growing evidence that it is clearly not.
It’s Going to Happen More Quickly Than You Think: As the dialogue continues, the research mounts, the stories of broken bones and scrambled brains accumulate, expenses for largely unproven safety measures soar and the scrutiny increases, it is clear that we are coming to a tipping point. This thing is gathering steam and changes will occur sooner than you think. In fact, such change is already well on its way.
So buckle your chin strap and hold on tight. The journey to restructure and re-imagine football in a way that makes sense for a 21st century American society is just beginning. And it’s going to be a wild ride.