Change in the NFL Wind

Little has sparked my interest of late in the sports world. Surprise, surprise – two of the final four teams in MLB playoffs are repeats (Yankees and Phillies), the NFL has no clear front runner or favorite for the Super Bowl or conference championship games, and my college team just can’t seem to get that long-horned monkey off their back. Though, something that has been an undercurrent is suddenly becoming the focus a point of order for the NFL, and I’m glad I was patient.

On an early episode of Open Forum Radio, I brought mention to the fact that concussions and injuries will end up hurting the NFL and we could see massive changes. I suggested that players start using different forms of protection or padding and helmets. Something that is more form fitting and less dangerous for the player and those being tackled. I recall I was dismissed and laughed at, though it looks like the shoe is getting put on the other foot my friends.

Of late, concussions and their study have been making headlines across the sport; players from across the sport are getting concussed, injured and otherwise demolished. In this passed week of play, players have been accused of headhunting, or playing the game with intent to injure. There are many competing factors and interests at play (no pun intended): the sport is inherently violent, the players are consenting adults, accurate and proper information has to be disseminated to the players and management regarding the physical damages that can occur, and finally the players and owners have to find the appropriate balance. This will all trickle down as a societal change meaning that once all of the information about the potential damages, the game will be played by those that absolutely have to as an out from an otherwise destitute situation – similar to boxing – but that’s for another time.

Football, for all its strategy, finesse and athleticism is an inherently violent sport. The object of the game is to stop the advancement of the ball by any means necessary – within the rules. If you take a look at game films before the current era – meaning the 1970s and 1980s, the hits and tackles by the defense would be unnecessary roughness penalties and guaranteed suspensions and fines in the modern era. The players are all consenting adults and have been groomed for this game by the choices they have made since they were of legal contracting age. No one has ever held a gun to the player’s head making him play the game, forcing their decisions, or getting paid millions of dollars under duress. While I appreciate their talents, fans have to separate themselves from the players themselves because of the risk for injury and life long handicaps or problems.

The most frightening of all the injuries that can occur on the field are the ones that affect the nervous system and head. It’s a sad sight to see a player being taken off the field on stretcher while waiting with baited breathe to hear if the player will ever walk again. Recent causes for concern are the increased rates of concussions. Studies coming from major universities across the nation that have been studying brain trauma from football players going to as young as high school players are showing frightening results and with a possible new test coming from the U.S. Army linking brain injuries that would normally go undiagnosed until post mortem may help players make more informed decisions regarding their playing career (The test finds that a certain protein is released into the blood stream that normally wouldn’t, unless the brain has undergone extreme stress similar to post-traumatic stress disorder or concussions).

Recently, the NFL has tailored the rules to encourage the passing game to lead to higher scoring games; the opposite side of that coin is that the defensive strategy has been hamstrung. Quarterbacks are nearly untouchable, while defensive disruption after 5 yards from the line of scrimmage is considered pass interference – resulting in a first down from the spot of the foul. This has lead to outstanding viewership numbers, the highest that the game has seen in its history, which leads to more money exchanging hands.

This is where the conflicts of interests meet. On one side, the NFL hasn’t been more popular meaning that there is a lot of money to be had by everyone involved in and around the business of the NFL (owners, players, sponsors, etc.). The other side is the information and knowledge that would make players give second thought to the playing the game; so what can be done? – Allow truly independent physicians to be the medical staff for the teams. Give the players the correct and accurate information so they can weigh the risks and benefits. Change the equipment used to play the game – make the pads similar to that of the kidney/midsection protection quarterbacks use for the shoulders and leg pads; all the while eliminating the hard helmets in favor of softer, thinner head protection. Problem with the current protection is that the players become weapons onto themselves, players can make bone crunching hits and devastating tackles because there is little risk to them unlike the receiving end which bears the brunt of the force. I know right now this is purely speculation but these ideas are logical progressions in order to keep the game alive so that both parties can come out as winners in the end.