Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Why the NFL may not exist 50 years from now

This evening I watched a two hour special on Frontline (you can watch the show here) that investigated the National Football League and its two-decade battle against various members of the medical community over the issue of head injuries.
The program was especially disturbing inasmuch as both of my sons, ages 14 and 13 are football players, along with several of their friends whose families I essentially talked into playing this sport.
I do not consider myself to be one of these hysterical parents who wants to save his kids from all of life's dangers.  I played football, had concussions and other injuries and still play pretty rough backyards games to this day.
However, it seems we are just at the tip of the iceberg in the question of whether football causes CTE - Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathty.  According to one doctor who has investigated the brain tissue of 46 former NFL players, 45 of them had CTE.  The program also pointed out dead former college and even high school players who had this degenerative disease.
Of course, as other doctors pointed out, there are thousands of former NFL players walking around that are not showing signs of depression, rage, memory loss and suicidal thoughts, but nevertheless, the NFL is in trouble.  Big trouble.
Starting with the $765 million settlement with former players who sued the NFL, claiming the league had known all along about the effects of concussions on long-run health, the NFL is now facing an even bigger threat than lawyers.
Already we are seeing more and more parents of talented athletes picking soccer or basketball or other less violent sports.
All it is going to take is enough parents who are legitimately scared for their son's well-being to pull the plug on football, to cause the pipeline of college talent to the NFL to dry up over time.
Over the next several decades I think we can expect to see fewer and fewer players from better educated families showing up on football fields.  Increasingly, the NFL is going to be filled with players from lower income, less-educated, less concerned families (not that all three of these are connected).  But this may still not be enough of a supply to keep the NFL vibrant over time.
Fifty years from now the NFL may be a fringe sport with MMA/Roman gladiator-type participants, with television audiences that are much smaller and much more in love with the gore and brutality that the sport would continue to bring.
Unless the NFL changes.
Those changes are going to have to center around rule changes, and, if possible, technological changes that have helmet sensors that measure impacts so that players who need to come out of a game can do so without being knocked out cold.
In the meantime, I am going to have my sons watch the Frontline show and listen to them explain what they want to do going forward.  If I just tell them, "Until more evidence comes in, you are not playing", I may be robbing them of their dreams in an irrational manner.
If a former player and huge NFL fan like me is having these thoughts, I can only imagine what other moms and dads are thinking.
The NFL better take notice. 
Or else.


  1. To a guy not caught up in the glamor of the NFL, this information does not seem like news. There may be a fancy three letter acronym for "jello for brains" but for years it seemed like common knowledge that a football career was physically and mentally damning for whomever dared. And regarding mothers, for years they have formed a resistance against this game--my wife was thrilled when our son decided not to play on your boys' team, slightly terrorized when he changed his mind, and thrilled when he exited the season unscathed.
    My thought is, nothing significant will change in this arena. While your draconian prediction has a Hunger Games tint to it and might make a good plot for a novel or a movie, I don't think it will ever be so bad as you suggest. Boys will keep playing, unleashing their inner caveman; boys will become men who keep playing, bashing into and punishing other men; fans will keep yelling and cheering for more punishment; mothers will keep riding the emotional waves of victory and defeat, danger and another day.

  2. I remember an article called "Playing With Pain" I read a long time ago. I had to look it up again, by Richard Mackenzie. It was about the NFL and how the players destroy their bodies. I haven't had much taste for physical contact sports since then even though I used to love playing tackle football in the local field with friends. We had no equipment and no one got hurt any more than a scraped elbow or knee. My nephew played football in high school and I remember him saying that they were being beat in one game and the coach told them they had to stop the one big player on the other team and to try to break his leg if they could. I am sure it seldom happens but I am sure it happens too often. People seem to love violence, whether it is a football head tackle or a crash at Daytona.

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