April 17, 2010 Leave a comment
Anecdotal evidence (most notably the deaths of Mike Webster, Chris Henry, Justin Strzelczyk, and Andre Waters) has finally forced people to start seriously considering the bodily harm caused by playing football. Although the general belief is that the problem isn’t too catastrophic to hurt the game, things could be very different in 20 years.
Right now we effectively know nothing about the consequences of playing football because the game is much more dangerous today than it was 20-30 years ago. The obvious reason for this is that players are much bigger and stronger. The less obvious (and more crucial) reason is football’s new emphasis on “hitting.” A big hit is the NFL’s answer to the slam dunk. It fires up the crowd. It gets a player on ESPN. It earns endorsement dollars.
The emphasis on hitting means that offensive players are getting hit harder and higher up on the body (you can’t make Sportscenter by “hitting” somebody’s ankle.) More importantly, defensive players are leading with their heads, launching themselves like missiles rather than making fundamentally sound tackles with their arms. Even wonder why rugby players suffer so few injuries despite so little padding? They tackle with their arms instead of their heads.
The uptick in violence means that recent incidents may only be the tip of the iceberg. Current problems with current players should be rare because most issues occur years after retirement. Current problems with old players should be rare because the game was less violent then. Nevertheless, current problems are not that rare.
What will happen in 20 years, when current players begin to age? What will happen when we have 20 years of research on the subject? What will happen when we reach a point where relative to today, neurological problems should be more common?
In 2035 a mountain of broken 50-year-old former players could doom football. Michael Wilbon recently warned the NFL by mentioning the decline of boxing. But that analogy doesn’t go far enough. The perceived barbarism of boxing hurt the sport in a pre-digital age when most people knew the names of five or six boxers and information about retired athletes was rare. The consequences for the NFL would be exponentially worse. Imagine a world where people can effortlessly recall the names of 25 former NFL players who suffered serious brain problems.
The NFL is starting to pour money into brain-injury research, but it may be to little too late. The damage has already been done to the current crop of players. Their permanently scarred brains could be ticking time bombs that ultimately destroy football. Or maybe not. We’ll know in 2030.