Massachusetts Daily Collegian

The future of football

Will injuries affect how fans view the NFL?

David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS

David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS

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November 16, 2014. The St. Louis Rams are facing the Denver Broncos the week before Thanksgiving. With 13:36 left in the third quarter, Peyton Manning’s record-setting Bronco offense takes the field down 13-7, looking for a quick touchdown to turn the tide.

If you know how this story ends, it seems to move in slow motion. Much like the beginning of the movie “The Blind Side,” each second drags on toward the inevitable. The ball is snapped, and the organized chaos of football begins. Demaryius Thomas streaks down the left side of the field, Wes Welker cuts to his right in a slant route.

But Manning’s attention is elsewhere. Emmanuel Sanders has beaten his defender. As he tears downfield, Manning launches a high spiral. Seconds pass. The ball returns from orbit. Sanders lays out for it, a heroic effort on what could be a highlight-reel catch.

Rodney McLeod, the 24-year-old Rams’ free safety, is there in an instant, lowering his 200-pound frame and driving his shoulder through Sanders’ upper body. Sanders hits the ground like a rock, his head making contact with the turf first. It’s more than a minute before he regains his feet – with help. As he heads to the locker room, nearly everyone watching knows he’s about to be diagnosed with a serious concussion.

But this is hardly a unique occurrence. Players regularly suffer career-ending concussions in brutal fashion. This past season, Houston Texans quarterback Tom Savage appeared to suffer a seizure after a hit to the head. He was cleared by medical staff and returned to the game just a few minutes later.

Football is an inherently violent game. There’s nothing natural about 250-pound men running into each other at full speed. As it’s described in the movie “Concussion,” “A human being will get concussed at 60 G’s. A common head-to-head contact on a football field? 100 G’s”. Human bodies – even those of top-tier athletes – aren’t built to handle that level of collision.

In 2005, Dr. Bennet Omalu – the subject of “Concussion” – first published his research on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE, the degenerative brain disease that, he discovered, results from repeated severe head injury.

What followed were years of the National Football League trying to discredit Omalu’s findings. The league had, in the past, held an ambivalent attitude toward the concussion epidemic facing its players, and their efforts reflected a belief that the situation would hurt their brand.

It was only amidst mounting pressure and a public relations nightmare that the NFL relented, and slowly started working toward finding a solution. But this was not necessarily the role they always wanted to play.

There is only so much that can be done for the sport to make it safe without sacrificing its spirit and gameplay.”

Under Commissioner Roger Goodell’s leadership, the NFL has hesitated to take stances on controversial issues. When All-Pro running back Ray Rice was found to have beaten his fiancée in a casino elevator, Goodell handed down a two-game suspension. That was, until TMZ released a video of the incident and fans saw the ruthless abuse that the NFL had halfheartedly investigated. A national uproar followed, and with his job possibly on the line, the Commissioner suspended Rice indefinitely.

The league’s pattern of sitting on the fence continued into this past season. As President Trump called for athletes who knelt for the national anthem to be fired, Goodell’s administration stayed mum on the subject, eventually taking a neutral stance.

The NFL’s strategy, time and time again, has been to avoid the difficult choice until it is vital to the survival of the league to do so. Nothing is more important than selling the product – “protecting the shield,” as Goodell often puts it.

The NFL delayed taking measures to protect players from concussions until it became easier to change their tune than to fight a losing battle. They will continue to drag their feet while their fan’s support remains. For as long as football is popular in America, head injuries will be regarded as nothing more than an unfortunate aspect of the game.

One of two scenarios will play out: Fans may continue to accept the dangerous parts of the game as a necessary evil, and the NFL may continue to do their best to make the game safer (or at least seem safer). The other scenario will see all the violence and injuries pile up, resulting in people gradually losing interest. The NFL is a multibillion-dollar industry – but football is as popular today as boxing was 60 years ago. The NFL will fade from American culture, taking its brutal nature with it. Another sport will take its place.

There is no in-between, though the former seems more realistic. Football is dangerous at its core, and injuries are a risk players take when they sign six, seven, or eight figure contracts. There is only so much that can be done for the sport to make it safe without sacrificing its spirit and gameplay.

The league will allow it to continue, to some extent, until fans begin to move on. We know where Goodell and his administration stand on the issue. We just don’t know yet where we’ll stand when it’s all said and done.

Will Katcher is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter at @will_katcher.

2 Comments

2 Responses to “The future of football”

  1. SittingBull on January 30th, 2018 1:47 pm

    Pro football is not losing viewers because of its violence. To the contrary, that is its fundamental attraction. The fact that this is your premise shows why football is in demise. For starters, the NFL is greedier than any entity alive save for perhaps foreign dictators and the Disney Company. It has stratified the TV lineup to the point of annoyance, with too many games on too many nights. Costs are sky high across the board, from a beer at the game to paraphernalia sales. Players are constantly injured, talent is diluted with too many teams, games are too long (bc of replay and endless commercials) and the tv timeouts, replays and other rules have become ridiculous. Add to that the , politicization of a sporting event and too many players who are criminals/idiots/entitled divas and it’s a perfect storm of negative factors. Were it not for fantasy leagues and gambling, football’s audience would be down by 25% by now.

    The real problem is waning interest in football among young people and immigrants. People from the rest of the world, for the most part, are only interested in soccer. That means their children, in large part, only play soccer. Go to any local kiddie through HS soccer game – half the players barely speak English. This pavlovian mindset cannot comprehend a sport as grand and ruthless as football, or as intelligent and elegant as baseball. So soccer it is. For the millennial generation, many have been shielded from football by their parents, so that they cannot relate to the physicality, commitment and perseverance of playing football. So they play soccer. Nice and safe. The fact that there is a show called ESPN FC tells you everything you need to know about where this is headed. The march toward socialist Euro-fication, even on the athletic field. It’s enough to make you barf.

    In this coming generation, football is already being marginalized at the youth levels for fear of CTE, so soccer it is. Or, at best, flag football. So within 20 years you will have two generations of snowflakes with limited interest in football, except for Madden aficionados and some remaining groups in the deep south and the heartland who will remember what it’s like to raise red-blooded American men who know how to kick some ass when necessary.

  2. SHerlitz on February 1st, 2018 12:10 pm

    SittingBull,

    This comment is a fantasy. Football has always been politicized, primarily because so many people erroneously associate it, as you do, with “red blooded American” manliness. It’s just a sport, just another game in which a bunch of dudes try to get a ball from one side of a field to the other. The idea that football is “grand and ruthless”, superior to baseball and soccer, is laughable. I recommend you play soccer for a 45-minute period without stops every two seconds like football has, then come back and let us know if physicality isn’t central to the game. Or hockey, for that matter.

    You’ve made the decline of a sport that involves a disturbing amount of traumatic, life-changing (or ending) head injuries into some sort of cultural decline. I don’t think a culture needs concussions and CTE to sustain itself.

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