David T. Foster III/Charlotte Observer/TNS
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.
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.