An NFL player quits the game in mid-season in order to save his health, while a University of Utah quarterback is out for the season because of a condition revealed when treated for a concussion – just the latest developments in a recent cascade of public concern over the dangers of competing in America’s most popular spectator sport.
These concerns are not likely to go away and are leading organized football to a point of reckoning at which either the game will fundamentally change, or those who play it will have to accept a high risk of debilitating and permanent injury.
A kind of reckoning already has occurred in the form of a lawsuit settlement in August in which the NFL agreed to pay $765 million in damages to former players and their families for failing to disclose what it knew about the effects of repeated hits to the head. The settlement may immunize the league against future liability, but for future players, it won’t make the issue of inherent risk go away.
The danger is reinforced by story after story of former stars suffering from a condition, similar to Alzheimer’s, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, caused by repeated head trauma. Who can fault a parent who reads about those players and decides to direct their child toward a different sport? That is why football is coming to a precipice, and which way it falls largely will be up to the sport itself.
In both professional and college ranks, many changes already have taken place to make the game safer and to ensure that incidents of injury – especially involving head trauma – be taken seriously. These changes are good, but the question is, will they be enough?
Former NFL star and BYU quarterback Steve Young, in an interview last year with the Deseret News, said the league has no choice but to act aggressively to implement rules that will further minimize head trauma. “They’ll try to make it as safe as possible,” he said, “because it’s a great game and we’ve got to figure out a way to do that.”
We agree. Football is a commanding presence in the nation’s popular culture. The NFL is a $10 billion-a-year business. For millions of fans, loyalty to their team is a defining point of self-identity. Failing to limit risk of injury eventually will reduce the pool of talented athletes who pursue the sport and the game will slowly and inexorably be diminished, if not disappear, and that would be a shame.
The stewards of the game must surely realize such a scenario is not out of the question, and that they are at a turning point. It’s up to them to pursue an honest and candid assessment of what can to be done to preserve the game by protecting the long term health of those who play it.