On Friday morning, I ran into a friend who asked if the NFL is going to become flag football.
He was talking about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s idea this week to replace kickoffs with a fourth-and-15 play from a team’s own 30-yard line.
My friend blanched at the elimination of kickoffs because it would take an exciting play, the onside kick, out of the game.
Our conversation quickly morphed into whether long-term health risks, mainly to the brain and spine, might eventually (30 years? 40?) turn the NFL into a niche sport, like boxing. He hoped not, because he enjoys the game.
Then I asked if he wants his grandchildren to play football. He paused for a moment. “Probably not,” he said.
And that is the NFL’s long-term problem.
The NFL is wildly popular, as judged by TV revenue and its domination of sports news. Yet, one of the game’s most attractive qualities, its sanctioned violence, also poses a long-term threat.
First, let’s acknowledge the truth. Litigation is the primary reason for the NFL’s growing campaign for player safety. The league is being sued by 3,000-plus former players — the list grows weekly — for their post-career brain problems. Billions of dollars are at stake, and the league is looking to defend itself against this and future lawsuits.
So the NFL has to show potential jurors that after it learned of the long-term dangers of brain trauma, it did everything it could to make the game safer. Medical science’s studying of brain injuries is in its relatively early stages, but it’s not hard to imagine where the evidence is likely to lead. The NFL’s recent and strong emphasis of player safety tells you everything you need to know about its concern.
Let’s also debunk any misconception that changing the rules is Goodell’s doing. He works for the owners, not the other way around. For however much room he has to shape policy with his recommendations, he ultimately does what the majority of owners want him to do, or he’d get fired. In this case, NFL owners don’t want to lose hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to concussion and injury lawsuits, so Goodell has a mandate to find ways to protect them. That mainly entails demonstrably making the game safer.
But an even bigger-picture issue than concussion lawsuits is the future of the game, which includes future profits. To keep the NFL at its undeniable place on top of the American sports heap for the indefinite future, the league’s owners have to take safety into account even as they are derided for “sissifying” the game.
What if, in the coming years, more and more people like my friend dissuade or prohibit their children and grandchildren from playing football for fear of their good health? Could the NFL go the way of boxing, which in the 1920s was as popular as any sport in the country; a major player on the U.S. sports scene in the ’40s and ’50s; and still able capture much of the nation’s imagination as recently as the ’80s? Boxing, though still alive, is strictly a niche sport.
Many, probably most, will dismiss the possibility that the NFL could be headed for a similar fate. They might be right. But one prominent source in NFL management said Friday there is concern at the league’s highest levels about the rise of soccer and parental safety concerns that are causing a drop in participation in youth football leagues. The concussion lawsuit and suicides of former and current players are sending a message the NFL fears.
Remember, in the late ’40s, when my aforementioned friend was growing up in Northeastern Wisconsin, there was boxing in high school. How many people at that time thought it plausible that boxing would be where it is today?
And just to cover all bases, the reason boxing’s popularity in the U.S. nosedived over the past 40 years isn’t because it doesn’t have compelling fighters. That suggests if the right boxer or two comes along, the fight game would come back. Sorry, that ain’t happening. For all of boxing’s appeal to our warrior instincts, it was too revolting to too many to maintain its popularity. There aren’t as many compelling fighters today because fewer people want to fight, and fewer people want to watch no matter who’s fighting.
So who’s not to say that in 30 or 40 years, as we learn more about brain trauma through extended studies and advances in brain imaging and testing, that our children and grandchildren won’t look back and wonder how we could be so barbaric as to let our children smash their heads and spines for fun and entertainment?
Ultimately, future generations probably will look back on us as barbarians, but I’d bet against football going the way of boxing. Football has assets boxing doesn’t. For starters, while inflicting violence on an opponent is a huge part of the game, it’s not the ultimate goal, as it is in boxing. Touchdowns and field goals are the measure for winning and losing in football.
Also, the running and tackling in football is more fun than getting punched in the head in boxing, though I’ll always remember this from high school: Most of the basketball and baseball players liked practice; most of the football players, except for the quarterbacks and most physically dominating guys, dreaded practice.
Then there’s football’s attractive team dynamic. As Foxsports.com columnist Jason Whitlock has eloquently put it, football is the ultimate American melting pot where players of diverse backgrounds and beliefs find common ground and humanity in pursuit of winning. That has to count for something worthwhile and noble.
Still, it does little to eliminate the NFL’s long-term problem with players’ safety and health, and ensuring the game thrives at all levels so the NFL can maintain its popularity. And so the league will keep changing the rules to make football a little safer, and get ridiculed by many for doing it.
Yes, eliminating kickoffs would change the game and remove the excitement of the onside kick. But the NFL keeps a database of injuries, and there are more on kickoffs than any other play. The injuries on kickoffs decreased last year when the league moved the kickoff from the 30-yard line to the 35, which resulted in more touchbacks and thus fewer returns. But it’s still a dangerous play with huge players colliding while running full speed over long distances.
Is fourth-and-15 the best alternative? There will be strong arguments against it, but if Goodell was willing to float the idea publicly, it’s getting serious consideration.
And what might be next to make the game safer, especially regarding brain trauma? There are plenty of plausible ideas, but it’s not clear how many actually would work.
For instance, there are calls for going the rugby route and playing without helmets. The idea there is, the players won’t use their heads as weapons, and they’ll learn to tackle with their shoulders. But recent studies suggest that the concussion rate is about the same in professional rugby and the NFL. Plus, football went to hard helmets for a safety reason, to protect players from life-threatening skull fractures.
Then there’s going back to leather helmets with no face masks, as in old-time football. A recent biomechanical study by the Cleveland Clinic replicated the force of about 95 percent of the hits in high school and college football on leather and plastic helmets last year suggested that leather helmets protect the brain at least as well and sometimes better than plastic.
However, the leather helmets carry a greater risk of the life-threatening skull fractures that led to plastic helmets in the first place. Also, there’s a much greater risk of facial fractures and eye injuries even if the absence of a face mask would deter players from using their heads as a weapon.
Maybe someone will invent a significantly safer helmet, but that’s not a given. Brain injuries — either a concussion or from repetitive sub-concussive blows — aren’t from the force of the blow itself, but from the brain ramming into the skull when the head stops moving.
The most effective protection for the brain and spine is to not get hit regularly in the head. Eliminating the kickoff is one way the NFL thinks it can reduce those shots. You can bet other changes are coming, because if the NFL doesn’t adapt, well, football will always be around, but it isn’t guaranteed to prosper.
— firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.