They’re playing football again, and I’m glad because I enjoy watching it, but I must report that I blush to admit that. I’ve come to feel about football as I do about boxing—that it’s gladiatorial and should be engaged in only by people who are aware of its risks.
Until about a decade ago those risks weren’t fully clear, but they are now. Numerous studies have shown that, in addition to whatever other injuries football might cause, the repeated blows to the head that are intrinsic to the game can result in irreversible brain damage. This can manifest itself in memory loss, cognitive difficulties and chronic, debilitating headaches, in the worst cases leading to suicide.
Blows that result in concussions are the most dramatic evidence of those dangers, but it’s also been shown that over time lesser impacts can have the same, cumulative effect. While research into the probability of players sustaining lasting damage is just beginning, what I’ve read indicates that about one in three men who have performed at the professional level can expect to come away with neurological ailments of some sort. Further, the longer one plays the greater becomes the probability of such an outcome.
Most people, I think, have come to share my conclusions, but the ones who run National Football League see them as an existential threat. As witnessed by its ten-figure settlement with former players who sued it because of its handling of concussion cases during past years, the league tacitly recognizes its problem. That perception was reinforced in May when it severed its connection with Dr. Elliot Pellman, the rheumatologist and former New York Jets’ team physician who was its long-time medical point man (i.e., denier) on concussion-related issues. On other levels, though, the league is proceeding as though everything is okay.
Nothin’ to see here, folks, just move along.
One prong of its counterattack is its “Football Is Family” promotion, a series of national TV ads in which active NFL players associate their participation in the game with their respect for such bedrock American values as teamwork, community, conscientious parenting and appreciation of the military. It would be a cliché to describe the ads as “warm and fuzzy,” but no better phrase presents itself.
Another is its outreach to parents—and at the same time to kids—in its sponsorship of USA Football, a league it formed in 2002 for children aged 6 to 14, and in its newer (since 2013) funding of Heads Up Football, an online video program that (for a fee, natch) instructs coaches in blocking and tackling techniques, proper hydration and other topics that are supposed to contribute to greater football safety.
That the coaches aren’t the only targets for the effort was seen in some off-the-cuff remarks before a coaches group last year by Bruce Arians, the salty head coach of the NFL Arizona Cardinals. “[Football] is the best game that’s ever been f---in’ invented and we’ve got to be sure moms get the message because that’s who’s afraid of our game,” said he. “It’s not the dads, it’s the moms.”
The NFL is so hipped on the “Heads Up” approach that it commissioned a private research group to study its effectiveness, then jumped the gun by last year hyping preliminary results that showed steep declines in concussions and other injuries among youth leagues that used the program’s methods. Trouble was, final results that later were published in a medical journal, and reported in the New York Times, showed that the declines appeared only among teams in Pop Warner leagues whose rules ban heads-on blocking and tackling drills that USA Football permits, and also sanction less full-contact practice time. Leagues employing Heads Up Football teachings experienced no injury-rate drops in games unless the teams involved also used Pop Warner practice restrictions, and had a smaller overall reduction than the preliminary figures showed.
To be sure the NFL, colleges and high-school and youth-football leagues are more concussion-aware than they were a few years ago, and have taken welcome steps to reduce the injuries and better deal with them. Formal concussion protocols have become part of the game at just about all levels, and TV broadcasters are less likely than before to chuckle when a player leaves the field after being “dinged” or “getting his bell rung.”
Still, the idea that football is a very dangerous pursuit seems to be taking hold, especially among the parents who have to sign the release forms that permit their kids to play. The Physical Activity Council, a partnership of sports-industry trade groups, reports that football participation in the 6-to-14-year-old age group dropped to about 2.2 million last year from about 3 million in 2010, and a survey this year by the University of Massachusetts’ Lowell Center for Public Opinion showed that close to 80% of adults—84% of women and 72% of men—thought that tackle football of any kind was not appropriate for children younger than 14.
Additionally, and perhaps tellingly, some NFL players are deciding that the risks they run by playing may not be worth the salaries they make by doing so. Such notables as Jerod Mayo, Patrick Willis, Calvin Johnson, Percy Harvin and Marshawn Lynch—all at or near their 30-year-old competitive and earnings primes—announced their retirements after last season, and while jocks have been known to unretire the fact that some are giving up even a year of seven-digit paychecks to increase the odds of escaping in one piece is significant.
Football won’t go away suddenly—we fans and most players like it too well for that—but it now comes with a warning label that can’t be ignored. And that’s a good thing.