Watch a close-up of an elbow contorting as a pitcher spins a curveball. Think about the pounds of pressure at play when a 280-pound center comes down hard with a rebound. Witness someone run into the human equivalent of a brick wall with shoulder pads on. For the spectator’s vantage point, it’s clear: Human bodies aren’t made to do these things, and yet they do. Over and over again.
Aches and pains are a given for athletes. Surgeries to mend tears and replace joints are commonplace and continue to improve thanks to medical science. But these ailments pale in comparison to the burden brought by head trauma, specifically when it comes to former football players.
The National Football League’s lengthy concussion crisis has brought with it a hefty cost. Former players with a history of concussions and who often have (or are suspected of having) a brain disease called CTE (which can only be diagnosed after death) have suffered memory loss, mood swings, and hurt themselves and/or others. The result has been a wave of expensive lawsuits against the NCAA, the NFL, and Riddell (the NFL’s formerly exclusive helmet manufacturer).
The fallout hasn’t gone unnoticed by the public. A 2016 UMass poll reported that 94 percent of respondents said that sports-related head injuries qualified as a “public health issue” and 65 percent said that it is a “major problem” — so, obviously there’s concern and moral outrage out there. And as more and more heartbreaking stories of fallen heroes and dashed lives come out, it will get larger.
Over the last few years, players have retired early, citing current or prospective medical concerns. And perhaps more worrying for the future of the game, dire headlines (and scientific studies) about on-field deaths and long-term neurological effects have led some parents (and former players) to say that they won’t let their kids play football at any level.
Medical concerns and declining ratings (Due to a changing media landscape? A lackluster product? Politics and protests? Concussion headlines? All of the above?) don’t signify the looming death of football. Sure, the sport is limping right now, but the game is probably too big to ever fail completely, thanks to its role as a kind of secular church for millions and its place as a flame from which many industries draw their light (no matter what Papa John’s decides to do with its relationship with the NFL). But the ability to hang tough through this storm doesn’t mean the NFL and organized football don’t have a moral responsibility to protect players at every level. And it doesn’t mean that the game is immune to the long-term impact of bad PR and the crystallizing belief that its inherent violence makes it unsafe and, maybe, unwatchable in a crowded field of entertainment options.
Football is caught within an evolutionary cycle — whether those in and around the game like it or not — and the solution seems clear: somehow, the NFL and the NCAA need to find a way to move forward with a fun and compelling product while simultaneously calming worries about player safety. To be sure, it’s a hard needle to thread, but it can be done. The key is the thriving relationship between football and science.