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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Problem That Just Can't Get Solved That Easily

The nation loves its football. It's the national pastime now, and there are many factors as to why it has eclipsed baseball. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Media advancements have made it a much more exciting game to watch than baseball, especially on television.

2. It's very easy to bet on, and, at heart, many of us like a good wager that's easily discernible. You can't bet on baseball that easily, and it's more a question of the odds you get than a point spread, and Americans love their point spreads.

3. It's violent, and our society has become more violent, so instead of hitting our neighbors who mow their lawns at 8:30 a.m. on a Saturday we want our hometown gladiators to maul the guys from Dallas. (Okay, so that argument would bode well for hockey, which isn't nearly as popular as football). Still, there's some appeal to this logic.

4. The baseball strike of 1994, where they actually canceled the World Series, opened the door for football to become more popular because the NFL didn't have the labor strife that MLB did. Many sports fans were very angry with baseball for years.

5. The NFL's salary cap gives every team a chance to rebound and rebuild very quickly, whereas, well, the lack of a salary cap has rendered Pittsburgh and Kansas City, among other clubs, perennial doormat status in Major League Baseball.

I actually don't know what the root cause is/was/has been of football's great rise, but that rise has come at a historic cost that is the very sad underbelly of the NFL and, for that matter, all of football -- the permanently injured. Read this article about recent testimony before Congress on the frustrating issue of making sure that injured retirees don't end up living in squalor because they don't have sufficient funds to address their medical needs, some of which are substantial. After all, most of us don't make our living hefting weight or colliding with people, and those who do start playing at 7 and some don't finish until they're 32 (while many never play in college, many who play in college don't play in the pros and many pros don't play more than a handful of games). That said, there are about 2 decades worth of violent, bone-jarring collisions replete with breaks, strains, sprains, dislocations, pinched nervers, concussions and the like that are serious injuries. Put differently, the heroes of their prime could be the same guys you see limping into an old timers' day.

It's with great hope that the NFL owners and teams and television networks will pony up to make sure that the players are well provided for. Americans derive great joy from the sport, but the costs are very high -- the wreckage of bodies and lives resulting from the long-term damage the game does to people. That price is too much for any of us to bear.

And that leads to another question -- will people be playing the game in 50 years? On the pro side, the medical advancements and equipment should be much better. On the con side, the evolution of man is such that you could have 6'5", 300-pound linebackers running 4.5 second 40-yard dashes colliding with running backs who are 2/3 their size. What happens then? And to those players 20 years after they retire? How much of the "All Jacked Up" film do we want to see on ESPN? Will society say the game is too violent -- or will it want more and more?

Let's hope that the players' union, the league and the owners resolve this bad problem soon and well. The retired players deserve better than they get. I'm not assigning blame here, because some say that the union hasn't represented the players well enough in this regard and others say that the teams haven't cared enough. The bottom line is that we're talking about players who have played hard and made great sacrifices for the hometown team. Whether or not the game is wise is another story, but given its popularity today, the league and the union should make this issue their top priority.


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