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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Concussions: NFL Players Cannot Have Their Cake and Eat It Too -- Are the League and the Sport En Route to Becoming Obsolete?

NFL players have blanched at current league directives on head-to-head hits. A recent article in Sports Illustrated contains all of the old gladiator cliches, some macho, others misogynistic, but the bottom line from many players is that it's tackle football, it's a collision sport, people like the violence, it's a tough game, this is what sells tickets, etc. In the most recent edition of that magazine, current players expressed no concern about concussions and their lifelong effects.

Which is interesting, because all they need to do is visit with alumni of the NFL and see prima facie evidence of the long-term effects of headbanging (and spine-knocking, for that matter). The pronounced effects are there, so much so that former players like Mike Ditka have lobbied endlessly for increased medical and pension benefits for retirees, who, if they don't have trouble walking, have trouble thinking and functioning -- or at least many of them.

And why is that? Because of all of the hits to the head that the current players seemingly pooh-pooh (if for no other reason then a) they're defending their livelihood or b) they're in denial, as they don't want to admit that a life's worth of head-banging activity couldn't possibly cause long-term damage, because that, of course, only happens to someone else). So, on the one hand, you have the current players who decry a change in the enforcement of the rules and, on the other hand, a whole host of data (empirical evidence) and retirees (anectdotal evidence) that suggests that the short-term reforms could help alleviate the long-term problems that the retirees have. That said, the NFL's reforms cannot undo the lifetime of hits to the head that players incurred leading up to their NFL careers.

So, that brings us back full circle. Permit hits to the head (with some fines) and create more long-term damage. Don't permit them, and dilute the attractive violence of the game and fundamentally change the game. Permit them, and create more significant longer-term damage that could and should cost the league more money in pension and healthcare benefits and create a big class of former players whose average mortality rate is worse than the national average and whose future mental health is in jeopardy. (Note: that could happen, anyway, because of a lifetime's worth of hits that each player has suffered). Prohibit them, and reduce, perhaps, the amount of future, quality-of-life threatening illnesses of retired players.

This is a very serious problem. Players are faster and bigger. Training methods are more sophisticated. Research is more detailed about the long-term effects of the game. Those who run it had better take a long, hard look at the rules, equipment and training methods before -- in a hurry -- football becomes, yes, obsolete. I'm reading a book called The Innovator's Dilemma, which focuses on companies that made bad decisions that caused them to become irrelevant at a time when they were on top (many of them were in the high tech industry). That's an interesting premise, isn't it?

Remember, decades ago boxing and horse racing were at the top of spectator sports (as were the major sports). Boxing got corrupted, and legalized gambling made the attraction of horse racing -- which, at the time, had the only form of legalized gambling other than casinos in Las Vegas -- much less. Football is at the top of the sports business -- the most attractive draw out there. But if the Lords of Football don't address this problem quickly -- the spectre of crippled, demented former players could loom so largely that the attractiveness of the game could diminish rapidly. If obsolescence and irrelevance could hit mighty companies with people with large brains running them, it could also hit football.

Perhaps more quickly than you think.


Blogger Michael said...

There's one other factor you are missing, the players have already suffered numerous concussions during their pop-warner, High School and College days.

That has to have some cognitive determent to their reasoning skills.

12:02 PM  
Blogger SportsProf said...

Thanks, Michael.

An article by David Epstein in this week's SI tells us that it's not just concussions, it's hits of any kind. There's a fascinating study that scientists at Purdue have done, and the results are downright scary.

1:49 PM  

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