Is Football's Future in Jeopardy?

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While most pundits, in advance of next week's Super Bowl, are handicapping whether the Green Bay Packers or Pittsburgh Steelers have the upper hand, the New Yorker's Ben McGrath poses a far more troubling question: "How many of the men on the field in the Super Bowl will be playing with incipient dementia?"

In a lengthy investigation of the high incidence of concussions and brain damage in high school, college, and professional football, McGrath highlights the paradox at the heart of the game's development: as enhanced equipment and rule changes have made the sport safer, football's simultaneously grown more dangerous, "as players, comfortably protected by their face masks, learned to tackle with their heads." Now, he says, "spectacularly combustive open-field collisions that seem to leave players in a state of epileptic seizure" seemingly occur every weekend in the National Football League.

Yet the reforms proposed to deal with this problem (limiting contact during practice, instituting automatic fair catches on kickoffs and punts, requiring offensive linemen to squat, enforcing proper tackling) make McGrath "wonder about a game whose preservation is couched largely in terms of reducing the frequency with which people really play it."

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Ultimately, McGrath asks, does football have a future? Here's how some people are responding:

  • NFL Is Hedging Its Bets, states Slate's Nate Jackson: "The NFL does little to assure its continued existence by acknowledging the mounting evidence that the game is a brain killer. It also does itself no favors to ignore the issue. The response that we see today is a measured public relations approach that will absolve the NFL of any liability if the scientists are right, and will keep the money train rolling until that day finally comes. Football has made too many men important to go quietly into the night."
  • Fan Relationship With Game Will Change, predicts Slate's Stefan Fatsis:

Until medical game-breaks become routine--"brought to you by the official MRI supplier of the NFL!" --or until someone dies on the field, I think the league's ratings and its appeal are secure ...

Football won't be banned. And no amount of rulebook evolution will remove injuries from the game. But as the fans become as aware of the impacts and injuries as they are of the touchdowns ... and the lawsuits begin to arrive at league headquarters on Park Avenue, the fan's relationship with the game is bound to change.

  • Football's Both Violent and Beautiful, states The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates:

In some measure, pro football is quite beautiful because it gives us human beings willingly giving up themselves for something they love ...

This is a separate question from the responsibility of the viewer. There's no real reason why I have to sit and watch Hines Ward destroy his body. He may be welcome to the right, but I don't have to subsidize that right. In all honesty, I think I do because there's something of my own aspirations in the thing. To commit yourself so completely, to stand for a militant vivacity, instead of a bland longevity is attractive and inspiring.

  • What Other Options Do Football Players Have? asks The Washington Post's Ezra Klein. Professional athletes don't receive skills in anything except their sport, he says: "That's why so many players fight as hard for bland longevity as for ephemeral vivacity, remaining--or returning--to the game long after their best days are behind them, and long after their bodies have begun begging them to quit."
  • We're All Conflicted About Football, argues Chase Stuart at Pro Football Reference: "Most hardcore fans want to preserve the status quo in almost every manner, while it's difficult to be comfortable with exposing your 15-year-old son to the possibility of repeatedly suffering serious concussions and potentially life-threatening injuries in high school athletics."
  • I Care About Risks in Amateur Football, Not in NFL, asserts Chris Brown at Smart Football:

Like professional boxing, no one can, with a straight face, say that they don't understand the risk of playing such a dangerous, high speed collision sport, and they are all compensated handsomely for it. (I have more sympathy for older NFL players who played before high salaries and before these risks were well understood.) Indeed, I think the NFL as spectator sport will continue to survive through ... even serious injuries like paralysis, potentially even a live-on-the-field death. Some quick cuts to show Roger Goodell solemnly addressing “the problem” with fines and rule changes will be enough to placate the masses and change the narrative on ESPN back to who will rally for the postseason.

But the more serious threat to football ... is whether the evidence shows that amateur football can cause lasting, long-term brain damage ... If in ten years it can be demonstrated that four years of high school football significantly increases the risk of brain injuries and long-term disorders, then football really will have no future.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.