Think about it. The NFL is by far the most popular, most powerful sporting league in North America. Nothing even comes close to its dominance of the sports fan's affections, the media's attention and the financial rewards in pro sports.
Even though it's now been almost three and a half months since the NFL played a meaningful down of football, the League continues to grab all of the sports headlines. Once the Super Bowl hangover had dissipated, we've had the Peyton Manning fee-agency saga, the path to the NFL draft, Bounty-Gate in New Orleans, the Draft itself, and now Junior Seau's suicide and the whole concussion question. No other major sport stands a chance.
The NHL and NBA are both deep into their playoffs and they can't fight their way onto the front page. Major League Baseball launched its new season with an absolutely crazy battle going on in the AL East and much more, but nobody seems to be noticing. Pro Golf? Without Tiger, it's relegated to the back page. Pro Tennis? Well, I love it and I think it's got some fantastic stories going on right now but it doesn't have even a tenth of the following of the NFL.
The emotional and financial reach of the NFL today has far surpassed even the best expectations of the owners and players and certainly has overwhelmed anything any other professional league has accomplished in the history of popular sports.
So, with everything seeming to be going right for football, why all of a sudden are so many intelligent, thoughtful, passionate football writers suddenly contemplating the end of football?
I think we all know the answer to that question: brain injuries and the embattled post-game lives of so many former NFL players have come to the fore and it is an ugly, ugly picture.
It is becoming increasingly clear that a significant number of football players are suffering severe adverse reactions to the beatings they've taken on the field. And we only see the big name situations in the media: where are the studies of the people who never made the NFL, who left the game after college, after high school or even after little league careers? For every one NFL player whose post-football life is deeply scarred by the damage done onfield, there must be hundreds if not thousands of people out there who have suffered similar damage even though their football careers were briefer and did not involve the big money of the NFL.
Studies do show that children under the age of 21 or so actually have an increased risk of suffering a severe concussion as football players than do adults playing the same game, since their skulls are not fully developed and neither are their brains. Studies also show that the first concussion increases the risk of a second and so on, and, further, that the accumulation of lesser blows to the head can have as devastating an impact on brain health as full-blown concussions.
The more we know, the scarier the picture gets. As someone who played only a single year of football in high school, I have to admit I'm relieved now, as a middle-aged man, that I was never so good at the game as to have been recruited for my school's senior varsity team or for a college program. I like my brain the way it is, thank you.
I have to question, very seriously in fact, why anyone would want to play this game or why anyone would allow their children to play it.
And I'm not alone. Even former NFL players are stating publicly that they will try to steer their kids away from football.
Does this mean the death of the game?
Law suits will certainly have an impact. The NFL is facing at least one and probably several from former players and I wouldn't be surprised if we started to see legal action being taken against colleges, high schools and even the Pop-Warner level leagues. I know we've already seen schools up here in Canada dropping football, both because it is so expensive to run and because it is so dangerous to play. Add the threat of legal action and I think we'll see more schools, on both sides of the border, bowing out.
The flip side, of course, is that, as we learn more about the impacts of football on a person's health, the law will slide more and more in favour of the teams rather than the players: there is a legal principal regarding voluntary assumption of risk. If you have a reasonable understanding of the risk associated with a particular course of action, you are held to have voluntarily assumed that risk if you choose to pursue that course of action anyway.
Will football die out altogether? I don't think so. I think we will see a massive reoganisation of the game at all levels, with probably fewer schools involved at the high school and college levels. But the game is so popular, the payoff of a successful NFL career so huge, that I think we'll continue to see young men voluntarily assuming the risk to their health that football represents.
And why wouldn't they? Right now, a pro football player can earn enough in a five-year career to ensure the financial security of his entire family over several generations. If you come from poverty, for example, maybe that's a risk you're willing to take.
We all work and take risks associated with our career choices for a variety of reasons. People are willing to fight and die in wars to project their country, their way of life, their families and friends. I don't see why a football player wouldn't be willing to face the risks posed by football for the sake of their parents, spouses, children and even grandchildren.
The painful process we are enduring today results from the fact that we are only now obtaining clear evidence of the negative impacts of a life on the football field. We are reeling from the frightening picture that is being painted and feeling deeply for those who are currently suffering so badly as a result of risks they didn't know, or only had a vague understanding existed. We need those wrongs to be addressed and full disclosure of the risks to take place.
Once that happens, however, I think we can expect football to thrive as young men make an informed decision, based on thorough understanding of the risks involved, to play a game that might bring them fame while giving them an opportunity to provide financially for their families for generations to come. And I think fans will always be willing to pay good money to watch these men make that sacrifice on the field.