The Football Bottleneck

Football is not a contact sport. Contact sports have the connotation of being physical contests requiring agility, athleticism, and toughness—sports where injury is common, but not constant. Basketball is one of these sports. Football is a collision sport. Players turn their physical bodies into missiles—injury can occur regularly, and often does. No sport compares in physicality to football, save for Rugby. We have only just begun to see the toll that the takes on players—years after they hang up their cleats. Steps are being taken to make the game safer for all ages; but with fewer parents signing their kids up to play, are these changes enough or is the game dying?

Make no mistake, football is currently trending towards a player population bottleneck precipitated by the NFL’s former players’ monumental lawsuit against their former employer and the theoretical link between football collisions and CTE, a degenerative neurological disease. This lawsuit has served as the bottleneck event and has forced many parents of the next generation of would-be football players to pick a side. Whichever side wins out will determine whether the population of football players will recover or go extinct.

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CTE—short for Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy—is a horrible condition caused by repeated blows to the head over an extended period of time. If the reason that football was immediately blamed as a cause of CTE is unclear, then I cannot help you. Further, CTE presents similar to other dementia—confusion, aggression, depression, and memory loss—and has a delayed onset, with symptoms surfacing long after the damage had been done. CTE has no cure, and there is no way to diagnose it in the living. Depression caused by CTE led Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau to take his own life. (An autopsy of his brain confirmed the presence of CTE.)

CTE has created a long term health concern for a game that has always exclusively dealt in the short term. Average professional players are in the league for three seasons. College players only get four years of eligibility—call it five with redshirt years. Count back through High School, Middle School and Pop Warner, and you find some players have sixteen years or more of football in their past. Come to think of it, considering football a short term game is woefully myopic.

The problem is: we see football as catastrophically damaging in the short term. Tore your ACL? Broke your arm? Dislocated an ankle? You’re done for the year. But, these players get the best care and are back after less than a year of recovery—typically only slightly worse for wear.

Injuries are part of the game. Playing hurt is common, and fighting through the pain is required. Football demands toughness due to the sheer physicality involved in each and every play. However, this culture of tough fosters an environment where conditions like CTE can develop freely. The culture dictates that players are “soft”or “weak” if they don’t bounce back from a massive hit immediately. “Mildly concussed?! Get back out there, wuss!” CTE is a monster that we all have had a hand in creating.

In order for the player population to recover from CTE’s devastating impact, football has to improve. Each year’s athletes grow in size, strength, or speed—athletes from football’s bygone eras could play on the same field as the guys of today. We’ve cornered the market on “bigger, stronger, faster.” What about safer?

I love this game. I want it to recover. However, we cannot go on ignoring the issue of player safety. The argument that these men are adults who play while knowing the risk is tired. And, it should be shelved. Calling people concerned about the safety of the game ‘alarmists’ and dismissing them as doomsayers has to stop. Nothing is more damaging than oblivion in the face of facts.

Football programs nationally are working on introducing better techniques to prevent common injuries. Leagues have implemented safer neurological protocols for concussions—this doesn’t catch everything, but it helps. Competition committees are legislating dangerous play out of the game. However, we cannot get complacent and view these changes as sufficient. The game must seek to constantly improve, whatever the cost. Our part, as fans, is to shout down those who pine for the “good, ol’ days” where targeting was considered good defense and getting carted off the field was considered mission: accomplished.

We know more about the ramifications and risks of the game. In the name of safety, it has evolved.

We should, too.

UPDATE (8/31/15): Sony Pictures is releasing a movie starring Will Smith and Alec Baldwin about the doctor that discovered CTE. The NFL plays the villain, and the movie looks great. It will be hard for them to spin or hide from this, and that’s probably a good thing. 

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