Saturday, August 11, 2012

Is the End of Football Now Visible on the Horizon?

That would certainly seem to be the position for the author of this article and the links contained in it. While the American public is willing to put up with any number of sports-related scandals with respect to gambling, and athlete conduct, the idea that football players are permanently injuring themselves in horrible and mystifying ways might be too much to take.

The physical dangers of a football career have been known for some time. Sports Illustrated ran a series several years ago about the toll that maintaining an unusually high bodyweight, and repeatedly slamming that body into other people maintaining unusually high body weights, took on a NFL players. The shortened longevity of an NFL career relative to other major sports is well-known.  As with long-distance running, it is virtually impossible to play football for any length of time without getting hurt seriously enough to stop you from playing.

But the prospect of significant brain injury raises awareness of the game's dangers to new heights.  We now know that cumulative head trauma can manifest itself as dementia or other forms of mental degeneration. The problem is insidious-it doesn't manifest itself until well after a player's career is over.  The fact that it affects a relatively low number of players does not lessen the frightening and horrifying aspect of the condition.

The NFL should rightly concern itself with the situation. For one thing, it has a direct effect on how many people are going to allow their children to participate in football, thus affecting the supply of future players.  Similarly, the knowledge that players are literally destroying themselves will have a direct effect on the willingness of people to watch the sport grind its players up like combat. In addition, the business side of the game was bad enough; football teams were notorious for simply discharging injured players with virtually no recognition in all but the most unusual circumstances. Now, if the allegations in the NFL concussion lawsuits are true-claims that the NFL was well aware of the brain injury issue, but systematically denied that there was a problem and hid key medical data-the league could be looking at a monstrous financial liability.  Not to mention a  public relations disaster which could result in state or federal authorities simply banning football contests for anyone under the age of 18.

Don't laugh, Teddy Roosevelt almost did exactly this more than 100 years ago.

Football is an exciting game that has supplanted baseball as America's sport of choice. But unless the NFL figures out a way to deal with the injury issue, and especially the brain injury issue, I suspect its days might be numbered.

UPDATE:  And the litigation engine is running at full throttle, per this report that the insurance companies are starting to devour each other and their NFL-related clients.

UPDATE II:  PBS and ESPN are out with some information indicating that the NFL was at least acknowledging the relationship between an NFL career and head injuries / brain damage in 1999.  I'm not convinced this is a smoking gun, because this injury seems to be extremely idiosyncratic, but it further opens the door to inquiry regarding what the NFL knew and when it knew it.

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