The NFL Concussion Problem: The Headache That Will Only Get Worse

Jonathan MatthesContributor IIIMay 14, 2012

Concussions have become such a bug concern for safety that the House has heard cases on it.
Concussions have become such a bug concern for safety that the House has heard cases on it.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Last week's issue of Sports Illustrated got me thinking, as it did for many people, about football and concussions. And how nervous it makes me feel about the future of the game.

The NFL has endured and survived so many things, including steroids. Shawne Merriman was suspended for four games during the 2006 season after testing positive for an anabolic steroid nandrolone and played in the Pro Bowl. Imagine if that happened in baseball.

Imagine if Rafael Palmeiro made the All-Star team after we was busted for steroids. They would have had to call in the National Guard to quell the uprising by the fans. Did the fans revolt when Merriman played in the Pro Bowl? No.

What about when the New Orleans Saints took bounties out on other teams? Do you think that Saints fans are going to turn in their black and gold? Are the average NFL fans going to turn away from the "dirty game"?

Of course not, on both accounts. It didn't happen when the Patriots got busted for Spygate. Nor did it happen when the players when on strike in 1987, 1982 or 2011.

The NFL has been as impregnable as the Berlin Wall was at the height of the Cold War. Sure, planes could fly over it and some brazen souls would tunnel under it, but it stood firm, unbreaking and unbending. Until it was torn down.

Concussions have become the single biggest threat to the future of football since the turn of the 20th century. Both the flying wedge and the concussion problems are spawned from the same pool—player safety.

In 1907, the problem was players dying on the field. Now it is off the field, after the glories of their career have been logged in the reference books and maybe cast in the form of their face in Canton.

Concussions are not a new problem, Clinton Portis sat out a game in 2009 with one.
Concussions are not a new problem, Clinton Portis sat out a game in 2009 with one.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I had heard the concern over the future of the game before. After seeing the likes of Earl Campbell and others struggle to walk, I glossed over it. Those were just the scars of a game well played, I would say.

When the questions of depression and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) were first raised, even as the death toll began to rise, I dismissed concern that the future of football had been compromised.

But then an event happened that I could not ignore. Then it hit home.

Then Junior Seau committed suicide.

I must say, football is in trouble. Simply because it is impossible to make the game safe from head injuries without making drastic changes. The way the game is played must be completely changed, and there are already frustrations that the game is too soft as it is. But to make it safe, it must become softer, slower and without flashy, highlight hits.

Would the American public like that game?

But more pertinently, will parents send their sons to play a game that may be a ticket to a premature grave?

I know all the great lessons that can be learned from football. I played it and was concussed because of it. I know the great feelings of brotherhood that can be learned in football.

But are good lessons only learned from football, or can they be found on a baseball diamond, basketball court or soccer pitch? What about other sports where the risk of concussion is smaller? Will current parents and future parents decide that baseball or whatever is a better, safer alternative to football?

I don't know what the future for the game is. I do know that when the Super Bowl is played next season, I will be watching. I will continue to root for my team, as you will for yours. But will I still be cheering at football games in 20 years?

I don't know.