The future of the NFL is currently at a crossroads and the integrity of the league is in jeopardy. While the sport itself has become "America's Game" because of its protrusion of masculinity, it's that exact brutishness that is costing players their physical and mental wellness after their careers are over.
Now the NFL is walking a tight rope when it comes to player safety. In one respect, the league wants to maintain their blood, sweat and tears image. On the other hand, there must be something done to ensure players the ability to live life after the final whistle has blown.
Football is a game that is constantly compared to war. The game is a battle between warriors, won in the trenches—and so on. With all due respect, the NFL's attitude toward its former players mimics society's toward soldiers.
Like soldiers, young players leave home and are thrust into a different world, many times coming out a different person on the other side. It's that person that is often overlooked and forgotten about upon return to civilization.
Veterans of the armed forces are said to be heroes forever, but our heroes on the gridiron are only labeled so until that brand is replaced with "injury prone," followed by "washed-up." Like soldiers, NFL players often sacrifice their lives on the battlefield. While the country honors its fallen soldiers with memorials, the only NFL players to be enshrined reside in the Hall of Fame.
One hero that will forever be remembered on both fronts is former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman. As many fans remember, he gave up his life in the NFL for the US Army and was killed in action in 2004.
His death mirrors the NFL of today. Initially said to have been killed by enemy fire, it was actually friendly fire that ended Tillman's life. While his death was certainly an accident, NFL players continuously take hits from the "enemy," but in actuality every player plays the game under the same shield.
Fans love the NFL because it's the embodiment of the country's identity. The idea is that when 53 hardworking, blue-collar men unify under the same colors and logo anything can be achieved. Another identity that the NFL should adopt is "Leave No Man Behind." The league makes billions of dollars of annual revenue at the expense of its men. It's time these players get fair compensation.
While the league is taking the necessary measures to establish player safety from a young age, the damage to past and present players has already been done. It has been said that taking a good lick in football is like being involved in a car crash. Think about how many "crashes" a 10-year NFL veteran has taken in his life.
Yes, the equipment will only improve with time, but what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell needs to do is implement a top-notch retirement plan for the league's players. From physical therapy, healthy nutrition and even meetings with therapists, the league's warriors need this help.
When NFL rookies come into the league, it's mandatory that they attend meetings pertaining to life in the NFL. Goodell needs to see to it that NFL veterans go through a similar exit strategy. For many of these players, football has been the only thing they've ever known.
The fact is, football players know what they're getting themselves into when they put on the pads.
However, many NFL players have been highly publicized since their days in high school, and turning down the game is merely impossible. Post-career, life without football is suddenly foreign to them as many lives unravel. The league needs to monitor its men to guarantee their health after their days on the field are done.
While it's undeniable that people will always tune in to the sport, as new knowledge becomes available pertaining to injuries induced by contact sports, fans may begin to watch with one eye open.
As fans, we love the NFL so much that we can't turn our back on it, but we know things must change for the better. The fate of the NFL and its players is now in the hands of Goodell and the league's owners to make the only pragmatic decision there is.
After all, football is a game, not war.