When the president of the United States convenes a summit to discuss the threat your sport poses to American youth, you need to do something about it.
When there's no evidence that what you've been doing about it will work, you have a lot of work to do.
That's the position the NFL is in.
Professional football is a dangerous game; its fans—parents and kids alike—love the speed and violence of the gridiron. Yet parents increasingly don't want their kids subject to the same violence that makes them jump out of their seat and holler on Sunday afternoons.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has used the phrase "grow the game" countless times during his tenure. (A Google search for his name and the exact phrase returned about 94,600 results.) Between a four-day-a-week television slate, playoff expansion, an 18-game regular season, at least one team in Los Angeles and an international team, Goodell has relentlessly pushed for more NFL product to sell.
Yet there's mounting evidence that when it comes to repetitive concussions (and subconcussive impacts), more football is the last thing the NFL should be pushing.
The NFL settled a master complaint by thousands of former players, but the settlement keeps getting rejected by the courts for not doing enough to ensure the futures of these suffering veterans. Meanwhile, more recent (and more famous) NFL veterans keep filing suit.
Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino added his weight to the debate, suing the NFL for damages before announcing his intent to withdraw the suit, per Dave Hyde of the Sun-Sentinel. With more big names turning on the league that made them legends, fan sentiment is going to swing more strongly toward protecting the players.
This is the fork in the road. What can Goodell and the league do?
As Goodell himself has often said, "take the head out of the game."
Goodell and the NFL's competition committee have spearheaded many changes to the game over the last 10 years, from outlawing certain tackling and ball-carrying techniques to changing kickoff rules. They've seriously considered eliminating the kickoff and extra point in the name of player safety; even bigger changes to the game are coming.
But what would those changes look like?
A 2010 Purdue University study published in the Journal of Neurotrauma found linemen, tight ends, running backs and linebackers suffer the most frequent head impacts.
It makes intuitive sense: Head trauma is the ugly fruit of football's rugby roots. All of the classic fundamentals of football involve one-on-one battles and high-velocity impacts. Running and stopping the run, blocking and tackling, winning the war in the trenches...all of these involve 50, 60, 70 head-on collisions a game.
It's no wonder many of the highest-profile victims of traumatic brain injury (like Hall of Famers Junior Seau, Lou Creekmur and Mike Webster) were linemen, linebackers or running backs. Maybe the solution is to take the running game out of the game.
We can't, you say? At the youth and high school levels, we already are.
Seven-on-seven football is, as described by the AAU, "a fun, competitive, non-contact way to play football." There's been an explosion in its popularity from early youth leagues all the way up through top college prospects.
Without classical line play, running or tackling, seven-on-seven has all of the speed, athleticism and scoring that casual fans love, without any of the brutal violence—and very little, presumably, of the debilitating brain injuries that plague full-squad football.
Rugby, one of football's ancestors (and its closest sporting relative), has already implemented seven-on-seven at its highest levels.
Rugby sevens has become a popular form of the brutal game, with fewer than half of rugby union's traditional 15 players per side. The game is much more open, much faster and more fun to watch. The action is less technical and physical, and it makes fielding a full squad much easier for leagues and nations outside of rugby's traditional stomping grounds. Rugby sevens will even be played at the 2016 Olympic Games.
As ESPN.com's Chantel Jennings wrote in 2013, privately organized elite seven-on-seven football leagues are becoming game-changers in college football recruiting, offering a concentration of talent that develops and exposes recruits better than thousands of far-flung high schools possibly can. They're one-stop shops for power programs trying to reload with skilled players.
High school coaches and administrators, as Greg Riddle of The Dallas Morning News reported, are worried about AAU seven-on-seven squads' growing role in the game. Some public schools already field summer seven-on-seven squads and may someday switch to seven-on-seven year-round. That would certainly save on equipment and insurance costs in a time of brutal cuts to public education funding.
Goodell and the NFL have relentlessly pursued the biggest possible audience, reducing violence and maximizing appeal to casual and nontraditional fans. If they keep on this path—responding to the pressure of these lawsuits, this government action, these parents and these new fans—it's easy to imagine seven-on-seven noncontact football as an eventual reality for the NFL.
Even if they don't want it, it might be forced upon them.
If the NCAA can't dodge its own concussion lawsuits, college football will have to make significant changes, too. Further, If colleges are recruiting 11-man squads from high school seven-on-seven teams, where are they going to find linemen ready to play big-time college football as we know it?
If college football ever moved to seven-on-seven, it would all but force the NFL to follow suit.
What if the NFL rejects this path? What if the coaches, executives and league officials born and raised in the 20th-century version of the game refuse to change how it's played?
Those hard-won casual fans would likely move on, unwilling to follow a sport that willingly exposes its players to such awful risks—and players might follow, unwilling to expose themselves if huge salary-cap-supplying revenue pools dry up.
This is the choice Goodell and the league have to make: Embrace a fundamental change in the way football is played, or accept a return to being a violent niche sport at the edge of the American sporting consciousness.
Even if NFL owners, executives, coaches and players all choose to keep playing the violent game they love, accepting the risks (and reduced revenue), what if the White House keeps applying political pressure? What if Congress threatens the NFL's anti-trust exemption? That would be a truly apocalyptic move, imploding the NFL's entire business model.
In the end, without strong medical evidence that playing the game doesn't directly cause long-term neurological problems, Goodell and the NFL may not even have a choice. It may be years down the road, but fundamental change is coming whether the league or its hardcore fans approve.
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