Are Player Safety Concerns Putting the NFL's Future in Jeopardy?

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IJanuary 28, 2013

FOXBORO, MA - JANUARY 20:  Wes Welker #83 of the New England Patriots catches a pass over Bernard Pollard #31 and Corey Graham #24 of the Baltimore Ravens during the 2013 AFC Championship game at Gillette Stadium on January 20, 2013 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

The National Football League is the most popular sports league in America, and no other sports entity enjoys the same kind of financial security and prosperity that the NFL currently does. 

Those two indisputable facts—and they are indisputable; 12.5 million people watched the 2013 Pro Bowl, or roughly the same amount as baseball's World Series received, and an average NFL franchise is now worth over a billion dollars, according to Forbes—will likely lead to a secure base that lasts years into the future. 

However, those same facts do not absolve the NFL from what is becoming a more likely truth: that its hold as a major sport in America likely has an eventual expiration date that no one—including league decision-makers, players, scientists and fans—can realistically avoid. 

As awareness of the lasting and devastating effects of brain trauma grows inside the sport, so does the intensity of internal efforts to curb those results by changing the rules and altering the game. 

The combination of both—and the eventual meeting in the middle of both effects—sits at the very top of a small list of threats to the NFL's supreme existence in the sporting world. 

Several important discoveries and opinions have helped drive this potential forward. 

Former NFL linebacker Junior Seau tragically committed suicide by shooting himself in the chest last May, just two years after retiring as one of the most decorated defensive players of his generation. According to ESPN, Seau's brain was suffering from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a type of neurological disease that eventually leads to symptoms such as dementia, depression, anger and memory loss. 

The disease has been scientifically linked to repeated head trauma, which, in turn, develops a cell-strangling protein called "tau" in the brain. Seau's brain showed "definitive" signs of CTE at the time of his death, and it is believed to have been a contributing factor to his suicide. 

Seau's case is eye-opening on its own, but the harsh reality stands that he was not the first, and likely won't be the last, of his kind. Deaths of former NFL players such as Mike Webster, Dave Duerson and Andre Waters have each been tied to the progressive destruction of CTE, and there's likely to be more who, unfortunately, succumb to a similar fate in the future.

A Boston University study (via the New York Daily News) found that CTE follows a predictable progression for those who repeatedly endure head traumas:

The Boston University researchers examined the brains of 85 dead athletes and soldiers and found that CTE came in an “ordered and predictable” four-stage pattern that begins with headaches and inability to focus, and then moves to depression, memory loss and outbursts of anger. Symptoms of the most severe stage include dementia and aggression.

Just recently, doctors and researchers at the University of California Los Angeles were able—for the first time in medical history—to diagnosis CTE in living patients. Previously, such a diagnosis had to be made after death, when the brain could be physically removed and studied. 

In studying the brains of living, former NFL players Fred McNeil and Wayne Clark, plus an unnamed former guard, center and defensive lineman, UCLA doctors found evidence for CTE in all five. The study was as revolutionary and ground-breaking as it was enlightening and frightening. 

But a former player doesn't even have to be diagnosed with a progressive brain disease to live a difficult, hindered life post-football. ESPN's Outside the Lines profiled former NFL running back Leroy Hoard, who retired from the game in 1999.

Now 44 years old, Hoard has to write down everyday tasks just to remember them, and he freely admits that not owning a gun has probably saved his own life. On occasion, he needs to sit in a dark, silent room to rid himself of skull-cracking headaches. 

More than likely, UCLA doctors would have found evidence of CTE in the brain of Hoard had he been one of the test subjects.

However, the problem for the NFL is that preventing the onset of CTE and other long-term health risks from the sport remains a nearly impossible task.

The game of football, at its very roots, promotes violence and collision. The entire basis of the game revolves around full-grown men smashing into each other at high speeds and at high volumes throughout a given game or even practice. Such a foundation to a sport makes brain traumas unavoidable, even with the best equipment and rules.

The game is so immensely popular, in large part, because of that foundation. While no rational fan is cheering for injury, there's a certain lust for human carnage that is ingrained into the fanbase. On every single play, all 22 players on the field walk a tight rope of playing a game and suffering serious injury, and that can be an appealing form of entertainment. 

As it currently stands, there is no possible and realistic way for football to remain the beloved sport it is today while completely eliminating the risk of head and health trauma.

However, the legal side of this story may continue to push against the league to make changes to the game that will help better protect its players from these brain-wrecking side effects.

Seau's family has recently joined a massive series of lawsuits against the league. Claiming that the NFL knowingly hid the long-term effects of concussions, the Seaus will attempt to claim damages from a wrongful death suit:

The NFL knew or suspected that any rule changes that sought to recognize that link (to brain disease) and the health risk to NFL players would impose an economic cost that would significantly and adversely change the profit margins enjoyed by the NFL and its teams.

The Associated Press also reported that a review last November turned up nearly 4,000 former players that have sued the NFL over nearly 200 separate lawsuits. A majority of the lawsuits remain in progress and could eventually have substantial monetary effects for the league. 

Now, the NFL is attempting to curb future lawsuits and lost money by altering the game.

Rule changes have been sweeping and all-encompassing over the last handful of seasons. Included in the alterations are the outlawing of helmet-to-helmet and "launching" hits, and protecting defenseless players and quarterbacks. Within the new, broadened rules have come a bevy of increased fines and the potential of substantial suspensions from the league office.

Concussion protocol and awareness have also improved. In 2012, independent doctors were on every sideline to help diagnose and treat head-related trauma. And only after clearing independent testing during the week could a player diagnosed with a concussion return to the playing field.

These are important steps forward. But they remain baby steps in reaching an eventual solution to the problem.

The question for the near future of football must be: Are the changes enough?

One very important figure appears to think not. President Barack Obama made waves this week when he said he would have major reservations about one of his children playing the sport of football.

Posted on the website of the New Republic magazine, Obama had these stinging comments about the sport:

I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much.

Many are having to grapple with that same decision.

Is exposing your son or daughter to head trauma worth it, regardless of age? How much of your child's health are you willing to risk to allow him or her to play the game of football? Where does the love of the sport meet reality?

Basketball, baseball and volleyball are sports that still have a certain amount of injury risk, but they possess very little in terms of long-term health risk factors. As more knowledge of brain trauma surfaces, will more parents shift their children away from football to safer, more controlled arenas? 

It's a discussion worth having.

When the roots of the game are endangered—and that's exactly what a shift away from youth participation in football would be—the long-term future of the league comes into question. Youth players go on to participating in high school, high school players go to college, college players to the NFL. It's a simple and direct line that can be broken at the roots. 

Yet the other side of the equation has risks for the NFL too. 

By continuing to change the game—regardless if the changes are so obviously good for the long-term health of the players—the NFL runs the risk of altering the game to a degree where interest wanes. Even obvious changes such as the outlawing of helmet-to-helmet hits and hitting defenseless players has received negative reception from some sections of the NFL fanbase. 

"The NFL is destroying the game!" 

"Might as well have them play flag football!"

If you have ventured onto social media during an NFL game over the last 24 months, you are aware of the subsection of fans mentioned above. But such opinions aren't restricted to just fans or outsiders of the game. One NFL player that will participate in the Super Bowl on Sunday voiced his very honest opinion of the NFL's future recently.

Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, one of the game's most feared and violent hitters, told Clark Judge of CBS Sports that the NFL might cease to exist in 30 years:

Thirty years from now. I don't think it will be in existence. I could be wrong. It's just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going -- where they [NFL rules makers] want to lighten up, and they're throwing flags and everything else -- there's going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it.

Pollard went as far as to say he believes that an actual death will occur on an NFL field in the future. Such an unimaginable incident might force a very real discussion of football's future. But Pollard might not be alone in that opinion.

In his story, Judge also recalls that Oakland Raiders quarterback Carson Palmer told Sports Illustrated that, "at some point, somebody is going to die." More than likely, such a concern appears in each and every locker room. 

The worry may seem outlandish, and it's possible that no NFL player will die during a game in the next 100 years. But the risk is real and unavoidable, and Pollard notes that as players get bigger, faster and stronger, collisions naturally become more violent and dangerous. The risk for life-altering injuries increases, exponentially.

Pollard's most direct points relate to the changes in the game.

Most of the extreme changes aren't likely to occur anytime soon, if ever. Down the road, however, as our understanding of the human brain further increases, drastic changes to the primitive sport become increasingly more likely.

Fast forward 20 years. Our knowledge of brain trauma in sports is tens of times more advanced than it was in 2013. The NFL is caught between a rock and a hard place: Science is now all too aware of the drastic injury risks of football, but the revenue is drying up because interest in the sport is decreasing. 

The NFL has to make a simple choice. Live with the burden of its sport or change dramatically to protect its employees. If the NFL then decided to take off the helmets and pads and turn the game into a more glorified 7-on-7 session, would the league still be as popular? Would it be popular at all? 

Would youth still aspire to play professional football, or would the world's greatest athletes gravitate to other sports? 

Again, this is a hypothetical discussion worth having. There are obvious factors at play that make it worth talking about right now. 

Professional football is at its height in terms of popularity, growth, monetary gain and security. But it is also at a crossroads, with one path leading toward a long, vibrant future, and another looking the looming possibility of extinction in the eyes, albeit still from a distance. 

The NFL is still going to be around in 2013, and 2014—and probably 2034. But football will always be a dangerous, violent sport that lends itself to the risks of long-term and irreversible damage to the human body, most notably the brain, and that fact will always have the game's future at risk. 

Predictably, the changes to the game that go along with those current and future realities can combine with the obvious health risks to create a world where the NFL no longer reigns supreme in the sporting world. 

A gallon of milk has an expiration date clearly printed on its label. The NFL currently has no defined expiration on its own label. But that doesn't mean such a date won't ever exist. 

How both sides of the issue approach the future—the science and medicinal on one side, the NFL and its governing body on the other—will likely determine whether that eventual date comes sooner rather than later.


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