The death of linebacker Junior Seau has triggered a flurry of comments and articles regarding the future of football. Former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner has said that he would prefer that his sons not play football (before later that same day saying he would “love” for them to play). ESPN, a network that pays billions of dollars for the right to televise football games, is showcasing on the NFL home page of its website a column that makes the case for not letting our sons play football. One of the men who currently plays the game, Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, believes football will be extinct in 20 to 30 years.
But here’s the point everyone who is pointing to the Seau suicide as a key crossroads for football is badly missing: The NFL already has arrived at the crossroads, and the NFL has embarked on the path of safety.
Against the wishes of most players and fans.
It happened in 2009 — nearly a year after Ashley Fox of ESPN.com made her own personal decision to not let her then-unborn son play football — when Congress grilled Commissioner Roger Goodell and others regarding head injuries. That relatively minor investment of political resources served as the proverbial shot across the bow, compelling the NFL to make a flurry of changes aimed at reducing the number of concussions that occur during games, diagnosing more effectively the players who have sustained concussions, and ensuring that players who have suffered concussions are not allowed back onto the field until their concussions have fully healed.
Does more need to be done? Absolutely, and I’ve been at the front of the line (to the chagrin of more than a few readers) arguing for further changes, especially as it relates to the development of safeguards and redundancies strong enough to override the all-powerful head coach when a player like Mike Vick has “dirt on his face” or when Colt McCoy clearly had been (as ESPN used to famously call it) “jacked up.”
But the challenge isn’t simply to get coaches, who are driven to win and are driven crazy when rules regarding concussions keep their best players out of action, to accept the new realities of football. Players and, ultimately, the fans must buy in, too.
As one PFT commenter recently pointed out, current players are complaining about efforts to take hard hits out of the game at a time when former players are suing the NFL for, in part, letting them hit each other too hard. For some former players, the concussion issue becomes a convenient vehicle for venting about the fact that today’s owners and players are making obscene amounts of money, and that not enough of it is being shared with the men who made the game what it is. Current players, however, continue to play the game without reservation or hesitation. Indeed, 253 draft picks and hundreds more undrafted players unanimously accepted the offers of employment that have come their way in the last 10 days.
And so, at a time when so many voices are clamoring for football to change even more, the men who play the game don’t want it to. For example, Pollard’s headline-generating prediction didn’t come from his belief that some external body will outlaw the sport, but from a concern that efforts by the NFL to make the game safer will kill it. “This is football,” Pollard said. “It’s not powder puff. When Nike unveiled their new uniforms, I’m surprised they didn’t have flags on the side. . . . You’re taking away the game of football. If a quarterback throws an interception, get his butt down or run to the sidelines. If you’re going to try to make a tackle, I’m going to look for you. I promise you, I’m going to look for you.”
The fans have a role in this, too. As the NFL has tried to make the game safer, the folks who devote money and/or time to watching it have complained, almost as loudly as the players. Those same fans, who love the hits and the intensity of the sport, can’t then wring their hands and gnash their teeth when men who know that the sport entails a significant risk of getting hurt actually, you know, get hurt.
In the end, how far must the NFL go to protect players from themselves? We remain a nation of risk-takers; in many ways, taking risks helped make our country what it is. And we routinely take far greater risks for far less money than NFL players receive.
Hell, we even spend good money to take risks, whether it’s jumping out of airplanes or climbing rock walls or driving motorcycles, with or without helmets. (Ashley Fox doesn’t mention in her column whether she’ll let her son engage in any of those activities. Eventually, however, she’ll lose her vote.)
If grown men, who now can’t say they don’t know the risks of playing football, choose to play, why should anyone stop them? And even if enough parents are actually able to steer that 14-to-18-year-old with testosterone pumping through his body away from playing football to the point where there is no high school football, the best of the best young athletes will nevertheless be recruited to learn football at the college level, at which point the wishes of mom and/or dad will go out the window — especially if playing football pays for tuition and expenses that mom and/or dad otherwise couldn’t afford.
Though plenty of men choose to play college football because they hope to play pro football and not because they want a college education, plenty of men know that football ultimately serves its purpose by providing a college education that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to obtain. And if, in the end, the decision comes down to the risk of incurring CTE on a gridiron or encountering an IED on a dirt road in Afghanistan, plenty of men will gladly embrace the risks of playing college football.