There are so many reasons why we love the NFL. The strategy, the big plays, the stars, the tailgating, drinking with your friends on game day, cheering for your favorite team, the list goes on. But there is one other thing we fans love that, at this day and age, feel somewhat ashamed about. Its the brutality, the big hits, watching a guy like Harrison Smith level Calvin Johnson to save a touchdown, or watching one of my personal favorite Vikings, Chris Walsh, who was well known for laying guys out with big blocks on special teams, doing his thing and making opponents hurt. Those are the moments that make us gasp with excitement, and hit rewind on our DVR's so we can watch again, and again.
What causes us to enjoy this? It's more or less inherent to our human nature. Since the dawn of civilization, we as a species have glorified this sort of brutality and worse. There are countless ancient stories of the glories of war that are still told today. The Romans had arenas dedicated to the bloodsport of Gladiators, and the people reveled in the chance to watch another person die in glory. The ancient Mayans had public ritual sacrifice, and played a sport that was much like soccer, except the balls were actually the severed heads of vanquished enemies. You see this today in modern culture. We still glorify these ancient sports and ancient wars through media, television, video games and movies. (I want to stop here and indicate that I am absolutely NOT trying to start a debate on the media and violence, gun control, or any other remotely political debate on veiwpoints such as these, this fanpost is about football and purely about football. This entire paragraph is simply to point out how our historic nature affects our view on football and its often violent nature.) Look at some of the other sports and you see this nature. Hockey is another inherently violent sport, with big hits and injuries taking place often, and even fistfights happen all the time, and its more or less allowed. We watch Boxing, MMA, and even Professional Wrestling (which although is staged to an extent, is still violent) to get our fix of this brutality. Hell, I even had to watch the video of Joe Kapp throwing down about a half dozen times. Here is the video
The point is, we love this sort of thing, especially in the NFL. Guys have always been rewarded for the big hits (See the Saints and BountyGate, we all know about that one) by the fans, and there are no shortage of big hit highlight reels all over the internet from week to week during the season. The question is, how much is too much? The concussion issue in the NFL has been a very hot button issue, and there are plenty of stories of former players who struggle through daily life, live with major headaches, who cant remember what they were doing just minutes ago, and of course the stories of guys like Junior Seau, who recently took his own life, and was diagnosed, post mortem, with CTE (Chronic traumatic encephalopathy), a degenerative brain disease that resembles Alzheimer Disease, and leaves holes in the brain. It has been associated to repeated blows to the head, often from contact sports. It has also been found in soldiers who have survived blasts in war. Needless to say, its a pretty bad and serious condition. Last week there was a piece done on former Viking Leroy Hoard about his own struggles with post football life. For those who haven't seen it, I suggest you watch it. It does a good job highlighting the struggles felt but him and so many players like him from repeated blows to the head. You can find the article and video here.
ESPN, OTL (Outside the Lines, ESPN's investigative journalism team) and Frontline have all done a pretty good job documenting the concussion issue over the last couple years, highlighting former players and their post-football lives, writing about medical studies of head injuries of these former players, and just doing an all around good job of helping to make the NFL accountable for these things. The NFL looks bad, and I mean real bad, when it comes to this issue. More than 2600 former players are currently in a lawsuit against the NFL over this issue. These players claim that the NFL knew about concussions and their long term effects. The NFL didn't even openly claim that concussions were a real issue up until about 4-5 years ago. The NFL stands to lose (and probably will lose) billions of dollars in this lawsuit. Things are going to have to change.
The debate here is not about anything really stated in the above paragraphs, but more about the next steps in the NFL. The NFL has recently made a priority of safety, fining guys for hits, 15 yard penalties, and Ed Reed was even briefly suspended for 1 game (which was overturned, so he did not miss any time) due to hard hits and hits to the head of players. It seems to me that the NFL has taken to place the blame entirely on defensive players, and I think they are out of line doing so. I was watching the AFC Championship game a few weeks ago. There was a particular play, when Steven Ridley fumbled the ball due to being knocked out cold by Bernard Pollard on a helmet to helmet hit. Patriot fans were livid that there was no penalty or fine on Pollard, I however think Ridley should have been fined. He clearly led with his helmet when Pollard was leading with his shoulder. The result of the play was Ridley getting a concussion. Offensive players need to be just as accountable, and be punished for leading with their heads, just as defensive players are. This wont eliminate every head injury, and may not eliminate any.
Many current players have come out expressing concern over the rule changes. What is also shocking is that former players have as well, including some guys who are plaintiffs on this NFL concussion lawsuit. Mike Golic (former NFL Defensive Lineman) from ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning has said numerous times that the game is turning into touch football. Some others have even suggested that there will be no NFL in 20 years due to the push for safety. Where does the line get drawn? When does football stop being the sport we love? Will football ever cease to exist? What can we do as fans? Do we stop watching football? Do we not allow our children to play the game? These are all good questions. The NFL has already removed the wedge on Kickoff returns, and they have moved the kickoffs from the 30 to the 35 to get more touchbacks, and therefore less returns, making the possibility of serious injury less likely. There is even talk of eliminating the Kickoff altogether, instead giving a team a 4th and 15 from their own 30. I don't want to see that. I believe that is when football becomes something less recognizable.
The main question though is "How do we not lose our favorite sport?" I think a change in equipment will help. Better helmets than the ones the NFL uses are out there. These helmets soften the blows and protect better. Mouthguards can be made mandatory (surprisingly they are not), its been proven in some studies to reduce concussions. Better teaching of how to hit at an early age will also help. many of these players say that they use their helmets because that's how they were taught from Pee-Wee and Pop Werner football through high school, college and in the NFL. There does need to be some fundamental changes made. These players need quality life after football, Not just life after football.
Whats your take? What can you add? What do you agree with, or don't agree with?