By Jay Maturi
“If I knew back then what I know now, I would have never played football. Never.” – Bo Jackson, NFL All-Star and MLB Left-Fielder
“CTE is a progressive degenerative disease which afflicts the brain of people who have suffered repeated concussions and traumatic brain injuries, such as athletes who take part in contact sports, members of the military and others.” –Brain Injury Research Institution
“Repetitive head trauma chokes the brain. It turns you into someone else. These men are not machines. We must honor our warriors.” –Will Smith, Concussion (2015)
The last couple years have sparked various controversies in the realm of NFL football. African American quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a stand, or rather, a kneel against racial injustice, sparking a nation-wide dilemma. Claims that kneeling is “impudent to the military” and “disrespectful to America” mixed with “a show of courage” and “a way for people to take a stand” have created a dichotomy between fans, NFL executives, and the general public.
Earlier, Peter Landesman’s Concussion, starring Will Smith, outlined the prominence of the neurodegenerative disease, CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Found in the brains of many NFL players, primarily those who have received multiple concussions, CTE results in the atrophy of the brain, loss of memory + dementia, erratic behavior, and impaired judgment. Diagnosed only post-mortem (but symptoms can be seen when alive), Boston University School of Medicine diagnosed CTE in 33/34 players tested. In 2013, the NFL agreed to a 765 million-dollar settlement with over 4,500 players who claimed they had concussion-related injuries following their playing time. This is evidence of the increasing physical and mental issues that arise following a career in football.
This past month, Bo Jackson, NFL and MLB superstar, claimed that he would never have played football if he had known the negative effects that it had on his brain, and that he would never allow his children to play football after learning of the extensive research on CTE.
NFL football is at a crossroads. The organization faces heat from mothers, fans, scientists, and players, yet it is engrained in American culture. While baseball claims to be “America’s Game,” football has entrenched itself into the American lifestyle. Small, country towns depend on football and call it “their way of life.” Football has been used in a Horatio-Alger sense of rags to riches, in that athletes can achieve success for themselves and their families through football; to end football would equate to crushing the dreams of athletes who aspire to break free from the cycle of oppression. Football is an enduring form of life throughout America, and to remove it would result in a major transformation of American culture.
The NFL is attempting to implement policies that will allow football to remain “football;” however, these policies need to be improved upon for the safety of the players. Despite the common “just let them play” option that many football fanatics defend, CTE studies have shown that it is not a feasible option. The undeniable physical trauma that occurs from the sport necessitates a change to the game. Because football is irremovable from American society altogether, dramatic changes to the way that the game is played must occur.
New rules according to US Club Soccer have now banned children in U-11 leagues from heading the ball in practice or games, as well as limited heading in practice for U-12 and U-13 leagues. While this is a dramatic change to the game, US Soccer found it necessary to institute this reform. If soccer is able to make these changes, it seems plausible that football would be able to make these changes as well. However, at the moment, the limited changes that are occurring in the NFL are not enough to ensure the safety of the players. The main change that has occurred so far is the moving of the “Fair Catch” line for kickoffs to the 25-yard line from the 20-yard line, in hopes that there would be less head-to-head contact during kickoffs; however, statistics have shown little change in the percentage of kickoffs that have resulted in fair catches. This means that the NFL’s moderate policies aren’t changing anything about the game.
Because of the NFL’s lackluster movements for change, the increasing heat from NFL players and scientists, the NFL is raising capital to defend itself against heavy lawsuits. To raise money, the NFL is currently moving teams to more profitable locations, such as LA and Las Vegas. This past year, the St. Louis Rams became the Los Angeles Rams and the San Diego Chargers have filed paperwork to move from San Diego to Los Angeles as well; additionally, Oakland has begun major talks regarding the transition of their team to Las Vegas. By moving teams to new locations, the NFL gains money in sponsorships, naming rights, and other high-value revenue that the stadium makes (tickets), along with apparel and souvenirs. Not only is the NFL breaking the hearts of millions of fans, they are merely avoiding the CTE issue by throwing money at those who argue against them.
In spite of any back lash that Roger Goodell, NFL Commisioner, might get for changing the rules, serious adjustments are necessary. This could include the creation of safer gear or large penalizing following hits to the head, but a large change must occur for the game to be successful. Already, America is beginning to open its eyes to the gruesome effects of football to the brain, and thus, the NFL needs to stop focusing on raising capital and start focusing on keeping its players safe.