Not that long ago it was an inescapable part of American life, commonly seen on television and in movies, in print ads and radio jingles, a recreational activity engaged in by nearly half of American adults and supported by a massive, powerful industry.
Then came a trickle of adverse health news that grew to a torrent. The industry fought acknowledging the hazards, working behind the scenes for decades to suppress evidence that undermined its profits. Eventually, the warnings registered. Now the same habit once accommodated virtually anywhere from elevators to airplanes to packed arenas is as uncommon in public as the incidence of phone booths. Only 15.1 percent of American adults still smoked cigarettes in 2015.
Parallels with smoking’s lost acceptability haven’t escaped those who enjoy football but cannot shake qualms about possible brain damage from playing the game. Not in the face of recently released findings like the Boston University study of 111 brains of deceased NFL players, of which 110 showed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder. Of 53 brains of former college football players examined, 48 had CTE.
Fresh studies at Wake Forest and Boston University found reduced brain function and heightened behavioral and cognitive problems in players who engaged in football prior to the age of 12. Researchers at Yale released a report in September reckoning the cost in time lost and medical expenses in contact sports, primarily football, at $1.5 billion annually for college athletes and $19.2 billion for high school players, a far more numerous group. Such grandiose estimates should be viewed with skepticism, but are instructive.
Ed Cunningham, a football commentator and former University of Washington lineman, told the New York Times he quit his ESPN job earlier this year because “I don’t currently think the game is safe for the brain. And, oh, by the way, I’ve had teammates who have killed themselves. Dave Duerson put a shotgun to his chest so we could study his brain.” Given emerging evidence, columnist George Will made the analogy to smoking and noted, “This sport will never die, but it will never again be, as it was until recently, the subject of uncomplicated national enthusiasm.”
NFL viewership on TV is trending downward. Decreases in participation in Pop Warner and high school football are cited as indicators of growing concerns among parents about the game’s safety. There is ever more discussion of teaching better tackling techniques at every level, of developing safer helmets, of tweaking rules to limit blows to the head, of reducing contact in practice and collisions on kickoffs. Dispassionate medical observers are routinely positioned to monitor games, authorized to intervene to cull the injured from the field of play. We now speak readily of “concussion protocols,” familiar to Panthers’ fans after all-pro linebacker Luke Kuechly suffered the third head injury of his career against the Eagles in mid-October.
“Tobacco company executives have taught us not to trust those who baldly claim no linkage between a high risk activity and physical and mental damage. The issue now is what we should do about it,” Roger I. Abrams, an author and law professor at Northeastern University, wrote in the Huffington Post about football’s dangers. “It is too easy to say that we should do nothing. Although they are careful about admitting it, NFL owners and officials know the golden goose is at risk, and they will fight a two-front war to battle bad publicity while searching for the equivalent of a safe cigarette.”
It’s also too easy to leap to conclusions. Few of us would join the sport’s more pointed critics in framing head injuries as a moral issue, lumping football with boxing and animal fighting as pursuits that compromise the humanity of the viewer. Moral condemnation was prevalent a century ago when reformers attempted to ban football from campuses. Instead, concern over cheating and serious injuries led to better equipment (helmets) and formation of the NCAA to police the game. (More or less.)
Nor is there a widespread appetite for significant alteration in how football is played. From NFL owners and players, to coaches who believe the danger of concussions is exaggerated, the preferred alternative remains nibbling around the game’s edges with rule and equipment changes.
Many of us still appreciate big hits, if not the carnage they produce. We’ve just learned to relish the game’s violence more circumspectly, in keeping with new sensibilities. Recognizing this, several years ago ESPN discontinued a popular, long-running highlight segment called “Jacked Up” that glorified the most arresting NFL collisions. One can only imagine the reaction today to the provocative imagery of fearsome Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus (1965-73), a Hall of Famer who once told an interviewer, “I sometimes have a dream where I hit a man so hard his head pops off and rolls downfield.”
Soon we’ll have an opportunity to sample an alternative version of football that rivals the standard approach in artfulness and entertainment value without the accustomed level of mayhem. Jeffrey Lewis, the founder and CEO of the American Flag Football Association, plans to hold a nationwide open competition next spring that will whittle to eight the number of participating teams in his league’s inaugural season. Squads will each field seven players (on a 12-member roster) who play both offense and defense. There’s no blocking, tackling, kicking or fumbling.
The emphasis is on a faster, safer product that, without pads and helmets, allows players to be more visible and accessible. “Pro Flag Football – Just Like The NFL, But Exciting!” headlined a story in Wired. Among those appearing in several AFFA exhibitions this past summer were former pro players Michael Vick, Terrell Owens, Jeff Garcia and Jimmy Clausen.
Lewis is betting that explosive plays, athleticism and watching players have fun will carry the flag version of football, played at the youth level by nearly as many participants as the traditional variety. The AFFA will use technology in innovative ways during games, as Lewis did in monitoring social media to gauge fans’ appetite for physical play. “When we examined the evidence that we could find, which is kind of the vocabulary of social media conversations during football games, there wasn’t any evidence that that’s what people talk about,” the CEO said in a telephone interview. “What people talk about are the spectacular plays and the scoring plays, the athletic plays.”
If Lewis’ vision bears fruit, the marketplace might well encourage a more forgiving version of America’s favorite modern sport.