Threat of Concussion Issue Bringing Down the NFL Very Real Possibility

The article linked here by economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier published on grantland.com brings to light the troubling issue of concussions in regards to the future of the NFL.

It should be required reading for any football fan with a genuine interest and concern for the future of the game. Consider yourself warned in advance that you won’t like what you read. But as they say, to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

My 11 year old great nephew Jaylen is a great young athlete in general, and an outstanding young football player in particular. This past fall he led his Pop Warner team to the league championship with an avalanche of touchdowns immortalized on my niece’s Facebook page.

Eleven is a little early to predict success down the road in a sport like football, but there are indications of a bright athletic future for Jaylen.

With athletic parents and grandparents, he has a solid bloodline. The culture of support is robust. His step father is his current head coach as well as an assistant coach for the local high school team. Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Marcus Spears is a close family friend; so close, in fact, when his branch of the family resided in the Dallas area, Jaylen was a regular in the Cowboys training facility and would travel on the team bus. Yet, it is possible that Jaylen’s football career may not last nearly as long as its promise.

If I had a vote on Jaylen's athletic future (and I don't) I would vote "no" to football, maybe high school, but certainly no further. And I really like football. The issue has to do with risk vs. reward.

It is becoming abundantly clear many of the risks (permanent and life threatening injuries can occur even at young ages) involved with playing the game are outstripping the potential rewards. The gap between risk and reward is even greater for Jaylen, a straight 'A' student from a middle class home who has other athletic options (he may be an even better basketball player and shows exceptional promise in every sport he tries).

I was a Pop Warner coach 20 years ago, so upon viewing one of Jaylen's games this past fall, I saw subtle yet striking differences. We live in Fairfax County, Va., one of the most affluent county in the nation.

The participating families were more working class and generally browner than what would be considered the norm for this area. This echoes the trend predicted by Cowen and Grier in their article.

In that time, football was something of a niche sport in our area. Western Pa. was over-represented on our Reston Youth League coaching staff. The commissioner hailed from Midland High School and was a friend and school mate of the late basketball star Norm Van Lier. Many of our coaches came from Farrell, Aliquippa and other Pittsburgh area locales. We competed with the likes of youth soccer and fall baseball for players, as well as overcoming the higher registration fees because of equipment costs.

Nonetheless, our teams at the time more faithfully reflected the population. It's not so much the case today.

Our area is a pretty good sports barometer. Opportunities and participation over a broad range of options is high, and we have had more of our share of successes. When my daughter and nieces attended South Lakes High their schoolmates and sporting contemporaries included the likes of NBA star Grant Hill and Olympic track star Alan Webb. Their situation was more common than unique as other areas schools produced Mia Hamm (soccer), Kara Larson (basketball), Evan Royster (football), Olympic caliber swimmers and plenty of high caliber athletes in less celebrated sports. So this change in the football participation pattern really got my attention.

It would be tempting, comforting really, to just dismiss this entire concussion business as just an off season tempest likely to blow over eventually with no significant long term impact on the game. It would be easy to believe, especially if you are under the age of 40, the stature and popularity of professional football is pretty much inviolate. But an examination of the longer historical arch of American sports suggests a different story and a much greater sense of vulnerability we ignore at our peril.

In the early to mid- 20th Century the top of the sporting food chain was occupied by baseball, boxing and horse racing. An interesting fact often overlooked by Steeler Nation today is that while the football team struggled competitively and financially in the early days, the Rooney Clan was quite successful with their operation of race tracks. Today, except for the minor blip in national attention associated with the Triple Crown races (Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes) horse racing has pretty much disappeared. Most who have any memory of sports from the 1980s and earlier have witnessed the decline of boxing from a sport whose championship bouts galvanized the attention of the world to a descent into irrelevance. That descent began to escalate in the early 60s when a fighter named Emile Griffith literally beat an opponent to death on national television. The decline of baseball was less steep but it was clearly supplanted at the top by pro football by the beginning of what we now know as the Super Bowl era. Football's dominance has remained relatively unchallenged for the better part of 50 years.

Football has always been a difficult, potentially devastating sport to those who have played it. In many respects a far more dangerous sport played in earlier years than now.

So why should this particular issue prove to be so disruptive of the sport?

Part of the answer is contextual. The roots of professional football are in the region and culture of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio (the Pro Football Hall of Fame isn't located in Canton for nothing). Even though the game was more dangerous in those early days, it paled in comparison with what many players and spectators faced in their day jobs working in the mines, mills and factories of the area. Over the intervening years, rule changes, improved technology and advanced medical techniques have seemingly offset many of its debilitating effects. When I played the game, a knee injury, if not a career ending event, usually signaled the onset of permanent decline for a player. One of the best examples of that was when the brilliant career of Gales Sayers was cut short by a knee injury.

Today the expectation for a player suffering a torn ACL, like Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall, is he will fully recover within a year. However, medical science has no answer for head or spinal injuries (think Peyton Manning). Further, the research indicates that not only concussions, (which didn't rise to level of being much of an injury of serious concern in the old days) can be much more devastating than previously imagined, but the cumulative effect of blows that fall far below the level of concussions can have the same effect.

Put another way you don't have to have had your bell rung to be in danger of having a higher likelihood of suffering from memory loss, dementia, even ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) as a result of playing football. As Cowen and Grier have pointed out, and most of us can logically imagine, the lawyers are lining up. All that is necessary is for a couple of successful lawsuits to set a precedent that will send insurance companies and sponsors into full scale flight.

(Editor's Note: In the time this article was being edited, the family of former Bears DB Dave Duerson, a man who committed suicide, announced a wrongful death lawsuit against the NFL)

This puts the whole James Harrison/Roger Goodell war in an entirely different light as well. I can't imagine a scenario where the NFL didn't know this issue was coming down the pike. The emphasis on player safety, hastily, even sloppily conceived and executed was designed to, hopefully, inoculate the league if just a little bit from the impact of the litigation that they are now facing. Harrison apparently didn't get the memo, and in any case has proven to be a very useful villain in relation to the more ‘reasonable' approach of league management. Of course, Harrison might intuitively understand what Cowen and Grier also pointed out; namely that the usual solutions probably will not do. Rule changes and improved technology (better helmets for example) probably will be an insufficient deterrent to the problems outlined. And there is nothing immediately on the horizon in the form of a medical science solution that will save the day either.

A couple of years ago I conducted an interview with former Steeler Randy Grossman for the MSP Steeler Annual. During the course of the discussion Grossman continually used terms referring to the game that more appropriately reflected how we would describe engaging in hard, unskilled labor rather than that of a sport. We eventually got around to talking about Myron Rolle (now with the Steelers) and shared a good laugh as we mused over the fact that he could be characterized in the football culture as being disloyal for choosing to pursue a Rhodes Scholarship. It fit Grossman's view that the game wanted their players dumb. We also touched a bit on the general sports landscape. He mentioned, and I agreed, how unlikely it would be to find a boxing gym located in the Fox Chapel community in which he resided. No snobbery involved, just the practical realization that most people would avoid the inherent risks involved in boxing if they had reasonable alternatives which most affluent and middle class folk have.

In the not so distant future will we come to view football like boxing, and how will that effect our engagement with the game?

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