There have been many threats to the survival and prosperity of the major North American professional sports leagues. Some of the biggest concerns are steroids and illicit drugs, sports betting and gambling, too many players finding their way into the criminal justice system, and games moving at a snail’s pace.
However, now there is a new threat that may make the others pale by comparison. It is the long-range effect of concussions. This troubling topic particularly impacts contact sports like hockey and American football.
The suicides of National Football League stars Dave Duerson, the four-time Pro Bowl safety, and Junior Seau, a 12-time Pro Bowler and one of the greatest linebackers to ever play football, are fueling speculation that numerous concussions and the resulting post-concussion syndrome may have led to their demise.
As new research emerges, concussions and post-concussion syndrome are being implicated in a laundry list of problems: memory loss, difficulty concentrating, depression, anxiety, noise sensitivity, dizziness, irritability, recurring headaches, restlessness, aggression, mood swings, early-onset dementia, fatigue, and poor judgment. There are even recent studies linking ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, to concussions. Baseball Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig suffered several severe beanings and did not have the benefit of wearing modern batting helmets. He also played football in college and may have had concussions there too.
The subject has reached a tipping point. The very nature of American football is violent. The nuts and bolts of the sport are blocking and tackling, and these are very physical activities. In football collisions are the rule, not the exception. When people say politics is a contact sport, they are speaking figuratively. When people say football is a contact sport, they are speaking quite literally. Unless you are a kicker, it is difficult to play football for any length of time and not suffer a concussion, a blow to the head that causes trauma and at least temporary impairment.
Roger Goodell gets it. When NFL Commissioner Goodell speaks about the need to improve player safety, he is not just trying to cover his backside and protect the league from lawsuits. He is aware of this insidious new threat to his sport. He has a reputation for issuing severe penalties for late hits and illegal hits. He has also meted out long suspensions to those involved in the New Orleans Saints infamous “bounty program” of trying to intentionally injure and “take out” opposing players in return for bonus money. These tough sanctions are things he must do. He knows science is working against him and there is an absolute imperative for him to try to clean up the sport and make it safer.
James Harrison does not get it. Harrison, a key component of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, is known as an NFL hit man. He has been fined numerous times by the NFL for illegal hits. And he has whined and complained about the crackdown on his style of play. He seems blissfully unaware that unless strong measures are taken to improve safety, there isn’t even going to be a pro football sport to complain about. The James Harrisons of the world need to stop being ostriches with their heads in the sand and realize the new rules in football are necessary for the very survival of the game.
Boxing offers a cautionary tale and sobering example. For most of the 20th century, boxing was one of the most popular sports in the U.S., often trailing only baseball in fan allegiance. People were vaguely aware of the generic “punch drunk” boxer, but when this became personified through the struggles of Muhammad Ali, attitudes toward boxing began to change. People started to wake up. They realized that Ali may have come down with his illness even without boxing, but that boxing and taking so many hits to the head definitely contributed to his post-boxing health problems. Boxing is a sport where the object is to give your opponent numerous concussions. As people became increasingly aware of the long-term ill effects of concussions, boxing fell out of favor in the United States. Today there are fewer and fewer American champions, and boxing receives little coverage. Kids aren’t exposed to boxing as much as in the past, and consequently they are less likely to pursue it as an occupation.
Hockey, another contact sport, has a similar dilemma as American football. The violence of the sport is what helps to attract fans and make it popular. But this violence may also be its undoing. When marquee players like Sidney Crosby and Chris Pronger are out for virtually all season with post-concussion syndrome, the league suffers greatly. One of the things hockey can do right away is ban fighting, which causes many of the concussions in hockey. Instead of a paltry five-minute fighting penalty, where you would hardly even miss a line shift on the ice, the punishments must be much more severe, such as expulsion from that game and a lengthy suspension. They must also ban the type of hits where a player’s skates leave the ice surface so the player can launch himself into an opponent.
Back to football. A likely case scenario is that parents will start forbidding their children from playing football. That child will then be less likely to watch professional football games to learn how to emulate how the pros play. And that child may never become a football fan. This is the great danger football faces, that the game may not be passed along to the next generation.
The owners of football teams and those in football’s front office must not ignore the science. They must work diligently on amending their rules to improve player safety. They have done a lot to make quarterbacks safer on the field, ignoring complaints that they are “feminizing” the game and making the quarterbacks look “like sissies.” The same needs to be done for the rest of the players. The league officials and administrators need to come down harder on helmet-to-helmet hits and also insist that proper tackling techniques are taught so that players are not leading with their heads when they tackle. Also the league must do a better job of supporting players after their careers are over.