Is Football’s Future in Jeopardy?

While most pundits, in advance of next week’s Super Bowl, are
handicapping whether the Green Bay Packers or Pittsburgh Steelers have
the upper hand, the New Yorker’s Ben McGrath poses a far more troubling question: “How many of the men on the field in the Super Bowl will be playing with incipient dementia?”

a lengthy investigation of the high incidence of concussions and brain damage in high school, college, and
professional football, McGrath highlights the paradox at
the heart of the game’s development: as enhanced equipment and rule changes have made the sport safer, football’s simultaneously grown more dangerous, “as
players, comfortably protected by their face masks, learned to tackle
with their heads.” Now, he says, “spectacularly combustive open-field collisions that seem to
leave players in a state of epileptic seizure” seemingly occur every weekend in the National Football League.

Yet the reforms proposed to deal with this problem (limiting contact during practice, instituting automatic fair
catches on kickoffs and punts, requiring offensive linemen to squat,
enforcing proper tackling) make McGrath “wonder about a game whose preservation is couched largely in
terms of reducing the frequency with which people really play it.”

Ultimately, McGrath asks, does football have a future? Here’s how some people are responding:

  • NFL Is Hedging Its Bets, states
    Slate’s Nate Jackson: “The NFL does little to assure its continued
    existence by acknowledging the mounting evidence that the game is a
    brain killer. It also does itself no favors to ignore the issue. The
    response that we see today is a measured public relations approach that
    will absolve the NFL of any liability if the scientists are right, and
    will keep the money train rolling until that day finally comes.
    Football has made too many men important to go quietly into the night.”
  • Fan Relationship With Game Will Change, predicts Slate’s Stefan Fatsis:

medical game-breaks become routine–”brought to you by the official MRI
supplier of the NFL!” –or until someone dies on the field, I think the
league’s ratings and its appeal are secure …

won’t be banned. And no amount of rulebook evolution will remove
injuries from the game. But as the fans become as aware of the impacts
and injuries as they are of the touchdowns … and the lawsuits begin to arrive at league headquarters on Park Avenue,
the fan’s relationship with the game is bound to change.

  • Football’s Both Violent and Beautiful, states The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates:

some measure, pro football is quite beautiful because it gives us human
beings willingly giving up themselves for something they love …

is a separate question from the responsibility of the viewer. There’s
no real reason why I have to sit and watch Hines Ward destroy his body.
He may be welcome to the right, but I don’t have to subsidize that
right. In all honesty, I think I do because there’s something of my own
aspirations in the thing. To commit yourself so completely, to stand
for a militant vivacity, instead of a bland longevity is attractive and

  • What Other Options Do Football Players Have? asks The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein. Professional athletes don’t receive skills in anything except their sport, he says: “That’s why so many players fight as hard for bland longevity as for
    ephemeral vivacity, remaining–or returning–to the game long after
    their best days are behind them, and long after their bodies have begun
    begging them to quit.”
  • We’re All Conflicted About Football, argues
    Chase Stuart at Pro Football Reference: “Most hardcore fans want to
    preserve the status quo in almost every manner, while it’s difficult to
    be comfortable with exposing your 15-year-old son to the possibility of
    repeatedly suffering serious concussions and potentially
    life-threatening injuries in high school athletics.”
  • I Care About Risks in Amateur Football, Not in NFL, asserts Chris Brown at Smart Football:

professional boxing, no one can, with a straight face, say that they
don’t understand the risk of playing such a dangerous, high speed
collision sport, and they are all compensated handsomely for it. (I
have more sympathy for older NFL players who played before high
salaries and before these risks were well understood.) Indeed, I think
the NFL as spectator sport will continue to survive through … even serious injuries like paralysis, potentially
even a live-on-the-field death. Some quick cuts to show Roger Goodell
solemnly addressing “the problem” with fines and rule changes will be
enough to placate the masses and change the narrative on ESPN back to
who will rally for the postseason.

But the more serious
threat to football … is whether the evidence
shows that amateur football can cause lasting, long-term brain damage … If in ten years it can be demonstrated that four
years of high school football significantly increases the risk of brain
injuries and long-term disorders, then football really will have no

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