What Price Football?

Football has to change. But for that to happen, we have to stop looking at its evolution as a negative, and realize evolution is the only way our beloved sport will survive

New rules outlawing helmet-to-helmet hits have brought about complaints from players and fans alike. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
New rules outlawing helmet-to-helmet hits have brought about complaints from players and fans alike. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

They trumpeted it as a “settlement,’’ but of course the $765 million in restitution that the NFL has agreed to pay to former players to make those concussion-related lawsuits go away didn’t really settle everything. Certainly not the biggest question of all: will America’s love affair with football continue unchanged and unabated, now that we’re finally coming to grips with how much the game can ultimately cost some of its players?

In other words, what price football?

It’s not an easy question to grapple with, but given the stakes, it has to be done, and it has be done by everyone from couch potatoes to commissioners.

Now that we all know enough to know there’s hard evidence connecting football to traumatic brain injuries, and realize it’s a game that has been played far too dangerously for too long, there are new realities.

We have to let the game change, and we have to embrace that change. For the safety of the men who play the sport for our weekly entertainment, and for the preservation of the game itself.


Can football change? Will the sport become safer? How are concussions impacting the game’s future?

Introducing an in-depth series where we tackle those questions, starting at high schools and continuing into college and the NFL. Read the entire series.

The NFL is quick to point out it didn’t have to accept liability as part of its concussion litigation settlement with former players. But culpability is no longer the point, responsibility is, and the responsibility to make things right and to let football evolve into a safer game is something that every fan, media member, coach, player and team or league executive has a part in.

Where football goes from here depends on it.

Ignore the voices that resist change and cling to the way the game was played when they first learned it. The game has already changed in significant ways on the safety front in recent years, and it will continue to do so. Football isn’t being ruined by these changes, it’s being saved. At least hopefully, if they go far enough and work effectively.

Decide to see the wisdom of those changes, not just the flaws. Banning crown of the helmet blows in the open field is not a loss to the game, it’s a common sense move to protect the head and lower the amount of punishment it absorbs. Helmet to helmet hits aren’t to be argued and complained about by players, coaches and anyone who wants to paint them as unavoidable. Some perhaps are, but they’re dangerous and need to be eliminated as much as possible, like driving without a seat belt or running around in a lightning storm.

If the decision to remove the hazardous kickoff from the game comes along in the near future, let’s not whine about a cherished part of the game lost. If it makes the game safer, it makes sense. Case closed. Players will always say it’s too hard to change the way they play, but they can and will change the way they play, because it’s too important not to.

Worry less about new rules ‘ruining’ the game and more about the lives that have been ruined by the game.

Worry less about new rules “ruining’’ the game and more about the lives that have been ruined by the game, thanks to the effects of dementia, depression and suicides related to brain trauma. What we know about those issues today might wind up being just the tip of that scary iceberg.

The game of football should resist the notion that everything’s going to be fine. Record ratings, record profits, and wall-to-wall coverage are here today, but they’re not guaranteed indefinitely if the sport doesn’t keep taking steps to become less violent and less risky when it comes to long-term brain damage. It’s not a given that youth leaguers will continue to play in high school, taking their game to college and then the best of those into the professional ranks. Football needs a feeder system, but it needs one that doesn’t start to dry up due to fears of the game’s unintended consequences.

Change, even if it’s uncomfortable at first, must keep coming to the game of football. Nothing will ever make football 100 percent safe, but that doesn’t mean you don’t set the goal high and keep striving. It’s going to take more rule changes, better science and equipment, and increased emphasis and education when it comes to safety. And it’s going to take accepting that the change is for the better, and for the good of the game.

What price football? It’s a question that needs to be asked by everyone who has a sporting interest in the game America loves, and for all those who understand the need to protect the players of today better than the players of the past. If we learn to live with a game that features fewer devastating hits but helps secure football’s long-term future, it won’t be just the players who will feel the lasting impact.

mmqb_special_red360

39 comments
OddyDanger
OddyDanger

Yes, a new rule should be to tackle at the low-protected knees versus the highly tested, concussion-preventing helmet. Instead of making someone black out for a little while, it's much better to prevent them from ever running again.

Carl182
Carl182

While doing some research on the internet I discovered two main points experts seem to agree on when talking about concussions. 

First of all, while concussions are bad it is the second concussion on top of that what does the most severe damage to the brain. I think the NFL is doing a good job in addressing that by banning "targeting" and the intentional helmet-to-helmet hits from the game.This may make the biggest and most violent hits disappear more and more but personally I feel that if this is why you watch football you do not really understand the game and may be better off watching a true barbaric sport like MMA or Boxing (where the actual goal is to concuss your opponent). After all, Football is about tackling your opponents to the ground rather than knocking them out!

Secondly, the smaller subconcussive hits add up and also hurt the brain. I think this is where the new helmet technologies and paddings come in. While researchers always caution that no helmet ever may be able to fully prevent concussions the new technologies can very well lessen the force distributed to the brain. Ultimately, I hope this ( in combination with other measures like limiting the full contact practices) can decrease the stress the brain gets exposed to significantly, maybe to a point where it has no long term effects on the players.

I think the problem football faces is not that concussions can occur, but the frequency with which they happen. There are many sports, from skateboarding, to soccer to even cycling where concussions are not uncommon, but they are always a result of an accident, rather than the way the sport is practiced.

I also think that we should embrace the helmets more because they can actually be improved, a possibility other sports without any head protection do not have. I think people demanding to get rid of the helmets are absolutely delusional! Around the turn of the century people regularly died on the football field (and they were not nearly as many players as today). While I love football as much as all of you I totally agree with the author that it needs to undergo some changes in order to survive. After all while Baseball is the National pastime Football seems to be the passion of the United States. And I personally hope to enjoy this game for many years to come!

JOHN140
JOHN140

If indeed I was to focus only on the "ruined lives" as Mr. Banks puts it, I would expect NFL football to be banished. If large amounts of financial compensation isn't worth the risk then it's time to stop. The present situation is not just about safety issues. They are re-engineering the game. The NFL is re-marketing the game to non-traditional markets.  On top of all that, the NFL has no clear plan (that they are willing to share anyway) of what the final product is supposed to look like. They just seem to be fumbling along, making it up as they go. Is making 11 defenders take the field with their hands tied behind their backs a productive alternative?

sillybamatricks
sillybamatricks

TEACH all levels of football proper tackling techniques..enforce that

sillybamatricks
sillybamatricks

omg they are turning fb into two hand touch...i mean cmon now.  helmet to helmet should be banned but let these guys hit each other.  they know the risks involved.  they are not ignorant.  if this keeps up the boys in washington will ban the game as we know it.  im tewlling you now.  flag football is coming soon.  time is running out on this great sport. ....turning our boys into wusses

JakeIker
JakeIker

We just need bionic knees, the worst injury today that seems inevitable is torn ACL's and anything linked to the knee. I suffered a torn ACL my junior and senior year of football and recently tore my meniscus. We might not be able to fix that obviously, I just wanted to bring up this problem.

RyanPettman
RyanPettman

If you play football at these levels you need to expect to get hurt...I say let them hit...or better yet...let them play...

dawnsblood
dawnsblood

You see that is where the author is wrong. We 'couch potatoes' do not have to change at all. This is really simple from our point of view. We may moan and complain when the NFL make changes but we will watch as long as it entertains us. If we are no longer entertained, very few of us will force ourselves to watch just because the game is safer for players.

The NFL has a very interesting tightrope to walk in the future. They have to make the game entertaining enough for us to keep watching yet safe enough that we are willing to let our kids play in their free feeder organizations from pee wee through college. The onus is almost entirely on the NFL. I can't wait to see if they get it right.

Samuel3
Samuel3

@aldo   

Actually, CEO's who are hired by boards who pay them with their own money spend more, on average, to hire them than when the decision is made with other people's money.  Facts are facts.  If those CEO's, just like oil company CEO's agreed to work FOR FREE the cost of the policy, like the cost of a gallon of gas, wouldn't go down by a single dime.  The government makes far more on a gallon of gas than than the entire company makes in profit by several multiples.  True fact.  Look it up.

BillRobinson
BillRobinson

Thanks for a straightforward, sensible article. Incremental change has always been a part of football and any successful enterprise. The changes I've seen so far seem reasonable to me and don't in any way limit my enjoyment of the game. If we can limit the frequency and severity of injuries and maintain the elements of the game we enjoy, why not?

Samuel3
Samuel3

I can't stand the self righteous indignation of so many people like Don Banks.  People complain about the NFL just like they complain about "greedy" insurance companies, but just as insurance companies have a lower profit margin than most other industries, the NFL is a safer work environment than so many others.  These same hypocrites complain about 200 year old slavery while turning a blind eye to slavery that exists currently in this world.  They ignore the fact that early NFL players suffered less, even with no helmets or leather helmets.  So how the heck can the league be responsible when the increase in injuries is clearly the result of bigger, faster, stronger players?  Rules and equipment have made the game more safe, while players themselves have made the game less safe and then have the audacity to sue the league because they are bigger and faster and stronger and like to smash people.  The players union is doing exactly what every other union has done, which is ruin the industry they claim to protect while lining their own pockets.  Why don't we just call it sarcastiball and give them balloons and extra points for giving people hugs?  We can brag about 100% player safety!

Having said that, the players are entertainers.  If Metallica wants to become a boy band and try selling tickets to headline a Beiber blow-a-thon, that's their choice.  I won't buy a ticket or watch the games.  They can do what they want.  The NFL will continue getting players from broken homes and the inner city and kids growing up without parents who give a crap.  Here's a news flash:  Some people like to take risks!  Go into the gym with one of these guys and tell me that they aren't risking damage with the weights they throw around.  It reminds me of this time I got kicked out of the rec center weight room at the U of I for doing supersets.  Some huge fat guy wanted to use the squat rack, which I was using in conjunction with reverse hypers to preexhaust my hamstrings and force my quads into more activation.  Apparently sitting on my arse is just fine between sets, but doing a second exercise is against the rules.  This was brought to my attention by a heart attack waiting to happen, and the pencil necked frat douche behind the counter that probably couldn't have squatted his own weight, much less benched his own weight.  At the time I was a 5'10" 210 lb chiseled block of granite.

 Kids these days are pansies, raised by pansy parents like the ones who filed a bullying complaint against the coaching staff of a school because they beat the other team by a score of 91-0.  Nevermind the fact that the team was averaging 70 pts per game, put their third string players in after halftime, and allowed the clock to run continuously to get the beating over with faster.  Oh no, those coaches are bullies.  Kids are "entitled" to victories these days, everything is somebody else's fault.  I'm suing my employer right now.  He should have foreseen me pumping my left buttcheek full of roids, becoming enraged, and smashing my head against the wall in the break room.  Now I never have to work again and I'm 34, but why should I have to work?  Work is unamerican these days.


solidbrass79
solidbrass79

Hear hear.  The article could be more powerfully stated but the basic message is sound.  Football has changed before, it will change again, and if the reason is for player safety, all to the good.  Every knucklehead defending "football as we know it" ignores the facts.  There once was a flying wedge, but the so-called "nanny state"--in the form of a Republican President still invoked in convention speeches, Teddy Roosevelt--intervened.  Once there were no helmets, then leather helmets, then hard hats with no face guard.  The sport survived.  Once there was no forward pass.  Once there were two chucks of a receiver withing ten yards of the line of scrimmage.  Certain forms of cut blocking are now disallowed.  And so on and so forth.

Frankly, as a football fan, the "way things are" leaves much to be desired.  Even before these concussion concerns came to the fore, I hated the "kill shot" mentality that has just plain ruined tacking in the NFL.  How many times have I watched DBs try to line up a decleating and allow a touchdown instead?  Drives me batty.  Launching yourself at a ballcarrier is not a good technique, because once you're committed, he can still move out of your way, and then you are out of the play.

Even without rules changes, innovation occurs.  The wishbone and veer in college.  Bill Walsh's offense in Cincinnati.  Coryell/Gibbs one-back two-tight end alignmment.  Run 'n' Shoot.  Wildcat.  Read option.  The game is a moving target.  That makes it interesting.  These last two years have been the most fascinating in my 40 year lifetime, if you ask me, because of the strategic innovation.  What's needed is two things:

a) research: on which situations cause the greatest acceleration in the head, new helmet technologies, on what causes long term health effects [are concussions more of a problem than the repeated sub-concussive impacts]?

b) creative thinking about how the game can be tweaked to reduce impacts.  

As an example: if, for instance, kill shots on receivers are a big problem, how might we reduce that?  Well, zone defense and loose man coverage set up the situation where the receiver sits down and the DB runs full speed, aiming to hit as hard as possible when the ball arrives.  What if you liberalize contact at the line of scrimmage again?  Now, the ability to bump the receiver at a sub-concussive level becomes more attractive than sitting back and pouncing.  Now bigger receivers who don't get blown up like rag dolls become more advantageous.  You get more of a scrum, less high impact hits.  Of course maybe this reduces the number of pass plays for running plays which might be damaging?  If that's the case, move to three downs--teams will run less frequently.  

The point is that with creative thinking about the rules, we can influence the game in a safer direction in many cases without doing anything to render the sport unrecognizable unless necessary.

scBlais
scBlais

Go back to the leather helmets.

msprowles
msprowles

Once again the Nanny State is taking care of us... whether we want it to or not! Granted this isn't the government pushing these changes, (yet), but the mentality that a few people that are apparently smarter than all others are acting to save all others from their own folly is insulting! Yes, by all means keep kids from full contact until college ball. Make college ball safer by neutering the sport if you must but at a professional level please leave the game alone! These are grown men making the decision to play a dangerous game for incredible amount of money! If they make the conscious decision to play the game then they know the risks and are being compensated well for them. By all means give the pros the best equipment, don't allow unsportsmanlike conduct, treat concussions carefully once they occur, don't allow HGH or other performance enhancing drugs, but let the guys play!

thebigdawg3
thebigdawg3

Why does football have to change?  Don Banks is a douche.

Iowa
Iowa

The problem is an article like this comes across as typical liberal over-reaction reacting to a few touchy-feely stories without truly thinking through the problem. Yes, football needs to change, but it doesn't need to become unrecognizable. 

Does it really need to eliminate kickoffs? A special teams coach presented a very sensible, much safer alternative to the current kickoff in a recent story on this very site-why do we have to go scorched earth and eliminate it completely? And no kidding, some lives have been 'ruined' playing the game, but how did we get to this point? Were players from the 30s & 40s committing suicide because of CTE in the 50s & 60s too? Are high school or small college players also regularly being disabled by the time they are 50? If not, then it suggests that the sport itself is not the problem, that the problems are with PRO football, not football as a whole, and there are multiple factors, whether they be the size of players, equipment, technique, field conditions, etc. And changing those things should be the objective first rather than changing the sport completely.

scwmd1
scwmd1

Sports can be exciting and extremely popular without requiring violent contact (soccer, tennis, basketball).  When kids begin playing and enjoying football most play flag or touch football.  Even in college most people that play football play flag or touch football and apparently enjoy it.  Some fans of contact football relish the violent collisions.  All fans enjoy when a player avoids significant contact and makes a long run or touchdown.  I would love for contact football to evolve over a few years into a non-contact sport.  I am tired of feeling guilt and sadness because of the unacceptable high rate of injury (including brain injury) for professional athletes and athletes from junior high through college.

jamesfryer
jamesfryer

Football players make tons of money for what they do, they know that there are risks involved, thats why they make more in a season than I will my lifetime. Let the game be!!!! You are going to get hurt from time to time. Every player knows it. Suck it up. Risk is involved. They know that walking through the door to sign the contract.

coreysuydam
coreysuydam

This article is totally absurd.  No one is being forced to play football at gunpoint.  People freely chose this sport.  The potential for injuries, both short and long term, is simply a hazard of a job that turns people into millionares after after a few years.  Why is it so hard to understand this is a risk that fans and players are fully willing to accept?

Some minor changed may be needed, but it's also necessary to draw a line in the sand and establish what CANNOT be changed.  The kickoff cannot be removed.  The game cannot be less violent.  The physical aspects can never go away.  The core elements of what makes football what it is must remain, now and forever, no matter what the risks are to those who chose to accept them.

If no one is willing to play football due to the risks, I can accept its natural death.  It's better to see its destruction then its perversion into something we can't even recognize anymore.

RandyHolbrook
RandyHolbrook

Telling us fans that we should "worry less about the rules 'ruining' the game" is a crock of shit.  How about you worrying about finding another job once the wimps officially kill the golden goose that once was NFL Football.

TJTerryJones
TJTerryJones

What a crock.  No one is going to watch flag football, and that's what they are heading for.  It's a contact sport, if you rule out the contact, football will be over.

Hawkeye15
Hawkeye15

At what point do the changes being made to save the game make it a different game than the one so many of us have loved for so long?  I have no interest in watching a 7-on-7 passing game.  I have never met anyone interested in watching the light on contact exhibition know as the Pro-Bowl.  The violence is an essential characteristic of the game.  If it is determined that there is no safe way to play American Football as we know it I don't think there is any need for fans to embrace the change.  Perhaps it would be best for football to follow in the footsteps of boxing and horse racing, two former kings, and fade away to a niche market and regional interest while another sport takes the crown.

fgoodwin
fgoodwin

@dawnsblood I disagree, I think viewers will have to change as well.  


I recently lived in Oregon.  There, kickoffs into the end zone are an automatic touchback.  No kickoffs are run out of the end zone.  As a Texan used to seeing some of those kickoffs run out, let me tell you that took some getting used to, and I still don't like it.  But I was told the rule change was made as a safety issue.  I thought it changed the basic nature of the game, but I could see why they did it.  If that change caught on, I wouldn't like it, but I would eventually get used it, all the while bemoaning what the game "used to be".  


I think the author is talking about viewers adjusting our expectations.  I agree that's a necessary part of what has to happen.

gregglyoung
gregglyoung

@Samuel3 The equipment has gotten better at protecting players but also enabled then to lead with their heads. if you do not have a helmet or you are wearing a leather one it is unlikely you would "blow up" someone with a launch into them.... look at the old films.... Yes, the athletes and their advancement has also had a huge impact...

AldoGandia
AldoGandia

@Samuel3 Insurance companies have a low profit margin because senior management makes a horrendous amount of money. Take for instance, Stephen Hemsley, CEO, UnitedHealth Group, His take for 2009: $106 million — $7.5 million in salary and benefits and $98.5 million in stock options. I could give you a long list of these corporate executivs who make tons of money and therefore siphon off profit margin for their shareholders. 

The rest of your rant is as flimsey as your insurance company analogy

msprowles
msprowles

@solidbrass79 ...and thus goes our nation. The minority is insulted or afraid so the majority must change. So much for "Land of the free"... Voluntary innovation to try something new, (i.e. Bill Walsh), fine. Forced change to take things to the least common denominator no!

RyanWI
RyanWI

@thebigdawg3 Because if football doesn't change, the government will step in and change it.  That's the simple truth of the matter.  Do you know why quarterbacks are allowed to throw the football forward?  Because in 1906, Congress threatened to outlaw the game if they didn't change the rules.  Do you know why only 7 offensive players can line up on the line of scrimmage?  Same reason.  We take these things for granted now, but they fundamentally changed football when they were introduced.  I assure you that the changes made by the NFL will be a lot better than the ones that Congress comes up with.

MatCarter1
MatCarter1

I coached youth for 7 years. Kids are dropping like fly's. Its not size its attitudes. Moms are taking over.

Blues_head
Blues_head

@jamesfryer First let me say i have been a huge football fan since the days of Johnny Unitas and Jim Brown.  What your missing is the feeder system.  College, High School, Jr High, Pee Wee these players get payed nothing, and there parents have a voice in the decision if they play or not.  If this information about head trauma becomes accepted and believed in the US like the tobacco thing has sunk in there will be no more kids playing. Schools wont touch it, if for no other reason the risk of legal (financial) liability. Where will the players come from?  Maybe we can get some illegal aliens to come play it like we do for other jobs that Americans dont want to do, but I dont think so.  If you think parents wont change their ideas, well I live in a state where you cant smoke cigarettes in a bar or a coffee shop.  If you told me 20 years ago  people would not be able to smoke cigarettes in a bar I would have said "yeah right"

RyanWI
RyanWI

@Hawkeye15 Football can both survive, and thrive in a form somewhat different from what we're used to.  I'm sure the same complaints were made about the forward pass.

msprowles
msprowles

@RyanWI @thebigdawg3 Let's quit jumping at shadows... The NFL will make changes as they must to stay viable as a business but we don't want to overreact and make changes that A) go too far or B) ruin the game. The new(ish) kickoff rule is an excellent example... how boring have kickoffs become! A once exciting part of the game neutered... let's not take that path too far.

Iowa
Iowa

@Blues_head @jamesfryer The problem is there is no proof yet that kids who play pee wee, jr. high, high school or even small college football are consistently ending up in the worst-case scenarios that a few NFL players have ended up in. That's the information parents need to be considering when they're freaking out about whether to let their kid play football. Yes, it is a violent sport-has been since the late 1800's. That hasn't stopped people before. There needs to be a line drawn between concern over the future of PRO football in its current form, and concern over football in general. Perhaps the sport just needs to return to the roots in this country, where when one participated in a sport, the object wasn't to turn pro in the sport but to play it for health and character-building benefits. And in that area, there are few sports the equal of football.

Hawkeye15
Hawkeye15

@RyanWI @Hawkeye15 Sure, it certainly can make some rule changes and survive.  I'm just saying that there is a line out there which once crossed will make it a different game all together and if the primary concern is for the safety of those playing the sport, which is a noble goal, that line might need to be crossed.  If you are going to view all helmet to helmet contact as dangerous and worthy of removal from the game you are making it difficult for line play to continue as it currently exists and you are making the meeting of a tackler and a ball carrier trying to pick up that extra yard a tricky situation to navigate.

MatCarter1
MatCarter1

Your analysis is wrong. Go to a youth game. Players are being diagnosed with concussions if the wind blows to hard. So are the doctors lying or the kids?

BearsIn2013
BearsIn2013

@Iowa @Blues_head @jamesfryer   My guess is there is no proof because no one has done a study yet.  I'll bet there will be one soon. Maybe it may not affect peewee and high school players as much because they just don't hit as hard as college and pro players, but it has to have some effect.  And most stop playing after high school so the continued trauma is not there. I allowed my son to play football through high school and watched him like a hawk for any signs.  As much as I loved watching him play, I did not fault him for not wanting to play any more.  It's been a couple years and he still limps around from a broken ankle and has pain in his knees and pain from a broken hand.  If these injuries can hang with these young kids, I'm sure brain injuries will as well. 

Iowa
Iowa

@Hawkeye15 @RyanWI I've never understood the obsession with the 'violence' of the sport, if one is referring to hits with guys spearing with their heads that leave guys knocked out on the ground. Contact, rough play, hard, clean tackles-yes, they're all in football, and that's just fine. But the kill shots are unnecessary. At the same time, yes, have little interest in 7-on-7 football. Eventually when/if people can look past their fanaticism for their favorite team, college football fans are going to realize that this is essentially what much of college football already is, just a bunch of passing clinics. It's incredibly boring, takes hardly any skill to be a college QB standing in the shot gun throwing in a spread offense against a 3-4 man rush with the rest of the D running backwards.

Newsletter