Part two in a series.
Earlier this week NFL Hall of Famer Dan Marino found himself embroiled in a bit of confusion regarding whether he was or wasn't joining a lawsuit against the league. Turns out he isn't after all, but the story served to remind us all of the huge dark cloud hanging over the NFL, and anyone who thinks last year's $765M settlement was the end of the drama is, to put it mildly, a glass-half-full optimist.
Pass the popcorn, kids. This show is just getting started.
Yes, the lawyers are coming, and football will be forced to change in ways that undercut its essential appeal. Did someone say "litigation"?
The concussion issue has become part of the NFL story of late, with more than 3,000 former players suing the league on allegations that officials withheld information about the dangers of head injuries. Players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a degenerative brain disease that can result in dementia -- attribute their condition to repeated head injuries sustained on the field. Concussions and CTE also have been brought up as possible factors in the suicides of former players, including Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson.
Some analysts believe the eventual number of litigants could rise above 5,000. Ballpark estimates of the damages? Maybe $10 billion?
Understand - this number is increasing every week. Who knows how many active players will wind up filing suit once they retire?
The league is certainly paying attention (or at least, it's making a show of pretending to do so - their unconscionable behavior in the 2012 referee lockout might cause us to question the depth of their commitment to player safety). There is some controversy over the findings, but the league has sponsored research on equipment safety (although it's still allowing players to use less safe helmets if they choose). They have also enacted a number of rules changes to promote player safety, including:
- no hits on defenseless players
- no leading with the helmet
- kickoffs moved up to dramatically reduce return opportunities, which result in very high risk of injury
- and, of course, the gods help you if you hit a quarterback late or low or with your helmet
Rumor now has it that they're even talking about scaling back on the body armor, abandoning hardshell helmets for leather or perhaps the sorts of padded gear that you find in rugby. The theory is that current helmets often cause injuries because players use them as weapons, leading with their heads in ways they never would otherwise.
This is an especially sticky issue for the sport. First, the fans are concerned. ESPN again:
In the survey, about 94 percent of NFL fans said they feel that concussions are a serious problem in the NFL. For some, it even affects the way they enjoy the game, with about 18 percent saying the concussion debate has made them less likely to follow football or watch it on television.
Second, it's fair to wonder if you can make football "safe" without "ruining" it. Yes, you can develop better equipment. However, at the same time, players are constantly getting bigger, stronger and faster. It isn't even remotely clear that it's possible to evolve equipment that can keep up with the escalating violence inherent in player development.
Finally, let's understand the appeal of the game. Scoring is fun, we love spectacular catches and breakaway touchdown gallops, but at its core football is about hitting. It's about violence. It's about knocking the other guy on his ass, and in some cases the culture promotes the idea of causing injuries.
Think about the squawling we hear each time the league adopts a new safety rule.
"It's definitely changing the game," [Ed] Reed said about the NFL's policy to protect players, via ESPN.com. "It's become an offensive league. They want more points. They want the physical play out of it, kind of. They want like powder-puff to where you can just run around and score points cause that's going to attract the fans. I understand you want to make money, but bending the rules and making the game different, you know, it's only going to make the game worse."
Those who run and market football leagues, whether we're talking about the NFL or one of the lower professional leagues NCAA, really are up against it. On the one hand, they have to make the game safer, which functionally means they have to get some of the violence out of it. On the other hand, taking out the violence makes it inherently less marketable.
And all the while they have to fight off litigation from former players, deal with the public perception that causes the public to tune out and consider the possibility that in a generation or so they're going to have a substantially smaller talent pool to draw on (and a culture generally that has spent a generation moving football further toward the periphery).
Not a pretty picture. Business is booming right now, but there are extremely dark clouds on the horizon.
Next: Soccer is already blowing up in America