Why a Wussed-Out NFL Won’t Suck

The future of football depends on restricting player collisions without somehow dissolving the physicality of the game.

Something about Dave Duerson’s behavior bothered his family.

In the days before it all happened, he exhibited short-term memory loss and suffered sharp headaches, both indicators of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This poorly understood neurodegenerative disease has plagued several other NFL retirees. It’s made headlines for the past decade and burdened families for who knows how much longer. Duerson, the former Chicago Bears safety, knew all of this. Maybe he was crippled by the fear of ending up like a growing number of his colleagues: aloof and dependent.

“Please see that my brain is given to the NFL’s brain bank”: Duerson’s last words to his family—and the world.

All it took was one split second. He was with us and then he wasn’t.

In pro football, what can happen in a single moment—a helmet catch, a tuck, or an immaculate reception—often alters the course of a game or a season and even redefines the limits of possibility. Everyone from Jon Gruden to your grandpa seems to relish in pinpointing a half-second of play and saying, “Here’s where everything changed.” Years from now, NFL historians might conclude that the watershed moment in the retired professional football players’ battle against head trauma occurred on February 17, 2011, when Dave Duerson shot himself in the chest.

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We love football because it requires a unique combination of skill, strategy, and physicality. No other sport successfully combines hits with heavy thinking and reflexive decisions (chess boxers may beg to differ). Football players are, at least to some degree, conscious of the dangers they expose their bodies to. Football players have been compared to Roman gladiators since the 19th century.

But there are common injuries, and then there’s head trauma.

Despite rapid progress in sports medicine, head injuries remain puzzling. Though it would have been unthinkable a generation ago, Tom Brady—thanks to advances in surgical methods—returned to the field in All-Star form just months after blowing out his knee. The idea of surgeons piecing back together the neuronal circuitry of a CTE patient, though, is still purely science fiction. When you’re talking about brain damage, prevention is not only the best option, it’s the only option.

For its part, the league has taken some important steps toward preventing concussions among its players. Unfortunately, however, the new guidelines do little to lower the incidence of CTE. One of the most revealing discoveries about CTE is that it seems to correlate most with the number of hits a player suffers, rather than the intensity.

The NFL might be taking steps to cut down on helmet-to-helmet collisions, but that won’t lessen the impact of CTE. In order to get serious about preventing CTE, the league would have to fundamentally change some rules, rather than merely mandate that the current rules be enforced differently.

What’s scary is the flawed notion that CTE is a natural consequence of playing football that can’t be removed without mutilating America’s game. Former Giants running back (and current free agent) Tiki Barber went so far as to say that he views CTE as a “necessary side effect of contact activity” and expects to die with elements of CTE in his brain.

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By resisting change, you’re sending the message that success on the football field requires a disregard for one’s post-playing life. That’s just unsustainable and, eventually, it’ll harm the game—if it hasn’t already.

Fans, too, are resistant to change. We don’t want the game toned down, despite all the evidence that says something has to change.

When the league introduced new guidelines for fining dangerous hits, some fans donated money to pay for players’ fines. Blue-collar workers willfully handed over money to millionaire professional athletes. A Philadelphia Eagles–Minnesota Vikings game that was postponed in December due to weather safety concerns prompted Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell to complain about our country becoming a “nation of wusses.” Citizens out of public office tended to use stronger language.

Those opposed to change say that blocking and tackling are essential components of the game. Many fans are scared the game will change so much that they won’t be able to recognize it. Athletes sign up to play because they get to give and take hits! Eliminating the three-point stance? No way.

But the game has advanced so much from the days of the single wing. NFL fans in the leather-helmet days would have a hard time recognizing today’s game. There are so many new rules and new formations, not to mention instant replay and all the modern equipment.

By resisting change, you’re sending the message that success on the football field requires a disregard for one’s post-playing life. That’s just unsustainable and, eventually, it’ll harm the game—if it hasn’t already.

For starters, does anyone really win when the endgame is something like Duerson’s? Can we really watch a game knowing that what we’re seeing might one day lead one of these players to suicide or a mentally deficient retired life? Even if only a handful of the players suffer a fate similar to Duerson’s, what does that say about us, the ones who watched it happen?

Yes, the violence is one of the main reasons football fills the bleachers. Legendary coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Dancing is a contact sport … football is a collision sport.” Fans threaten to stop watching if hits are eliminated from football.

Consider boxing. Once by far the most popular combat sport in the nation, its viewership has rapidly declined in the face of competition from various MMA organizations. Spectators flee the more traditional combat sport in favor of full-contact fighting with less restrictive rules. If the NFL limits violence, could we see a resurgent XFL? (Don’t laugh. OK, go ahead and laugh.)

But if nothing’s done about head injuries, the NFL could end up looking like the MLB, where steroid stories loom like dark clouds over almost everything that happens on the diamond. If you’re an NFL executive, aspiring player, or just a fan, neither scenario is appealing. The future of football depends on restricting player collisions without somehow dissolving the physicality of the game.

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If you’re concerned about us becoming a nation of wusses, consider this: as the rules of hitting become more stringent, the tackles and blocks should become more sophisticated. Just as bone-crushing hits didn’t constantly happen until football became faster and more spread out, a further evolved game could yield a new kind of intense defense. In other words, the hits won’t necessarily be any less entertaining, just different.

Don’t believe me? Watch Ndamukong Suh toss Colt McCoy like a Beanie Baby and tell me that wasn’t just as fun as any helmet-crunching collision you’ve seen. Shoestring tackles can be just as exciting. The number of jarring hits doesn’t define tough defense. With new rules, dominant defenses will still have a place. They’ll just have to evolve.

Whatever happens with the rulebook, football will continue to evolve, as it always has. Even Troy Polamalu, the symbol of aggressive defense, shares this sentiment, saying, “This game’s on the verge of getting out of hand.” Throughout the years, the skills and strategies demanded by the game have progressed. For the sake of the NFL’s players, it’s time to let the collisions do the same.

—Photo AP

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Comments

  1. Sorry, not buying it.

    You’re trying to take the most successful professional sports league in America—one that is totally predicated on violence—and take most of the violence out. It just won’t work. I want to see the bone-crushing hits. I like them. Ideally no one would suffer harmful injuries, but we all know that’s not going to be the case. Luckily that’s why these players make MILLIONS of dollars, so they can afford to deal with the consequences. Consequences, I might add, they’re fully aware of going into their playing days.

    You talk about football evolving, but it’s going in the wrong direction. Look at the pass interference penalties. Ever since Colts owner Bill Polian whined incessantly about the Patriots man-handling his receivers a few years ago, now you can’t even breathe on a guy during a play without it raining yellow. That’s not a positive step, it’s indicative of where we’ll go if we keep wussing the game down.

    Shoestring tackles are nice, but they are NOT as entertaining as a bone-crushing hit. And please tell me how blocking is supposed to evolve. There’s already holding on every play, you can’t chop-block and blocking is pretty fundamental. Not much you can do to spice it up.

    I think one of the big things that can (and is hopefully) be done is to negotiate in this upcoming CBA an increased amount of money for former players. I’m all for that. These guys make the big money by putting their well-being at risk, and I’m all for paying former players more to deal with lingering issues.

    But leave the game alone.

    • Countdown to when the MRAs start in about male expendability in 3…2…1…

      Oh wait, there isn’t a feminist to blame… nevermind.

  2. Carl Jackson says:

    Throughout the course of its history football has evolved for safety-reasons (Theodore Roosevelt once threatened to make the game illegal after multiple on-field deaths in the early 20th century), equipment-reasons (many argue that the game was safer in the pre-facemask era because the lack of facemask discouraged players from leading hits with their heads), and other reasons (changes to rules like adding the two-point conversion or changing the enforcement of pass interference designed to add excitement). Frequent concussions and CTE will be a new set of factors that cause the game to evolve.

    The big questions is how the league will work to solve the problem. Arbitrarily fining for helmet-to-helmet hits is at best a Band Aid on cancer and at worst a transparent, cosmetic solution that may actually make the problem worse.

    Blaming severe helmet-to-helmet hits frames the problem as an issue of protecting the Tom Brady’s or Aaron Rodgers’ of the league. In that light the argument that these guys get paid millions of dollars and can afford to deal with the health risks is perfectly valid. The problem is there are plenty of players who aren’t millionaires, who play for the minimum. While the league minimum is still a substantial sum, it is important to remember that league-minimum NFL contracts are non-guaranteed, so these guys bubble-guys toil on the line between the practice squad and the 45th man on the roster, all the while racking up the countless, lower-trauma practice hits that are the actual cause of CTE.

    Remember, its the quantity and repetition of these head traumas that is doing the real damage, not the severity. While James Harrison leading with his helmet to clock a running back might do more damage in isolation, the real danger lies with the offensive lineman who leads with his head blocking on every down, or the tight end who is forced to lead with his crown blocking blitzing linebackers and safeties hundreds of times per week.

    By singling out players like Harrison, the NFL blames the problem on “out-of-control” play by, generally, big name players. The inherent assumption there is that if the players would just play within the rules, this wouldn’t be a problem. This does a huge disservice to the general public’s understanding of the problem, as perfectly legal plays that occur on every down can do a lot more damage. Instead of blaming the players for playing in a style the league has encouraged, fundamental changes to the way the game is played, or the players are protected needs to take place. By acting like they’re solving the problem when in fact they’re making things worse, the NFL is only serving to do more harm to its players.

    With the NFL’s repeated insistence on putting the product over player safety, harming its players is something the league is familiar with.

    • Great point about linemen. And totally true. I can only imagine being one of those huge guys in the trenches, taking a Dwight Freeney upper-cut swim move to the noggin every play, and then shaking my head when my own helmet happens to come within a foot of a prominent quarterback. If the NFL is dead set on protecting players it has to be ALL the players, and not just the marquee names.

  3. Basil Kahwash says:

    Daddy Files,

    All valid points. Your first argument is one that I hear quite often. To that I would say that the NFL didn’t get to be the most successful league in America (and arguably the world) by dismissing all calls for change. You might recall that instant replay was introduced twice, once in 1987 and again in 1999, both times to the chagrin of devoted fans who didn’t want the game touched. While fans weren’t ready for the new technology in the late 80’s, very few people today would question that its long-term success as a part of football, as evidenced by all the other sports lining up to adopt instant replay technology (soccer being a notable holdout). Additionally, if it were just a matter of having enough money to “deal with the consequences” then clearly these guys are set. Unfortunately, those consequences are far more complicated and devastating than the current crop of players knew before they first set their sights on careers in football, and treatment simply does not exist.

    As for your point about pass interference penalties, I actually agree completely. Those rule changes had very little to do with player safety though, and probably have no effect on the incidence of CTE.

    There are a number of proposals for how blocking might evolve, one of which I alluded to in the article, namely eliminating the three-point stance in favor of an upright form of some sort. I haven’t decided which specific rule changes I would support but plenty of ideas are out there and I’m sure more will be floated soon. Carl makes some outstanding points about the often overlooked danger of linemen repeatedly leading with their heads to block or tackle.

    I predict this issue will gain even more attention and certainly become more controversial in the next few years. My hope is that the league will do something about it before NFL players are called into hearings by Congress.

  4. You can eliminate the 3-point stance (Bill Belichick and other copycat coaches routinely throw a shitload of linebackers out there who wander around upright until the ball is snapped to disguise coverage), but that doesn’t change the fact that collisions are imminent as soon as play begins.

    But things like spearing and launching are already outlawed. There’s the fair catch rule. You can’t touch a receiver until he touches the ball. I understand the game is different now. Guys are juiced up, stronger than ever and the hits are downright scary (and titillating, I admit) to watch. And I agree with you that the NFL should do everything that makes sense to mitigate injuries. But you can’t nix collisions.

    I know PI rule changes don’t have anything to do with player safety, but neither does instant replay. And instant replay doesn’t wuss down the game, it simply makes the calls on the field more accurate and fair.

    I just hope they make up their minds because the indiscriminate fines are not cutting it. They’re far too arbitrary and leave players more confused about what is and isn’t acceptable than ever.

  5. Roger Goodell says:

    My Rules suck and will run millions of fans away from the NFL but I don’t care about Fans we own the Fans they can kiss my butt The NFL stands by its Powder-Puff Football Rules… You don’t like it then don’t watch or go to NFL games. Don’t buy NFL products we plan on making even more girly rules so get use to it or don’t have anything to do with MY NFL.

    Roger Goodell

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