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.
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.
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.
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.