Football Faces ‘Turning Point’ on Safety Risk
By BEN SHPIGEL
Published: June 20, 2012
Bart Scott, an unapologetically violent Jets linebacker known as the Mad Backer, will not let his 7-year-old son play football.
Pop Warner, the sport’s largest youth organization, announced rule changes last week that will drastically reduce the amount of contact allowed during practice.
And in a recent appearance on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” the Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw said he believed that concern over head injuries would cause football to be eclipsed in popularity by soccer and other sports within 10 years.
Jay Coakley, a sports sociologist at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, said: “Football is really on the verge of a turning point here. We may see it in 15 years in pretty much the same place as boxing or ultimate fighting.”
In other words, less a lucrative American colossus and more a niche sport beloved for its brutality. For some, this is pure hyperbole. Football is a multibillion-dollar business, with television money fueling a booming college football scene and popular interest in the National Football Leagueso intense that, as just one measure, the league released next season’s schedule in a prime-time television special.
It is rare, then, for an enterprise that successful to simply shrivel up and disappear, no matter how harsh the scrutiny. As Randy Cross, a retired offensive lineman turned television analyst, said, “Contact sports will go away when we completely roll over and go toes up as a people.”
Still, whether it is because of the rule changes by Pop Warner, the legal precautions likely to be taken in the wake of a lawsuit brought against the N.F.L. by thousands of former players or the comments from a plain-spoken figure like Bradshaw, there is a growing sentiment among those who love the sport and those who loathe it that football has come to a critical juncture.
The question now is what exactly it will look like in the years to come and how much football can evolve while still preserving the integrity of the game.
Football is an inherently physical game with little chance of ever fully eradicating the risk of injury. But it seems to have little choice but to adapt. And in certain ways, it has.
The Ivy League last year slashed the number of full-contact practices teams can hold. The N.F.L. has stiffened penalties for hits to the head, moved kickoffs up 5 yards last season in an attempt to reduce the violent collisions that can occur on the play and in December instituted a policy requiring an independent trainer to attend each game to aid in identifying concussions.
No one disputes that more change is in the offing, but the scope of that evolution has emerged as a divisive issue.
Coakley said he agreed with Bradshaw’s assessment, adding that if more high-profile football figures speak publicly about the dangers of playing the sport, their words will give parents “cultural permission” to forbid their children to participate.
Kurt Warner, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback who sustained multiple concussions in his career, expressed ambivalence about whether he would allow his children to play football. Even the father of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady — perhaps the N.F.L.’s most prominent player — said recently that he was not sure he would have allowed his son to play when he was young if he had known the possible long-term health risks.
“Football is resting on this foundation of parental and cultural and masculinity-issued support that could be pushed to the background once people start to realize that taking the chance of brain damage isn’t worth proving that you’re a particular kind of man,” Coakley said. “We’re beginning to see the erosion of that support.”
Cross championed several changes — in equipment, in philosophy, in rules — that he said he thought would improve player safety. And he suggested expanding active N.F.L. rosters, now at 53 players. Such a move, Cross said, would offer a safeguard to teams that lose players to concussions for several weeks and give them more flexibility when replacing those who were hurt.
He also advocated flag football as a worthy substitute for young players, who can learn rules and fundamentals in a controlled environment where the risk of head injury would be significantly diminished. He deflected the concern that children who start playing late are at a disadvantage, saying that talent is the ultimate determining factor.
“I think it’s too hard of a game on the body to be played when you’re extremely young,” said Cross, who did not start playing until ninth grade. “There’s plenty of ways to get exercise without risking not only head injuries, but the accompanying orthopedic problems that come with playing football.”
The impact of football on the brain has been illuminated by studies that have connected on-field collisions to cognitive damage, as well as the presence of a degenerative disease in several players that is caused by persistent neurological trauma.
For some, however, concussion science remains inconclusive. Tim Green, a former N.F.L. defensive lineman who said he stopped counting concussions after he sustained his 10th, said he did not take lightly the dangers associated with football but wanted to see a stronger link between football and head trauma before pushing for more regulation.
“I remember 10 years ago, there was a grave concern about cellphones causing brain cancer, and honestly, I think this may be that kind of syndrome,” said Green, who is a lawyer. “It kind of makes sense. It seems like it’s scary, but when they studied it, they found no correlation. Maybe it isn’t that great of a risk. Or, if it is a risk, we’ll go into it knowingly, just like when we ride a bike or go into an automobile.”
Green favors what he called “simple and benign” changes, including an emphasis on coaching players not to lead with their heads and for linemen in particular to use their hands more. He said he might eventually support the idea that linemen would be prohibited from beginning plays with one or two hands on the ground, stances that boost their leverage against opposing players and, in turn, increase the potential for blows to the head.
A provision in the N.F.L.’s new collective bargaining agreement, which limited the number of practices conducted in pads during the regular season, followed the Ivy League’s decision last July to hold two full-contact practices every week during the season; the N.C.A.A. allows five.
At the college level, football is dealing with other matters in addition to the issue of head injuries. College football is enormously popular, but the huge amounts of television money involved with the sport have driven a recent frenzy of conference realignment that has struck some observers as deeply cynical. There have also been a number of scandals in recent years, including the sexual abuse case at Penn State, prompting criticism that some football programs had become more powerful than the universities they were connected with.
When it came to player safety, Tom Beckett, Yale’s athletic director, said he could envision other conferences taking “a hard look” at limiting the contact in high-collision sports. He did not anticipate colleges dropping football for that reason, however.
“It was proven to us that this was a procedure, a step, that would mitigate some of the issues associated with full contact,” Beckett said. “We took that step, and we’re pleased that we did so.”
The Ivy League’s decision did not surprise Gary Fencik, a former Chicago Bears safety who, while watching practice at Yale, his alma mater, two summers ago, was struck by the amount of contact. Fencik was a Bears teammate of Dave Duerson, who, before killing himself in February 2011 with a gunshot to the chest, sent text messages to his family requesting that his brain be examined for damage.
Fencik called Duerson’s death “a game-changer” in how he viewed the issue.
“I’m asking my former teammates, ‘How many concussions do you remember having?’ and it’s no longer a joke,” said Fencik, who was knocked out of a game with a concussion after colliding with Earl Campbell and estimated that he sustained several more during his 12 years in the N.F.L. “It’s really a serious discussion and a secret fear that I think all of us feel. We’ve accepted the knees and the other ailments, but we really never thought about the deterioration of your brains as a result of concussions in football.”
Coakley, the sports sociologist, said he was curious whether a lawsuit filed by more than 2,000 former players against the N.F.L. and the helmet manufacturer Riddell alleging that they intentionally concealed information about the dangers of head trauma would be settled. If the suit goes to trial, he predicted, data that would be made public would prompt some parents to not allow their children to play football.
Michael McCann, the director of the Sports Law Institute at Vermont Law School, said the lawsuit could develop into a publicity nightmare for the N.F.L. if it went to trial, but that the league would be “insulated” from future litigation because of the increased awareness of concussion science. That understanding has, in turn, produced a greater potential for liability, but McCann projected that football would respond through contract law.
Entities from Pop Warner to high school could require parents to sign waivers preventing officials or the league itself from being sued. At the professional level, McCann said, standard player contracts could expressly preclude litigation over concussions or long-term neurological harm.
“If somebody in 1940 smokes a cigarette, that person had a much better claim against the tobacco industry for lung cancer than if you or I or anyone smokes a cigarette today,” McCann said. “We know that we’re assuming the risk.”
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 21, 2012
An earlier version of this article misstated the institution where Michael McCann serves as the director of the Sports Law Institute. It is Vermont Law School, not the University of Vermont.