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.