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The End of Football? Analysts Respond to Head Injury Crisis

brain injuryThe New York Times’ recent feature on Pro Football injuries raised questions about the future of the sport in light of safety concerns about concussions and permanent brain damage, and cited several prominent “hits” the sport itself has taken over the past few days:

  • 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.

Some speculation suggested that the head injury epidemic might cause football to be marginalized as other “blood sports” of the past: one sports sociologist from the University of Colorado claim that “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, more of a niche sport followed for its brutality than a prime-time juggernaut).  Yet others argue this is sheer nonsense, pointing out that football is a multibillion-dollar business, the most popular American pastime, the economic engine driving many college sports programs, and with “popular interest in the National Football League so intense that, as just one measure, the league released next season’s schedule in a prime-time television special.”

It seems unlikely, then, than an enterprise so prominent and successful would simply vanish overnight, despite the criticism, scrutiny, lawsuits, and even deaths. As Randy Cross, a retired offensive lineman said, “Contact sports will go away when we completely roll over and go toes up as a people.”

Still there is a growing agreement among both critics and fans of the sport that football has come to historical crossroads, whether because of Pop Warner’s rule changes, the safety precautions necessary in the wake of a lawsuit brought against the N.F.L. or because of thousands of former players.

The question that remains is what, precisely, the game will look like in the years to come and “how much football can evolve while still preserving the integrity of the game.”  As Ben Shpigel points out:

“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.”

Some prominent football figures are also coming out to publicly advocate for changes in youth football, even supporting a shift to flag football as a creditable substitute for young players, where they can practice the fundamentals and learn rules in an environment where the risk of head injury would be significantly diminished.

The recent headlines suggesting that NFL players can only receive injury benefits from filing lawsuits against the NFL and helmet companies is not accurate.  Players are employees, and as such they can file workers’ compensation claims with their teams for disability income and medical benefits, which will can be a tremendous boon during the lengthy civil litigation matters.  If you are an injured player, do not hesitate in seeking legal advice from a Workers’ Compensation attorney for your workplace injuries.

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Emery Reddy