How much should we care about football injuries?

After talking with my friends Sarah and Ian and reading this article, (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2011/01/31/110131fa_fact_mcgrath), I have something to say about the topic of injuries in the NFL…

I remember last season, watching Brian Westbrook lay motionless on the field after his second severe concussion of the season, wondering, am I going to witness someone dying because of this game.  Maybe paralysis?  I seriously wondered whether I was watching a career ending injury.  Luckily, Westbrook is up an running again for the 49ers, but events like this have become way too common.

It’s scary and it’s reality.  It’s reality for every NFL player, past and present.  It’s something that science is still grappling with.  It’s something that viewers like myself can’t and won’t respond to and realize until we witness the severity of it with our own eyes.  But does that mean that we should change something, and if so, what should we change.

There are a few options.  First, you could change the game itself, to prevent head injuries better.  This could mean more rules like the 2010 rules against helmet to helmet hits and other such behavior.  Giving penalties and fines to deter that behavior.  The NFL could require more protection, better research for more protective helmets and pads.  

Second, you could change the compensation scheme, build in a post-career health insurance policy to deal with the ailments that develop long after players retire.  Head injuries can lead to a bigger chance of dementia and other such diseases.  Players who have long since retired deal with these on a daily basis with little or no help from the NFL.

Third, you could change the contracts to fully disclose these risks, so that players are essentially making a fully informed decision when they choose football as a career.

Or last but not least, we could do away with football all together.

As for option 1, we’ve tried that.  Eventually, the game will become so unrecognizable as a contact sport it will look more like basketball or baseball as opposed to a sport that allows such contact.

As for option 2, I would argue that the compensation scheme IS already accounting for these injuries.  Maybe not for players from the 50’s and 60’s, but after that, football players have had grossly large paychecks.  This is to compensate for the risk involved in the career choice.  I talked about this a bit with Sarah and she argues that people who join the military get treatment for PTSD and other such disorders after they have served.  I countered that they are serving a very important function in society and not just entertainment.  That we HAVE to value what they do over what football players do.  Plus, many people enlist because it is the only way for them to make ends meet, to go to college, etc..  Sarah argued that people play football in order to go to college too.  But we are talking about a college career v. an NFL career.  People play in the NFL because of the money and the fame and because they’re good at it.  They could easily CHOOSE not to if they feel that the risks are too high.

As for option 3, the lawyer in me really leans toward this.  Just like cigarette warnings, etc…, this just ensures that players are making informed decisions before they engage in dangerous activity.  The only problem with this is that the science is still not developed enough to be sure that we aren’t still under-informing.  The research and science needs to be more developed first.

And as for option 4, well that’s not an option.  Football is something that our country loves to watch.  Perhaps getting the science out about injuries and long-lasting effects on the players will deter people from watching.  Maybe it will prompt change.  Since football isn’t going anywhere, the best thing we could do is improve it while it’s still around.

I heard that a running back who rushes a few yards on a third down against a strong defensive line and collides, 20 carries a game is the equivalent of getting into 20 minor fender benders.  The cumulative effect is astonishing.  The strain on the muscles, the back, neck, head and brain become so serious hit after hit.  Imagine getting into 200 minor car crashes in a period of six months.  No one would wish that upon themselves, their children, their spouse.  However, what if someone paid you millions of dollars to do it.  What if the science wasn’t 100 percent but there was a chance that you would sustain career ending and potentially life-ending injuries because of it.  Would you consider doing it for a year?  What about five years?  What if you felt totally fine.  Now the science says you will feel ok, until it hits a break point where, like a crack in a dam, all the consequences come flooding through at once.  Would you keep going?  What if you got a raise?  What if it could buy your family a house, put your kids through college.  What if it got you on the cover of Sports Illustrated.  What if you became a great role model for young athletes.  What if you gave back to the community?  Would you justify it?  What would it take for you to quit?  And at that point, would it be too late?

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