The shadow over the NFL


By Pete Zarustica

E Pluribus Unum


The National Football League is riding high.  The league has a fistful of appealing stars, TV ratings (and revenue) are through the roof and a grip on the nation’s attention on Sunday that many churches would envy.

However, there’s trouble in paradise. Medical evidence (and lawsuits) are piling up over the issue of traumatic brain injury, often caused by the concussive impacts that are part of the sport.

One study of 35 former NFL players found that 34 showed signs of brain injury. Over 4000 former players have brought cases against the NFL. The tragic death of former San Diego Chargers star Junior Seau put a face on the issue.  The potential financial cost of all of this could be devastating and could lead to many changes in the world of professional football just as the NFL is seeking to expand its brand overseas.

The league is trying to cope with the issue by imposing new penalties for using the helmet in tackles, and is researching stronger, safer helmets. But those may be entirely the wrong plays to call.

The worst head injuries appear to come as a result of the helmets and other “protective” equipment.  Wrapped up pounds of plastic and other padding, football players take risks they might not otherwise. You tend to feel invulnerable, but you’re not.

rugbyLook at American football’s British cousin, rugby, which is the grandfather of our favorite sport.  As a former rugby player myself, I can testify that it’s a violent, bloody game. If you walk off the field without a scrape or bruise, you probably aren’t doing your job.

But compared to “our” football, it’s much safer. One study ranked it below hockey, basketball, football, soccer, baseball and even swimming in terms of broken bones and joint injuries.

How can this be, since a principal difference between the two sports is that rugby players don’t wear much in the way of protective equipment? No helmets, no pads, no facemasks.

But as Dr. Lyle Micheli, a past president of the American College of Sports Medicine, points out, “the rugby player doesn’t have the same disregard for the safety of his or her head, neck and shoulders when tackling or trying to break a tackle.”

The sports, while similar, are not the same. Football is all about yardage: marching in a start-and-stop pattern toward the opponents’s goal line. Rugby is more free-flowing.  There’s no blocking in rugby (so players without the ball don’t get hit when they’re not expecting it) and tackling is done by wrapping your arms around a player’s legs rather than driving forward with your head.

So, should we dump football for rugby? Not at all.  And let’s be clear; “their” version of the sport is not without its risks: over the years 110 rugby players in Britain have been paralyzed from spinal injuries.

Instead, let’s understand that more gear isn’t the solution; it may only make the problem worse. Better helmets can mean more use of the head as a battering ram, and that way lies more injuries and more lawsuits.

If the NFL were really serious about placing safety first, it would consider stripping most of the equipment down to, say, the level of lacrosse. A lighter helmet, some shoulder pads and not much else.

That’s not likely to happen; fans and players probably would not accept such changes. But there are steps that could be taken.  Players penalized for improper use of the helmet to block or tackle get ejected and fined. Blocking from the side can be curbed or even eliminated. Blocking in the back was once legal, you know.

Platoon football contributes to the problem. Behemoths of 350 lbs. play for a few snaps and sit down. Make linemen and others play both ways and you’d have to have leaner, quicker and more circumspect players.

Sounds like a pretty radical course of action, I know. But it might be less dangerous to the sport than continuing to endure the price in pain and (most important to the NFL) treasure that’s building all the time.


Zarustica is a former sports writer who contributes to E Pluribus Unum on sports and other topics of interest.

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