Crunch Course Correction

January 9, 2015

crunchcourseWhen I was a kid, I used to get a subscription to Sports Illustrated as a Christmas gift every year. With it came a free VHS tape, such as “NFL Crunch Course,” a compilation of the most violent football hits from previous years. It became a bit of a tradition for some family members to turn our attention to that video as soon as all the presents were unwrapped. For the next hour, we’d “ooh and aah” and occasionally cringe as we watched players got absolutely clobbered.

NFL Films had the good sense not to include any significant injuries, or so we thought. There were no broken bones or torn ligaments — just a bunch of guys “getting their bells rung,” as announcers used to say.

Times have certainly changed. It used to be a relief when an injured player was diagnosed with a concussion. You knew he’d be right back in the game. Now we understand that concussions have the potential to be far more serious than any broken bones.

As the effects of head injuries are becoming clear, they’re impacting the game at all levels. Participation numbers are down significantly at the youth level. There are billion-dollar lawsuits from former players against the NFL. The league has changed the rules to limit injuries, and many of the brutal hits that were once celebrated are now penalized. You no longer see NFL Films videos or ESPN’s weekly “Jacked Up” segments glorifying the violent aspects of the game. And some people are even questioning whether football will even exist 25 years from now.

I happen to think that notion is crazy. There’s too much money at stake — for players, owners, networks, sponsors and others. And no matter how much negative publicity swirls around the NFL, the ratings and fan interest just seem to go up. I believe the only way that will change is if the rules of the game change too drastically in the name of safety. There’s only so far you can go without turning it into flag football.

As a fan, I’m torn. I hate that players get penalized for accidentally brushing a quarterback’s helmet. But I’m not a barbarian, either. I don’t want to see guys with memory loss, dementia and depression.

So where do we go from here? Ultimately, I believe the NFL must continue to be progressive when it comes to equipment innovations, medical care and health benefits, but the fundamentals of tackle football simply cannot be altered any more than they already have. It is an inherently dangerous game.

There are many risky jobs — Alaskan crab fishermen, loggers, bull fighters, Hollywood stuntmen, race-car drivers. What makes professional football any different than those occupations, other than the fact that it pays far better?

The NFL should do the right thing and take care of retired players who weren’t educated about concussions and are now suffering. But now we know. And going forward, the players should take full responsibility for the danger that comes with making the NFL a career.

As long as they continue to play, I’ll continue to watch. I hope that doesn’t make me a bad person.