December 7, 2022
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Football and Concussions: Popularity and Concern Coming to a Head

This year the National Football League got likely their most ideal conference championship and Super Bowl weekends possible.  While the Denver Broncos’ defeat of the New England Patriots plotted two all-time great quarterbacks, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady, against each other in a high-stakes AFC game, the NFC championship featured rising stars Russell Wilson versus Collin Kaepernick, as the Seattle Seahawks fought off the San Francisco ‘49ers.

And now the league’s best offense matches up against the league’s best defense in Super Bowl XLVIII.  From a marketing and excitement perspective, the NFL couldn’t have asked for better.

Yet a mounting undercurrent of concern about the physical impact of the game is rapidly rising to the surface.  After the NFL was able to reach a deal with thousands of players who had brought a class-action suit against the league, accusing the league of hiding the effects of concussions while profiting from the violent nature of the sport, a U.S. District judge rejected the settlement amount, “fearing the sum may not be enough to cover injured players.”

While the initial $765 million number does seem large, it drastically less than the original amount pursued by players, and only 0.5 percent of the league’s annual revenue.  The settlement also included no admission of liability or fault in the matter by the league.  Essentially, the NFL had, to much criticism (including mine), gotten away scot-free.  But the rejection of the deal by Judge Anita Brody forces the sides to reexamine the settlement to make sure it is fair and sufficient for the players.

And now President Obama, in an interview recently published by The New Yorker, said definitively that if he had a son, he wouldn’t let him play football because of his concern over concussions.  The President compared football to smoking, in that the participants know what they’re getting into, but he wouldn’t want his son involved.  I would additionally add that in both cases, individuals more often than not didn’t know what they were getting into.  Just as the tobacco industry frequently did their best to mislead the public, the NFL has never exactly been forthright about the detrimental long-term health effects of football.

So it is fascinating to predict how the contradictions of ever-soaring commercial appeal and increasing public safety concerns will be reckoned.  The league has spent as much time (if not more) covering its tracks, as it had actually trying to make the game safer.

Unlike the aforementioned tobacco parallel, there are far fewer individuals affected by the health effects of playing football.  Furthermore, there are many more people (see: fans) who have rooted interests in the continued success of this institution, as well as league officials, media outlets and advertisers who have a vested financial stake in the health and growth of the league.  Crucially, the health of the league hasn’t been synonymous with the health of current and former players.

Inevitably, the NFL will continue to implement changes, as it has throughout its existence, to protect players while preserving football’s popular appeal.  But when does it reach a tipping point at which safety changes diminish the game’s entertainment value, to which the game’s violent nature is inherent.  Will the public willingly turn its back to the game first because of concerns about its effects on players, or because they find it less entertaining after too many changes?

Yet again, how could they with such bubbling rivalries and rising, dynamic superstars like Wilson and Kaepernick?  Will the value of entertainment for fans ever be surpassed by the value of the lives of football players?  As much as public awareness regarding safety has recently grown, the NFL’s popularity and financial revenue has seemingly continued to boom just as much.