This year, the NFL has repeatedly run an ad with the tagline “Football Is Family”. The ad, which starred the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski, intercuts scenes of a young boy preparing for a game with the professional player doing the same. It is warm and fuzzy and badly misleading.
The league has known for years that they are facing an existential threat. As early as 1994, the Commissioner of the league created the Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee to investigate head injuries in NFL players. And as if the name wasn’t Orwellian enough, the league put a rheumatologist in charge. Over the next few years, the NFL routinely used the committee as a front to put out misinformation that contradicted independent scientific studies, sometimes over the objections of the committee itself.
The Gronkowski ad is a frightening reminder that the NFL still wants all of us to ignore the danger football poses to its players, and by extension the young men who seek to emulate them.
The NFL is a BIG business, making tons of money and invigorating Sunday afternoons for many people, including this rabid Giants fan. (There may be some fans who cheer the horrible collisions, but they should be disregarded for being gore seekers!)
What complicates things is that those at risk on the field are also beneficiaries of the system. Players are paid very well for putting themselves at risk. In many cases, they even lift entire families out of poverty. Unsurprisingly then, many injured players claim to be okay with the risks, and it’s not for us to tell them what to do. Football players are adults who understand the risks they’re taking.
However, that is NO reason that the NFL should not protect them better.
The great irony of modern football is that the protective equipment actually increases the risk of brain injury. By now, it is very well established that helmets actually do not prevent concussions. While modern helmets do prevent injuries to the outside of the head, they do nothing to prevent the actual cause of concussions: movement of the brain within the skull. In addition, more advanced protective equipment has given many players a false sense of invulnerability, encouraging them to use their heads as battering rams.
The NFL is spending enormous sums to delay the reckoning. Meanwhile, more pros and college and school players are also getting their heads pounded into mush.
Luckily, there is a simple, though counterintuitive, approach to a solution.
In 2011, a study published in the Journal of Neurosurgery showed that old fashioned leather helmets protect their wearers from concussion at least as well as modern helmets. What the NFL should do is to find some happy medium between today’s helmets and those of the 20th Century. Softening the helmets and removing the facemasks would help keep players safe without instilling a false sense of invincibility.
Furthermore, the NFL should rewrite and clarify the rules governing head contact to enable officials to further reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury. In conjunction with improving protective gear, changing the way players actually impact one another in the line and downfield will likely have beneficial effects on the mental health of today’s football players and the generations who follow.
Those of us who love football should push as a group for this simple change that might save football from itself, so that we can go on enjoying the game as spectators.