Safety is vital, but players have a choice in 'risk/reward' scenario

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By Eric Nahlin, Inside Texas Recruiting Editor
Posted Jul 29, 2013
Copyright © 2014 InsideTexas.com


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“If you throw at someone’s head, it’s very dangerous, because in the head is the brain.” – Ivan Rodriguez.

Being the diligent guy I am, I did some extensive research and come to find out, this is in fact true. Thanks, Pudge.

Concussions in football are already a hot topic and have been for quite some time. New York Jets stalwart Al Toon’s chronic headaches being reported in the early 90’s are my first recollection of the severity of concussions being discussed in football. Since then, concussions have ended the career of many of the game’s greats, including my favorite quarterback of all-time, Steve Young.

The Young hit, at the hands of Cardinals great Aeneas Williams, was a vicious collision that today would be flagged. As a Niners fan, I was watching the game live. I remember being fearful for Young, while thinking the hit was legal because Williams didn’t lead with the crown of his helmet or launch himself.

But just tackling at someone’s head, it’s very dangerous, because in the head is the brain.

Helmet to helmet rules were later installed in order to protect defenseless players. But, football is violent, and concussions take their toll on even the most defensive players, as the Junior Seau tragedy illustrated.

Recently I attended the Big 12 Media Days where Walt Anderson, head of Big 12 officiating and himself a NFL head referee, made a statement that has long concerned me, “We need to change the rules to protect the players or we’ll have someone change them for us.”

The part about changing the rules doesn’t concern me too much, yet, but the prospect of having the government step in and legislate does.

To date politicians have stayed mostly out of the spotlight on the topic. In an interview before the Super Bowl, President Barack Obama said all the right things about players being compensated well and taking accountability for themselves. 

Politicians on all sides are populists by nature, though, so if public sentiment ever shifts towards extreme safety measures, rather than practical measures meant to keep the game looking similar to years past, then you may see more involvement. 

Noted writer Malcolm Gladwell recently re-iterated his stance that football is no different than dog-fighting. I’ll never support an argument that removes accountability from the person, so this is a non-starter for me. But, I’m just one person and I’d be willing to bet there are a lot of people that either agree with Gladwell, or take what he says at face value. 

Here’s the link, with the tip of the camp to Horns Up in St. Louis from the 'Ryan Swope' thread.

A better case to make, in my opinion, would be smoking. Smokers decide to start smoking often times because a parent, relative or friend does. Children or young men often start playing football for the same reason, though I’m well aware of some over-bearing parents pushing their children in that direction. Smokers decide to continue smoking, and at some point, removed from parental oversight, football players decide the same. Smokers can quit at any time, though it is very addictive and difficult to do so. The same case can be made for football players as the sport they love becomes a way of life.

Smokers quit all the time, so it’s not only possible, but common, and as former Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope recently proved, you can give up football before the payday and, hopefully for him, long term effects set in.

Both have been glamorized to great degrees, though smoking much less so as we move further away from the old black and white movies that made the image iconic and sexy.

I recall asking older people who grew up in that era why they smoked and I often received similar answers, “Everyone smoked because we didn’t know how bad it was for us like you kids now. And it was considered ‘cool.'”

Wait, you thought inhaling smoke into your lungs would not pose serious health risks? I would often respond that many victims in fires die of smoke inhalation, rather than the actual fire. 

The same approach applies to football. The number one indication that it’s an obviously dangerous sport is you have to wear a helmet. Tennis players don’t wear helmets. Golfers don’t either. People that race at a high rate of speed do, and it’s not uncommon when one of those sports takes a participants life. 

The helmet is required for a reason, because in the head is the brain.

Just as I feel terrible for people stricken with lung cancer caused by years of smoking, I feel terrible for athletes experiencing the long term concussive effects of their job, especially in light of the immense entertainment value the fan receives in the process.

The million dollar question, quite literally for the NFL, is where will the topic go from here?

If government stepping in isn’t a concern, and as of now it appears it has no intentions of doing so, litigation is. Currently the NFL is being sued by 4,000 former players in a class action lawsuit of sorts. You can make the analogy again that the smoker is the football player, and in this example, the NFL is Big Tobacco, right down to the case being based on the suppression of information linking the effects of the activity to long-term health risks. 

Whatever happens in this still pending case will have positive effects towards remedying the epidemic, but for the NFL, at what price? The Shield will have to strike a balance between player safety, and keeping its product fast and violent. In years to come, I believe that will be a more difficult balance to strike.

I agree with making the head off limits to defenseless players, and the more I look into the subject, the more I think I’m getting on board with the ejection element of the new NCAA rule, provided it’s implemented somewhat fairly (human error will render 100% accuracy impossible). This will make defenders more timid, to be sure, but it should also make them realize, at least over time, that the strike zone becomes more similar to baseball’s by the day.

If the powers that be in the NFL or NCAA take any more measures than what they currently have, I fear the game that’s become our national pastime, will become past-time. 

At this point the excuse ‘players don’t know the negative effects of football’ are moot, in my opinion, and it’s their choice if they want to play. Much of life is asking the risk-reward question. For these men the rewards are much greater than most of us will ever experience, but unfortunately, save for our military, police and firemen, so too are the risks. 

I’d be interested in your thoughts on this wide ranging topic.

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