It goes without saying that the recent debacle with the replacement referees will go down as a stain in NFL history.Despite the way that Roger Goodell poorly handled the contract negotiations with the regular refs–earning him the title of the most hated major sports commissioner according to a recent poll–this referee situation will be easily forgotten by football fans. I have no doubt that the integrity of this year’s playoff qualifiers and Super Bowl champion will remain intact.
Goodell and the NFL have done a lot of things right to resolve the tribulations that have come up, but I do believe that American football has a huge dilemma facing them. The concussion issue that has recently come to full fruition does not bode well for future participation by current youth and future generations. I am not going as far to say that Goodell does not care about the health and safety of his players because the NFL has responded as well as they can while keeping the business aspect of football in mind as well. The Heads Up program for youth football leagues and adding supplemental precautions for dealing with concussions on the field are great initiatives, but I just do not believe that it they are enough to convince parents to subject their kids to cumulative brain damage.
Despite the NFL being a sports and pop-culture juggernaut it is hard to foresee the sport of football continuing to be a multi-billion dollar industry unless they are able to fully address the brain trauma problem. Everyone was already aware that the sport of football was a physically brutal sport, but with recent cases like former Chicago Bears Quarterback Jim McMahon and San Diego Chargers Linebacker Junior Seau coming to light they have brought issues like dementia and severe depression into peoples’ perceptions of the game.
The question at hand is this: Can the NFL change the fundamental mechanics of the game of football to ensure safety and still maintain its popularity in the U.S. and worldwide? It is a question that is hard to answer, but there are signs that concerns with cumulative brain injuries are having an effect at the very least with youth football participation. Football concussions are a major story line, and headlines surrounding the NFL lawsuits with helmet manufacturers, crippling head injuries, and even suicides are making parents reconsider signing up their kids up for local youth football leagues. This is evident with Wisconsin and other surrounding Midwestern states’ high school football participation rates starting to decline after years of steady growth (National Sporting Goods Association).
The only counter that youth football programs can make to parents is to remind them that what they are reading and hearing about concerns the million-dollar babies that are rocketing themselves at each other, and what their children are participating in are purely developmental leagues.
I do not believe that the game of football will see immediate, detrimental effects, but it is obvious that if the game is not changed on a fundamental mechanics level the quality and quantity of kids playing is going to decline–and perhaps rapidly. Despite the measures taken by helmet manufacturers to eliminate the risk of players getting concussions the testing results released by Riddell are very damning concerning safety. With the technology today at their disposal, I just do not believe that a helmet can be made to protect players from the violent nature of the game. With that said, I predict that the game and perception in football will look dramatically different within a decade unless the medical community can formulate a standard for treatment that will ensure recovery from these traumatic brain injuries. It will be interesting to see how the NFL responds with imminent danger ahead.