The NFL Dilemma

Almost all major contact sport is full of issues surrounding injury and the toll that it takes on the body. Playing association football with friends weekly takes its toll, without the proper rehabilitation and fitness of a top-tier sportsperson and the lack of constant stretching and working on the muscles will bring on aches and pains. I know this from my own experience – playing fives every week has ruined my knees for good, and a childhood of playing football for hours a day every single day certainly didn’t help. It is an issue facing almost all major sports in the 21st century – from the kids picking a ball up for the first time to the players who have long since left the game the ramifications of injury rear their head every single time you play, from a small sprain to even a death.

The NFL is one of the worst examples of injury, the conflicts that it causes the moneymakers, and the conflicts that can be caused for a fan. As time goes on, I realise that the three sports I most commonly like to watch, ice hockey, rugby and football, are among the worst for the consequences of repeated injury to all parts of the body, but one in particular is causing a lot more pause each passing day – injuries to the head.

There is a part of the equation that is sometimes forgotten, and that is a simple theory that means a lot. It’s called risk compensation, and it’s a theory that pervades almost all parts of our life. It has been studied at length in industry where repeat injuries are common place due to work practices that were causing injury. I was on a training course once as part of a job of work and an example of one such event that serves to illustrate the power of risk compensation was given. Offshore heavy lifting is limited to 20kg - anything heavier required a hoist or small manual crane. The issue with that is that a 20kg limit is for everyone, which mean people lifting all the time were constantly pulling heavy weights, and fatigue injuries and strains were reported to be increasing. To combat this the operator instated the requirement to wear a lifting belt – it would give more support to the back when lifting. The weight limit wasn’t touched, still set at 20kg but the injuries increased within the work force, which puzzled the safety and health advisors. The answer was simple – when someone wears a lifting belt they think they can lift more, and ignore the limit. This was attributed to compensation. 

The idea is a simple one and an intuitive one – everyone has an inbuilt sense of risk. This is a level that is defined as a hard limit. We won’t risk anything above it, and will risk below it. It depends on the situation on the exact risk level, but it is actually quite fluid when safety factors are brought in. Research suggests that if an item is brought in to reduce risk we will “correct” that risk imbalance by then taking slightly higher risks. Take speeding in a car – the introduction of so many safety features have actually caused drivers to drive faster, increasing the numbers of collisions. On the road, drivers have been shown to act more aggressively to cyclists wearing helmets, a slightly different risk compensation. 

And since the introduction of compulsory helmets in the NHL hits have become harder. This is also true of the NFL.

This has led to the reduction in overall impact injuries, but has increased the levels of low-level concussions, which are now considered to be cumulatively worse than incidental high-level concussions. Loads and loads of small concussions cause more damage over a longer period of time and are far more damaging to the brain. It is harder and harder to avoid the issue – the NFL causes head injuries by the very nature of the game. In a recent paper published just last year 87 NFL players tested out of 91 players have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE – that’s 96% examined have it. This equates to 79% of all players that they have tested. The injury and disease is attributed to instances of lack of focus, depression and dementia. This isn’t a new scandal either, as consussions have been a part of football for decades.

Even a Hollywood movie was released this year with Will Smith playing a doctor who independently discovered the disease, and began to realise the links between play on the field and the injuries he was seeing. The film dramatizes his attempts to show the NFL his research and findings, furthing the idea that the NFL attempted to either cover-up or discredit his report into this issue. It is now recognised now by the NFL in their injury rules, ruling players out immediately when a concussion is spotted, and independent neurologists on the side-lines are under strict orders to assess concussions on the field. The rules too have been replaced, ruling out head to head tackles and giving massive penalties on the field, fines and suspensions for events. This is applauded by some fans and derided by others as a softening of the game. The first such suspension was in 2011 – James Harrison found the sharp edge of the new rules for repeated cucussive hits on players.

There is an issue with this method however. Certain defensive players actually budget for these fines – it’s part of the game. Yes, it can lead to harsher penalties, but when your opponent knows you’re willing to take the fine and the flag to stop a play, it breeds a level of aggression built into the sport. It’s fascinating to know how much off-the-field events dictate personas on the field, but this is one that the NFL recognise as an issue. It made headlines in 2009 when the New Orleans Saints were found out in what is now called “Bountygate” to be paying bonuses for injuries.

In the ten years I’ve been watching the NFL I’ve grown used to the ways plays are set up, the rules and the calls. I understand the intricacies of the game more and more with each passing season, and I can remember the joy I’d get from seeing large and wild tackles. Now I see them and I wonder if the sport can sustain such hits. It does cause me to wonder what makes football football in a way – can we as fans continue to watch the sport and support the players when these injuries continue? The human toll can be catastrophic for players who have left the game after long or even short careers. Just this week it was revealed that former Giants safety Superbowl ring owner Taylor Sash had severe brain injuries following his short NFL career that probably contributed to his inability to focus on day to day tasks – counter to the claims it is only heavy hitting long-career players. He died from an accidental overdose aged just 27. Other players that have passed away have had the same brain injury confirmed – by no means conclusive but certainly something that should be important to note.

As fans though, what is there we can do? We love the sport – I love more about the sport than the tackles, which are obviously a big part of any defensive play. To pretend that all sports are free from these kinds of compromises in our love of other sports is naïve. Deals done behind doors to protect commercial  interests are almost the hallmark of off-the-field news cycles for the NFL. Drugs in cycling and athletics, match fixing in association football, game throwing in Tennis – these are all things we know are possible and reconcile as we enjoy the sports. Supporting players and teams who do make a difference, and supporting grassroots changing of the game, is where things might help. Education of the risks of head-to-head collisions, reassessments and support for players long after they’ve left the game is what the league should do.

As fans I ask again? I don’t know. I’ll be watching Superbowl 50 with only a small amount of pause.