Over the past several decades, the NFL has flourished, developing into the most successful sports organization in American history. For a while, its future prospects appeared limitless. Recently, America’s most popular sport has evolved into its most controversial. Whether in the form of polarizing protests, or off the field troubles with the law, the NFL has quickly become a grounds for social division.
No problem threatens the existence of the multi-billion dollar corporation like the ongoing concussion crisis. On several levels, the NFL finds itself facing an insurmountable dilemma. Concussions have proven inevitable, no matter what regulatory measures are taken to limit them, and the lifelong consequences have proven not only detrimental, but fatal. In the midst of unprecedented success, a lurking crisis threatens to bring down America’s favorite sport.
From a pure numbers standpoint, concussions have reached crisis levels that are undeniable. Over the past five seasons, the league has seen an average of 243 concussions per year, accounting for approximately 14 percent of the NFL. The most concerning figures demonstrate the direct correlation between football and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a degenerative brain disease that comes as a result of repeated blows to the head.
For years, investigations have shed light on the stunning amount of former players who have developed CTE. Autopsies following the tragic deaths of former NFL players Mike Webster, Chris Henry and Junior Seau revealed signs of chronic CTE, providing a basis for a $765 million lawsuit against the NFL in 2013. A 2014 study on 91 deceased NFL players revealed that 96 percent of them had the disease. The 2017 Boston University study recently disclosed the most jaw-dropping numbers on CTE in deceased players. Of 111 brains donated, CTE was found in 99 percent of them.
A deeper dive into the life-altering effects of CTE reveals the ill-fated paths football players’ lives may be on. Physical limitations often mark the early stages, followed by the complete deterioration of one’s mental state. This mental trauma drove Junior Seau and Adrian Robinson Jr. to suicide. Few stories encompass the impact of CTE on one’s life, however, Mike Webster’s led to the gradual demise of a once beloved franchise cornerstone.
Dwindling mental capacity and severe behavioral changes left Webster unrecognizable, resulting in diminished finances, divorce, and eventual isolation. Constantly confused and pained, Webster resorted to living in his car and shocking himself with a Taser gun to soothe his nerves. He suffered a fatal heart attack in 2002. In the early stages of Webster’s dementia, a doctor, suspecting severe brain trauma, asked Webster if he had ever been in a car crash. Webster responded, “I’ve been in 350,000 car accidents.”
It is becoming increasingly apparent that the concussion crisis transcends any simple rule change or precautionary measure taken by the league. The fundamental problem remains that violence is integral to the sport. Nowhere is this more evident than at the line of scrimmage, where linemen, at an average size of 6’5’’, 312 pounds, brutally collide each play. In both 2014 and 2017 studies, 40 percent of those found with CTE were linemen.
While rule changes attempt to protect receivers and quarterbacks, the reality that hits remain the core element of football is inescapable. A big hit often serves as a way to draw the spotlight to the defense and typically ignites a team’s sideline.
Awareness amongst players is rising that playing the game they love jeopardizes a significant portion of their life. Jaguars left tackle Branden Albert abruptly retired shortly after the 2017 report was released. Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger provided the most blatant evidence of player concern, declaring that he will consider retirement.
“I want to know my kids’ names,” Roethlisberger said. “As much as I want my kids to remember what I did...I also want to remember them when I’m 70.”
Boxing once reigned supreme as America’s most popular prime time sport. But the public reacted against the sport’s violence, as the country’s excitement over boxing waned, and it lost its mainstream luster. Football is undoubtedly more popular in America than boxing ever was, but faces remarkably similar challenges. Unless the NFL, takes severe and swift measures to confront the concussion crisis, the sport as a whole could suffer the same fate.