Sunday, December 09, 2012

Sunday Suckers

On Superbowl Sunday (XX) in January of 1986, the Chicago Bears won their last NFL championship, soundly defeating the Patriots in New Orleans. My friends and I were watching the game on a magical snowy day in the Chicago suburbs. Or maybe it wasn't snowing at all. You see, my memory is a little fuzzy: I previously had suffered a mild concussion playing "touch" football, when the back of my head landed solidly on the frozen ground during Thanksgiving Break from college.

According to National Public Radio's On the Media (OTM), "In the past two years, seven former NFL players [most recently Jovan Belcher] have killed themselves, and in each case, many argued that depression and dementia brought on by job-related concussions were to blame." Given that self- and media-based diagnoses of mental conditions are a flawed enterprise, I still think it's significant that the NFL has embarked upon a PR campaign to demonstrate what the organization is doing "to make the game safer", as seen in this staged exchange between Tom Brady and the mother of Ray Lewis.

Ok, I get it: it's supposed to be a humorous, light-hearted response to a serious issue even though I don't have a clue who these players are. Why? To be perfectly honest, that 1986 Bears Superbowl was the last football game I ever watched purposefully. Although I played football (informally) growing up, attended Illinois games with my dormmates, I've never really seen the attraction, apart from the social aspects of the stadium culture or the camaraderie of watching with friends.

I know I am an American anomaly: most Sunday afternoons I actually spend at the grocery store, and I am always wondering where the heck everybody else is. So this post is directed at you NFL fans: tell me why this violent game shouldn't be banned or significantly modified. Is is the money? Is it too sacred for Americans to consider changing?

P.S. Here is the OTM interview just in case you wanted to listen. I could go on about this, too, but purposely held back (hint, hint)...


Anonymous said...

When you look at the facts, it is pretty obvious that the game should be changed. The 7 deaths seem like a loud enough wake up call for the game to modified. But, I don't think that Americans will let it happen. Not nearly as many people would sit down on Sunday and watch watch a game if the rules of the game were changed. As bad as it sounds, part of what attracts viewers to the sport is the brutality of the game. We love to watch a group of the strongest humans physically fight their way to victory. That is part of the thrill of the game, a part that most Americans wish to keep around.

In short, the game SHOULD change, but I don't think it will.

Heidi Blumenthal said...

This blog post makes good points about head injuries, but another big concern is other orthopedist injuries such as shoulder injuries, knee injures, hip injures, etc. This sport really takes a toll on the athlete's whole body. So why does this sport continue? In the OTM interview they discussed how football is the modern day version of gladiator fighting, and follows the saying of letting "men in the trenches do what men do". Isn't it interesting to think that America is one of the most advanced countries in the world, yet we are the only country that enjoys this past-time gladiator-like game in which men mall each other for victory. In other countries they call soccer "football", or play games such as flag football in contrast to American tackle football. Both flag football and soccer might not be "manly" enough for Americans, but Americans need to look at the injury statistics and realize something needs to be done, whether it is a change in the rules or a banning of tackle football. Like Hannah, I don't think this will be done to "American football", but with commercials similar to the one with Tom Brady and Ray Lewis, we are slowly progressing.

Kim Cole said...

The game should be changed and has been changed a lot throughout its history. It should be changed more to make it safer, but too much changes would be bad. Football players are famous mainly for their physical strength or skill in playing a brutal contact sport. As a Packers fan, I love seeing Aaron Rodgers throw a perfect touchdown despite an impeccable defense. I want to see every member of the Vikings get tackled ruthlessly. I don't want restrictions so harsh a game looks like a pillow fight or everything World Wrestling Ent. does. If the football players play the game too carefully, it loses its authenticity and starts to look fake. They couldn't rely on physical strength as much and might have to keep their fame through their image alone. This would make the NFL a beauty pageant.
But changes can be made that protect the players and the image of the NFL. Harsher punishments can be given to players who injure others, for example. I think this is the first step in making football safer. You can't just change the rules of football and expect all players to change what they've been doing easily. If you suddenly change how someone is allowed to tackle someone even if that's how they've always tackled someone, they won't be able to adapt quickly. Their career could suffer terribly. Harsher penalties could make the change more gradual. Teams would naturally want to change their strategies if the penalties are severe enough. Penalties exist to keep players behaved anyways, so it is a lot less demanding to intensify them that to introduce new rules. Coaches will force their teams to be more tame and players will have to comply or face penalties that hurt the team and personal fines that are humiliating.

Kim Cole said...

Update: Plays don't have to be brutal to be fun, either. Aaron Rodgers just escaped Detroit's defense for a 27-yard touchdown, which I consider pretty cool. Sure, there was the usual clashing of offense and defense, but no one had to leave the field due to injuries. Rodgers's touchdown was more about wit than strength. If football was changed to make rough contact less desirable due to punishments, more plays would have to be built upon brains as opposed to brawn. But plays like the one Rodgers just did are a lot more interesting to watch than those grueling plays where both teams smash into each other like two waves, hoping that someone rises above the mess to JUST push into the end zone.

Lily Stein said...

Personally, I am not a huge NFL fan and do not understand what makes the game so sacred, but I do agree that the game should be modified. Anything that leads to this much violence should not be tolerated in any sport, but for the reasons that Hannah mentioned, it will be a long road before we see modifications.

On the other hand, the players know what they are getting themselves into. Today, players are much more aware of the hazards of football. They know that they are at high risk of getting a concussion that could likely cause brain damage. Even with this education, players continue to play, and the fans continue to watch, so what motivation does the NFL have to modify the rules? If seven deaths isn't enough, then what is?

alex wolkoff said...

Obviously football is a very dangerous sport, and should most-likely be dramatically altered in order to create a safer game. However, football will never be considered a safe sport. Most Americas do not want to take away all the danger that comes with the sport because, as Hannah mentioned above, Americans love the violence, it keeps them entertained. For example, when do you not see fans get all excited when two players start to fight?

Also, Lily makes a good point, 7 deaths is a pretty good reason to modify the rules, so you wonder, why haven't they? Well, I guess a reason for this may be because there is no sound evidence that these 7 deaths are related to football accidents, as Mr. Bolos mentioned. However, there must be a correlation between the two, and as such, some modifications do need to be made.

Clark Kipp said...

First off, I am thrilled to see a sports post by you Mr. Bolos, as I do see American sports as an integral part to our society and lifestyles.

As for the past comments, I respect that you believe things should change, but there is just not much that can be done to stop injuries from occurring. I do think that putting money into researching for newer equipment and technology is the right route to take, but punishing players for playing the game they are paid to play can get really frustrating!

I think the game is beginning to favor the offense far too much as clean, hard, football hits by defenders are getting flagged far too often. When the offense is flying around the field at top speeds trying to advance the ball and ultimately score, why should the defenders get penalized yards and cash for doing the same and trying to prevent the opposition from moving the ball downfield? The players know what they are signing up for, and at times I see the issue as becoming too ridiculous.

As for the barbarity and appeal of the sport, I do think it is true that throughout history men clashing against one another has always been seen as a form of entertainment. It shows you that history can remain the same in certain cases, and this is surely one of them.

Personally, I have grown up watching and loving the game, so I do think football is a sport most Americans are immersed in from a young age. I also do agree with Kim that the game can be beautiful at times, but the physical aspect of the sport brings us back Sunday after Sunday.

Jeremy Noskin said...

As a huge football fan myself, I have seen the league trying to penalize players for physicality over the past few years. Although the sport is vicious, the NFL is making a concerted effort to improve player safety. Just in the past few years, the NFL has added penalties for certain hits, and has handed out major fines and suspensions. These are supposed to deter players from brutally demolishing the opposition.

However, do the fans like seeing their favorite player suspended for a game because they made a hit that would have been legal until the new rule came into effect? OF COURSE NOT! Fans want to see their team win at all costs and like football because of the physicality.

I agree with Clark when he says that players know what they sign up for. Everyone knows that football is a psychical sport and the players literally put their lives on the line every game. When someone decides to play football, they immediately must understand that they may not live as long and might suffer a severe injury. If the players understand the ramifications of playing football, then there isn't as much of a need to make the game safer.

In addition, fans will not let it happen. Fans love to see their team down by 3 with two minutes left. Then, the linebacker demolishes the opposing RB and the ball goes flying, the defense picks up the ball and runs it into the endzone for a TD and they win by 4. The fans go crazy! But if the game gets safer and the hit is a penalty, the following event would not happen.

The NFL is a $9.5 Billion industry a year and if fans don't buy tickets, then they won't buy jerseys, and won't watch the game on TV, completely destroying their income. The main reason the NFL won't make the game safer is because of the money.

tally ford said...

The game of football is a very dangerous game, and players know it. Although fans across the country love the game and how it is played despite the many injuries, I believe that the game is destined. I agree with Hannah that the fans of football do not want to see the game change, however I believe that because of the many recent lawsuits against the NFL the game will change. According to, as of November 16th, there are 3,962 named former players who are currently suffering from early-onset dementia and other neurodegenerative diseases who are seeking to receive Workers’ Compensation and the 88 Plan Benefits from the league. These lawsuits have already had an impact on the rules of the game. There is now much more enforcement, fines and suspensions, for violent hits. Even the kickoff line has been moved up a bit. The line was moved up because kickoff returns have created the most head related injuries. I believe that because of former player's lawsuits, the game of football will eventually change to a safer and less violent game, despite many loyal fans who want football to stay the same.

Anonymous said...

I am a big football fan and I really do not agree with what the NFL has done. We are talking about a business with a surplus of money that could be spent on whatever is necessary. Because of that, I don't agree with Jeremy when he says that the NFL has truly taken a "concerted effort" to change how the game is played, while I do agree that the NFL's true reason for ignoring the facts is its need for money. To me, a yellow flag and a fine of $15,000 is not enough to truly change the game.
My biggest issue with what the NFL has done is its lack of support for players after their years hurling themselves at each other for the entertainment of millions. Many athletes find it impossible to adapt to the real world after their years of playing the game. I really think its amazing that the NFL hasn't done anything drastic in the wake of recent events-like Junior Seau, a 43 year old man with a family, who shot himself, and Javon Belcher-that were eyeopening to the true dangers of the sport.
Here's an Article about Life after the NFL

Sarah Henzlik said...

While I would not necessarily call myself an big NFL fan, I do watch the games on Sundays for the social aspects. I do not think I am that unique in the respect that I like to watch the games, but not necessarily for the games. For example, on Monday Night Football, there is always a star-studded opening and the ad space during commercial breaks can go for millions of dollars a pop. The Super Bowl in early February is very popular among sports fans and non-sports fans alike, but recently the informal contest for the best commercial seems to overshadow the high quality football national championship. Is this what the sports world has come too; an entertainment entity? Maybe this is why the retired NFL players, "The 40 Million Dollar Slaves", feel the way they do. In the MLB for instance, the Chicago Cubs franchise has had its profits go up each year despite its wins/ loss record go down each year. Is it sports psychology or just a business?

Noah Quinn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Noah Quinn said...

To answer your question Sarah, I believe football has evolved to meet both of those standards. Like a broadway show or a movie, the producers very much want their attraction to be enjoyable to the people, however money ties into this as well. Usually when the fans are enthused by their teams performance, the owners are happy too (as this means more profit). Professional sports teams are in a very unique industry where underperforming still guarantees money. Like Sarah said, it's funny that even if a team fails to perform in the wins category (the figure that actually matters to the fans), the teams still cash in big. Last year the St. Louis Rams finished with an abysmal record of 2-14 in the regular season. Regardless, the teams still managed to make $231 million dollars of revenue. Even when your favorite team may be the laughing stock of the league, the owners and those profiting from the team's ticket sales, licensed gear, etc. are the ones with the final laugh.

Andrew Gjertsen said...

Football in America is incredibly sacred. It's also under fire for how "soft" it's becoming. While watching numerous games this season, announcers have been really outspoken about how they disagree with some of the new penalties called which are directly protecting players. Some of the newest rules protecting the players include previously relished moments in football. A big hit on a receiver, a crushing sack on the quarterback and many others, though now are being penalized. (Evolution of rules here Not only penalized on the field though, but also off of the field, players who commit such infractions are now seen paying fines commonly in 5 figures. The struggle for player safety will undoubtedly increase with time, but I truly feel that the NFL is sincerely trying to improve the safety of it's players. By no means should the NFL be banned, because it is making definite improvements.

Zach Peltz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
S. Bolos said...

Zatch brings up some salient points about the wider impact of the NFL, which I hadn't considered from the viewpoint of my living room. Why? Because I am paying a kind of sports TAX on my cable bill. Did you know that about 40% of my cable bill goes towards sports programming? Sports I never watch!?

I really was pleased by how many people extended the conversation in these comments. For example, Heidi's mention of orthopedic injuries, Tally's reference to lawsuits, Gabe's lament about post-career care, etc.

But I especially appreciated the hardcore football fans' (Clark, Jeremy, et al.) testimony regarding how the game has changed due to the penalty calls. I know (a little) that baseball has been modified via the physical balls and bats. However, I wonder if there was ever a "pure" form of any game?

Finally, I guess I wonder what you think about the impact of football on young people who play the game and how the NFL doe or does not influences the kids playing at the high school level, for example.

Lily Schroeder said...

It seems like we all agree that football is incredibly ingrained in American culture, even though it is dangerous. Clearly, as football is probably the most popular spectator sport as well as the fact that it is a multi-billion dollar industry, banning football is simply not an option. The guy who sponsors that legislation would probably be out of a job the minute he went public with the idea! Besides, whose role would it be, to ban it? Is it right for our government to say what kind of athletic activities we take part in?
I do believe, however, that football could be greatly modified for younger kids up until they go to High School and then even in High School there could some limits.

The Aspen Institute hosted a round table discussion on “Playing Safely: The Future of Youth Football.” Michelle Trenum, an attendee, commented on how pros have all of the “bells and whistles” such as proper trainers, medical personnel, and constraints with tackling practices while youth football may only have the parents and coaches. In fact, only 42% of teams at the high school level have proper people at games for help if needed. She also made another great point: “If we are limiting exposure for professional athletes (14 contact practices with 16 games in the NFL, 30 total days) why would we do LESS for younger individuals.”
The younger the kid, the less the brain is developed, so it seems logical that well structured ground rules along with a good educational program could be very effective – some may even choose to stick with touch football for the first several years. It is true that kids want to emulate pro players, but if the pros get behind the limits for youth, it could be a win-win.

All that said, I think that with so much focus on injury and concussion in the NFL, we are overlooking the fact that fame, money and athletic success often brings indulgence in alcohol, drugs and corrupt, abusive behavior. Is this the type of role model we want kids to look up to? In addition to pursuing research into how to make the game safer, maybe we should put some money into leadership development of our pro athletes.

For the discussion from the Aspen Institute:

Miles Turner-Gentsch said...


Your inquiry about "pureness" in sports immediately made me think of the heavy-contact sports of rugby and boxing. We hear about NFL players suffering from early onset dementia and bouts of depression, but what about "purer" sports? Sure enough the search of "rugby, concussions" yielded me this article:

It talks about how a Kiwi scrum-half was forced to retire early from the sport he loves due to repeated concussions. Since then, he's "suffered almost constant migraines, fatigue, an aversion to bright lights and noise, and bouts of depression." Rugby, for those of you who don't know, is a sport similar to football but played without pads or head protection. I thought the article raised an interesting point about male pride."'You’ve got to remember we’re all males and we don’t often talk about our feelings,' said Devine, who added that players accepted that injuries were part of playing rugby. 'We used to discuss injuries. We never used to really talk about concussion.'" With that being said, it's easy to see how depression can go unnoticed until the ultimate tragedy takes place.

Moving onto boxing, it's also clear that there can be serious head injuries and subsequent brain disease. This last weekend perhaps one of the greatest pound-for-pound boxers of his time, Manny Pacquiao, was knocked unconscious in the 6th round of his fight with Juan Manuel Marquez. He was unresponsive on the mat for 2-3 minutes afterwards. His trainer and former boxer, Freddie Roach, and legendary Muhammed Ali both suffer from Parkinson's. There are many other boxers that suffer from similar diseases as well.

I guess my point is that no matter the contact sport, there will always be brain trauma. Finding a solution seems futile to me. This may sound harsh but I think it's pragmatic; these men have to understand the risks of their occupation like any other professional does. Miners understand that each day they enter the earth it could be their last, granted technology has greatly reduced those risks in the last 40 years. Technology and rule changes are also helping American football players. As Tally mentioned above, Commissioner Goodell has already moved the kickoff spot and is now considering eliminating kickoffs all together. Nobody wants to see that however. He's in a tough spot though. Current players and fans are in outrage over this proposition but on the other side, the commissioner has former players plotting to sue the league for not acting on brain trauma years ago. It's a no win situation. What I think needs to happen is for players to get educated on the realities of their occupation. Unfortunately, like many miners, football is all these men know.

It's a terrible problem, but I don't think any one solution can be found without at least upsetting the fans, the players or anyone else involved.