Who can stop what is, supposedly, inevitable in professional sport?
While hard-hitting sports like professional football are dangerous for its players, the American sporting fan base can’t seem to get enough of it. This is truly indicative in the National Football League, as it has been for the past 20 years, and remains, the country’s most popular sport. The “Wow” factor of the NFL’s most crushing and devastating hits has contributed to its booming popularity. The league even sold DVDs of such hits and blows to satiate the “bloodthirsty” populace.
But, with the hypnotism of brutal hits on the gridiron, come the unfortunate consequences of such hits. They can be as immediate as concussions, broken limbs or spinal damage, or as chronic as brain injuries and arthritic limbs, which affect players’ health long after they are finished on the field. Those who finish their careers with their bodies and minds relatively intact are considered the lucky ones. Even with those who are able to walk away from the game, it is usually a premature retirement: just ask Hall of Fame QBs Troy Aikman and Steve Young, whose concussions forced them to end their careers.
One only needs to look at this season to identify that concussions and concussion-related injuries have been prevalent in the NFL. After all, Eagles WR DeSean Jackson, Panthers QB Jimmy Clausen and Vikings QB Brett Favre were some of the high-profile names to suffer concussions. And, since it was only recently that NFL teams were required to report concussions and concussion-like symptoms, it isn’t a surprise that concussions have dramatically spiked – by 21 percent, to be more precise – in the last year.
This leads to the troubling decision to approve the lengthening of the regular season from 16 to 18 games. While the NFL season never really needed changing in the first place, Commissioner Roger Goodell, in conjuncture with many NFL franchise owners, have moved forward in implementing an 18-game season within the next two years – eliminating two preseason games to keep a 20-game format – most likely by 2012. It is meant to be an economic compromise: shorten the preseason, which practically no one in NFL fandom cares about, while giving the fans more of what they want – games that matter. And, hey – more of a good thing can’t be bad, right? NFL players, however, beg to differ. The NFL Player’s association has been adamant against the lengthening of the regular season.
Said Baltimore Ravens CB Domonique Foxworth, “We put our bodies on the line and produce a lot of revenue and we get five years of post-retirement health insurance. And then they want to tack on two more games … which is just going to multiply the injuries and the ailments that we’re going to see after we go into our 40s, 50s, 60s — 70s, if we’re lucky. … We’re not willing to budge on health and safety, and we’d like to gain some more ground in ways we can protect former players and current players.”
To me, this seems perfectly reasonable. Many realize by now that NFL careers are short, rarely getting up to ten-plus years. While elite players can receive upwards of tens of millions of dollars in one contract, the average NFL player will probably see a fraction of that in his entire career. Nothing is promised in professional sports – especially in a sport as violent and “career-hanging-by-a-thread-on-every-play” as professional football.
But, like I said at the outset, football is a perceived “gladiator’s sport” – one that the public has developed an understated bloodlust for. We, as a sporting fan public, want to see the hard hits, and want to see athletes give their last ounce of strength to make the plays to win. That’s probably why I tend to see many fed-up, and ultimately unsympathetic, posters on the blogosphere that say to “suck it up” or “leave if you can’t take it.” These types of people love to use the rationalization that, because it is a game that pays them millions of dollars, the players have “no right to complain“.
It is these views that I completely disagree with. First of all, the health of the players that entertain the populace should be the highest priority. While we love to see the big hits and devastating blows, the players are forced to live with their effects: shorter careers, and even shorter lifespans. The average NFL career is three-and-a-half years – much shorter than most publicized contracts. The fact is, a rare of amount of athletes can cut it playing in the big leagues to begin with.
Furthermore, studies have found that NFL players have a shorter life expectancy, that gets shorter for every year they play in the NFL, than those in their age groups that do not play. In fact, the average life span of an NFL player is 55, with an average of 52 for linemen, who are usually over 300 pounds as a job requirement. Need I remind you the average life expectancy for Americans is around 70?
Then, there are the blows to NFL players – especially the ones to the head that I mentioned above. A 2003 study at Virginia Tech showed that an average game can consist of 50 blows to the head, while a season’s worth of head shots can rise as high as 3,300. It also showed that these hits can cause a force as high as 120 Gs – a force equal to that of a severe car crash – and an average of 40. Imagine getting in a car crash about 40 times every Sunday, and you just might imagine what an NFL player goes through.
Not even small players, like Wide Receivers and Cornerbacks, are immune to these hard hits. Despite their small size, according to this study on the physics of NFL hits, a small player’s speed makes up for their lack of size, generating up to three-quarters of a ton of force on a given tackle. This isn’t even counting practices, OTAs (Organized Team Activities), and offseason conditioning. Now, add two more full-throttle, no-holds-barred regular season games into the mix. Regardless of what you might think about the “little amount of work” an NFL player does to get those millions of dollars, keep that in mind.
It seems to me that we have images of “The Replacements” dancing in our heads – with their portrayal of selfish, greedy-heart professional players who only care about their cash, cars, clothes and child support payments – whenever we think about players’ gripes about labor issues. But, the truth is, the players in question aren’t thinking about their mansions, their cars or their Ice – they are thinking about their livelihoods. An 18-game schedule could threaten their way of life as they know it, with potential injuries and concussions to go along with the mounting expectations of a “quality product on the field,” that could prove too much to bear. They aren’t so much worried about more time on the field – they’re worried about walking off it, and walking away from it.
Perhaps, if the owners and Roger Goodell can put profit aside, and remember the value of their players, they can stop “the inevitable.”