Five reasons why soccer will eventually surpass football in the US – #2: The lawyers are coming

Part two in a series.

Yes, the lawyers are coming, and football will be forced to change in ways that undercut its essential appeal. Did someone say “litigation”? From the ESPN story linked above:

The concussion issue has become part of the NFL story of late, with more than 3,000 former players suing the league on allegations that officials withheld information about the dangers of head injuries. Players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy — a degenerative brain disease that can result in dementia — attribute their condition to repeated head injuries sustained on the field. Concussions and CTE also have been brought up as possible factors in the suicides of former players, including Ray Easterling and Dave Duerson.

In fact, right now more than 3,400 former players are suing, with some estimates saying the eventual number could rise above 5,000. Ballpark estimates of the damages? Maybe $10 billion?

Understand – this number is increasing every week. Who knows how many active players will wind up filing suit once they retire?

The league is certainly paying attention (or at least, it’s making a show of pretending to do so – their unconscionable behavior in this year’s referee lockout might cause us to question the depth of their commitment to player safety). There is some controversy over the findings, but the league has sponsored research on equipment safety (although it’s still allowing players to use less safe helmets if they choose). They have also enacted a number of rules changes to promote player safety, including:

  • no hits on defenseless players
  • no leading with the helmet
  • kickoffs moved up to dramatically reduce return opportunities, which result in very high risk of injury
  • and, of course, the gods help you if you hit a quarterback late or low or with your helmet

Rumor now has it that they’re even talking about scaling back on the body armor, abandoning hardshell helmets for leather or perhaps the sorts of padded gear that you find in rugby. The theory is that current helmets often cause injuries because players use them as weapons, leading with their heads in ways they never would otherwise.

This is an especially sticky issue for the sport. First, the fans are concerned. ESPN again:

In the survey, about 94 percent of NFL fans said they feel that concussions are a serious problem in the NFL. For some, it even affects the way they enjoy the game, with about 18 percent saying the concussion debate has made them less likely to follow football or watch it on television.

Second, it’s fair to wonder if you can make football “safe” without “ruining” it. Yes, you can develop better equipment. However, at the same time, players are constantly getting bigger, stronger and faster. It isn’t even remotely clear that it’s possible to evolve equipment that can keep up with the escalating violence inherent in player development.

Finally, let’s understand the appeal of the game. Scoring is fun, we love spectacular catches and breakaway touchdown gallops, but at its core football is about hitting. It’s about violence. It’s about knocking the other guy on his ass, and in some cases the culture promotes the idea of causing injuries.

Think about the squawling we hear each time the league adopts a new safety rule. You know, like last week.

“It’s definitely changing the game,” [Ed] Reed said about the NFL’s policy to protect players, via “It’s become an offensive league. They want more points. They want the physical play out of it, kind of. They want like powder-puff to where you can just run around and score points cause that’s going to attract the fans. I understand you want to make money, but bending the rules and making the game different, you know, it’s only going to make the game worse.”

Those who run and market football leagues, whether we’re talking about the NFL or one of the lower professional leagues NCAA, really are up against it. On the one hand, they have to make the game safer, which functionally means they have to get some of the violence out of it. On the other hand, taking out the violence makes it inherently less marketable.

And all the while they have to fight off litigation from former players, deal with the public perception that causes the public to tune out and consider the possibility that in a generation or so they’re going to have a substantially smaller talent pool to draw on (and a culture generally that has spent a generation moving football further toward the periphery).

Not a pretty picture. Business is booming right now, but there are extremely dark clouds on the horizon.

12 replies »

  1. I think I’m still suffering from post-concussive syndrome incurred while playing high school football decades ago. Arguably it’s affected my career earnings. Can I sue anybody?

  2. While player lawsuits against the NFL will have potential impact, the lawsuits that will really hurt will come against universities.

    Speaking of bigger and faster, has the NFL ever done anything about PEDs or do they just worry about telling players to say no to “drugs”? I don’t think that most of the newer rules that make it an offensive (and boring) game are really about safety, unless its the safety of the owner’s cash pile invested in quarterbacks and wide receivers. As part 1 of this points out, the research suggests that the constant violence seen along the line is a lot more damaging than the brutal, open field hit. They don’t seem to be changing rules to protect linemen.

    And it’s strange to me that there’s an uproar about concussions in pro football players. Nobody seems terribly concerned that most of these guys can barely walk by the age of 50.

    In any case, i agree with Part 1’s thesis that the fewer kids are playing football and we just haven’t seen the long term impact of that yet. I assume that Parts 3-5 will end up talking about just how many kids have now grown up playing soccer. Football, like the modern GOP, probably has a realistic shelf life of one more generation and will die for the same reasons. The kids just don’t get into that sort of thing anymore.

  3. Yeah, well never mind the above. It turns out that the NCAA doesn’t have a concussion policy so that it can’t be held liable for player safety.

    “For the NCAA, this hands-off approach to concussion protocols is a calculated legal maneuver. “The NCAA doesn’t want to be seen as the entity responsible for taking care of the student-athletes,” says Paul D. Anderson, the attorney who writes the NFL Concussion Litigation blog. The NCAA is currently facing a class-action suit alleging that it failed to protect athletes from the dangers of concussions. But Anderson sees that suit as an uphill battle, partly because the NCAA has delegated responsibility for student-athletes’ health to its member institutions.”

    Doesn’t seem to have any problem collecting the revenue generated by those student-athletes.

  4. The solution is really simple. The NFL pays off all the players they lied to. From now on all new and current players know what they’re getting into and cannot sue. The NFL pays for their long term health care instead of the tax payers who already subsidize the sport in billions. Boys are not allowed to play the NFL version of football until 18 when brains are fully developed. Get the high schools out of the business of promoting football and developing players for colleges and the NFL. Let those colleges and Nfl start up football schools to create future players. The same people who might object to this solution are the same people getting rich off these players ruined lifes.

  5. Is anybody paying attention to this? I understand some helmet manufacturers are “looking” at this, but how about we light a serious fire? Watch this video from the BBC, it’s about 19 minutes of viewing, but it’s high-def, well produced, fascinating and will go by quickly:

    Start at 30:46 to 45:22
    and then resume from
    53:24 to 57:30

      • I agree with you, but did the video give you any optimism, or do you think it was carefully edited and used camera trickery?

    • Fascinating video. It would be interesting to see the helmets this technology would yield. I’m still not sure this solves all the NFL’s problems, but it can’t hurt.

  6. I have no doubt that the experiment they did is plausible. I’m not sure it emulates the effect on the human skull. Bulbs are light and resilient. That the filament survived is the interesting part.