A recent study conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 110 of the 111 donated brains of former NFL players had the neurological disease chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). This test confirms (for some) the growing fear that playing football can have a direct detrimental effect on one’s brain. However, the numbers are a little skewed, as the brains were of former NFL players, a pinnacle few in the sport reach. Also, the families of the deceased donated the brains because they noticed unusual behavior/symptoms in their loved ones leading up to their deaths. Despite all this, the results are still worrisome, and not just for the players themselves. NFL executives must wonder: Is football dying?
Some will argue that the NFL’s current state resembles that of one of its former players. For years, parents and players have always worried about the physical injury risks that football posed, turning many young athletes off the sport. Now, recent studies have people worrying about mental injuries, something far more concerning. With this new information out there and plenty of other options for athletic output, the game may be on its last legs.
The problems run deeper than just the NFL. The game faces challenges at its lower levels, like Pop Warner and high school. If kids think there is a chance they could sustain mental injury, they will likely find other activities, possibly soccer or basketball, that allow them to play. One trend that has gained steam is rugby. Although the players in rugby wear no padding, there is a lesser chance of injury because the players have better technique and know how to avoid injury. If kids think they can still have an athletic career while avoiding all the complications of football, then the feeder system that is youth football will slowly shut down, affecting every link of the chain, including the NFL.
Not only do these things worry kids and their parents, they also worry NFLers (and their parents). Many people have retired over the years due to injury concern, such as Chris Borland, Husain Abdullah, A.J Tarpley, and Jarod Mayo. Borland suggested that early retirement could become a trend in the NFL, and it seems that he’s right. With so many young talents leaving the league, the NFL appears to be heading into a downward spiral.
In some cases, football is only played (ironically) as a way of life. Towns like Aliquippa, PA have a bloodline full of pigskin and grass stains. Unfortunately, these kids are playing not necessarily as a choice, but rather as a way to continue the legacy of their homesteads. Obviously living through your child is not a great idea, but subjecting them to something as potentially dangerous as football against their best wishes could lead to more people leaning against the game.
This is not to say the game is dying. The NFL has branched out to Mexico and London (aka England’s Jacksonville) in an effort to spread the game after their previous attempt failed (thank goodness the U.K left the EU). TV megadeals are still being signed, and fans are consuming the game like never before. However, if football can’t find a way to assuage the fears of all these people, then it risks losing its Sunday stranglehold. The NFL has done “extensive” research into different ways to limit injuries/concussions, but has come up with nothing since instituting the modern day non-leather helmet. Perhaps the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of the NFL’s continued success is its own ego. They need to admit they have a problem with injuries in their game and with their former players. Only then can they intercept this trend and return it for a touchdown (and maybe have some d-linemen lay out some guys along the way).