As a big fan of Football, I’m sober enough to realize in these past few years this sport has reached something of a threshold moment. Football, in its current incarnation, is actually relatively new, with the first SuperBowl held in 1967. Back then, the players were often “part time” professionals and it was not uncommon to find them doing things like selling cars in the off-season to earn some extra cash.
But the sport grew and grew and grew, and as it did the money involved grew as well. Player salaries skyrocketed and, suddenly, your average Football player no longer had to find alternative off-season work. Instead, they had the freedom to devote their off season time to condition themselves even more. Diets were improved and training exercises were perfected. The money rewards meant more and more young people tried out for Football in High School and College, and thus the pool of talent was deeper, meaning there was more talent at the top. In the end, the athletes on the field today are superior specimens of strength and speed versus the previous decades’ worth. Jim Mandich, part of the legendary undefeated 1972 Dolphin team, himself said before his untimely passing that just about any modern Football team would not only defeat but smoke his beloved undefeated team of the past. No question about it.
Unfortunately, with these stronger, faster, and more skilled athletes arises a big problem which the NFL is currently dealing with: Injuries. Specifically, head injuries. For you see, when you have athletes conditioned to be their strongest and fastest running full speed into other athletes also conditioned to be their strongest and fastest, the one part of their body that one cannot condition to take physical punishment is the brain. It seems silly to say, but let’s be clear: There is no exercise out there that can make your brain somehow “stronger” or better capable of taking hits. Almost any hits. Sure, the helmets used in the NFL today are very high tech, but the reality is that the brain essentially “floats” on liquid within a person’s skull. Running as fast as you can and abruptly being stopped by slamming into another player may send the brain against the skull wall. Do so many, many times over a few years as a professional player and there is a likelihood your brain will sustain some kind of damage.
Because the league is relatively young, it is only now, with the passing of time, that an awareness of the types of injuries sustained over the long term to NFL players is being realized and is becoming an issue. The league is being sued by former players who note that in the past they were ordered to play on despite concussions and other potentially -as well as actually- serious injuries sustained on the field. I suspect the biggest worry about the NFL is that if these players of the past that are exhibiting signs of mental and physical problems related to injuries is just the tip of the iceberg. What happens a little down the road when the current crops of much stronger and faster players drift into their old age? Will we begin to see even more evidence of head and other trauma symptoms?
In recent years, the NFL has become more proactive and is trying to limit head on head hits as well as a host of penalties for hitting players that are particularly vulnerable to injury. Some worry that the NFL will eventually become something akin to flag football.
The latest idea floated by the NFL is to do away with Kickoffs entirely. What effect will doing so have on the game? Brian Burke of Slate Magazine offers some fascinating analysis of just that:
There is little more to add. I still enjoy watching Football. However, a small part of me realizes that this is a sport caught in transition. What we may see of it in the next decade may be very different from what we’re witnessing today.