Everyone knows that over the last couple of seasons the focus on concussions has been greatly increased. We've seen a few ex-players die young, many with a strange, somewhat unknown disease called "chronic traumatic encephalopathy" (CTE). Some died of complications such as stroke, but others took their own lives. The research continues to link this degenerative disease with football playing directly, but there is no doubt huge cause for concern. Last week, two economists wrote an article for ESPN's Grantland about how this link could lead to the demise of the NFL, and it isn't all that far-fetched.
First of all, I would encourage anyone to read the whole article, these guys aren't regular sportswriters throwing crap at the wall and see what sticks, this is a well-thought out argument backed by numbers and economic analysis.
For starters, consider the idea that the NFL is too big and too powerful to ever fully disappear:
If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist. The original version of Napster no longer exists, largely because of lawsuits. No matter how well a business matches economic conditions at one point in time, it's not a lock to be a leader in the future, and that is true for the NFL too. Sports are not immune to these pressures. In the first half of the 20th century, the three big sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, and today only one of those is still a marquee attraction.
That right there is a pretty sound argument. Just the idea that football would ever really disappear makes me shudder with fear. I'd have to invest myself more fully in a sport like baseball or something.
They continue by pointing out that the most likely case for the end of football is lawsuits; eventually if there is any kind of definitive link players, both college and professional and even possibly high schoolers, would start winning lawsuits and eventually bleed the NFL dry by taking their money and players, through the course of schools dropping football for fear of lawsuits and thus taking away the NFL's athlete supply.
This slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years. Imagine the timeline. A couple more college players — or worse, high schoolers — commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn't worth it. The Ivy League quits football, then California shuts down its participation, busting up the Pac-12. Then the Big Ten calls it quits, followed by the East Coast schools. Now it's mainly a regional sport in the southeast and Texas/Oklahoma.
Then they go on to explain the socioeconomic impact of the loss of football; spoiler alert; the city of Green Bay would be in a lot of trouble.
But before anyone starts thinking that this is so scary it will happen, I like to think that it is ultimately too unlikely.
Yes, CTE is a very real disease and there is certainly cause to think that these NFL players killing themselves is hardly just coincidence, I believe that the awareness that is being raised is a very good thing.
The NFL has finally dropped the charade of "what concussions?" and seems to be actively trying to make the safety better, through rules and investing in research.
Guys like Ray Lewis and James Harrison can leave the game if they think it's "wussification" to take away big hits. Go ahead and let your brain become Swiss cheese, I say. There is too much hanging in the balance.
I believe that the awareness of this problem is the biggest thing that could save the game. With awareness comes research, ideas and rules that will help the game become safer.
Look at auto racing; in the 1950s, '60s, '70s and even into the '80s, it wasn't uncommon to have multiple deaths in a racing season, but now it's a lot more rare with the invention of better safety equipment like the HANs device, five-point seat belts and safer race tracks.
When awareness is raised there are more solutions brought forward. I don't think we have to worry about football being gone anytime soon. I believe that we can learn from the dark death of a Dave Duerson and remember his legacy and make the game safer for future generations.
There is too much at stake. It's more than just a sport.