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Football is Dying. Maybe It Deserves To.

The NFL has spent this week being shocked -- shocked! -- that the violent game it promotes is, well, violent. The league has spent this week levying fines against particularly egregious hits from last weekend's games, but as Pittsburgh Steeler lineback James Harrison and Miami Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder have pointed out, in their various ways, football is game of hitting, and hitting hard: You're supposed to hit the ball-carrier as hard as you can to bring him down; the carrier tries to hit you as hard as he can so that he can stay on his feet and keep going. It's rough business, and there's growing evidence that it destroys the bodies and minds of the people who play the game.

I don't really watch games anymore -- it makes me a bit queasy to cheer on people in the process of hurting themselves and each other -- though I still check in from time to time on the progress of the Kansas City Chiefs: a lifetime of fandom is hard to put away. But today -- October 21 -- feels like it might be a quiet watershed day in the demise of football.

Today's New York Times:

Helmets both new and used are not — and have never been — formally tested against the forces believed to cause concussions. The industry, which receives no governmental or other independent oversight, requires helmets for players of all ages to withstand only the extremely high-level force that would otherwise fracture skulls.

Moreover, used helmets worn by the vast majority of young players encountered stark lapses in the industry’s few safety procedures. Some of the businesses that recondition helmets ignored testing rules, performed the tests incorrectly or returned helmets that were still in poor condition. More than 100,000 children are wearing helmets too old to provide adequate protection — and perhaps half a million more are wearing potentially unsafe helmets that require critical examination, according to interviews with experts and industry data.

Today's Philadelphia Inquirer:

The risk of playing football at all levels was driven home over the weekend when a Rutgers University player was paralyzed from the neck down in a game Saturday. It's become clear the way the game is played and officiated must be altered. The unacceptable alternative is to be resigned to more and more players joining the casualty lists.

A recent Harris Interactive poll shows most Americans don't enjoy seeing football players get hurt. They want changes to helmets and other equipment to be made, and they believe players who cause head injuries should be hit with penalties, up to and including suspension.

Blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates:

Samori (his son) didn't play football this year. He wants to go back. We can't, in any good conscience, send him back.

It is, simply, becoming less reputable to cheer on the sport that's literally killing and crippling players before their time. And parents like Coates are taking their kids out of the game. We've already determined that our son will never get our permission to play tackle football. Support for the game is slowly beginning to dry up, because it will never be possible to make the game safe enough without fundamentally altering its character.

That's not to say it will ever completely die. People love sports, and many people love violent sports. But it seems possible to me that the NFL and college football will begin to recede in popularity, something equivalent to the moneymaking-but-still-backwater provinces of pay-per-view (like boxing and ultimate fighting) or minor cable channels (like hockey). And that's fine by me.


Rick said…
I agree, Joel. The NFL and the amateur authorities may now be a handful of serious injuries away from congressional oversight and -- even worse! -- backbreaking lawsuits.

I heard former NFL defensive lineman Marcellus Wiley (who was a player rep) say that there are a host of helmet manufacturers who have developed new techologies making helmets safer. But they're not large enough to pay the minimum licensing fees to get into the NFL equipment pool.

If those helmets exist, and the league keeps them out simply because the manufacturer lacks deep pockets, guess whose deep pockets are about to be picked.

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