This week marks the return of the National Football League (NFL) for its 100th season. The professional American Football League is the only sports league worldwide generating more revenue than our commercial behemoth, the Premier League. The branding, excitement, and unpredictability of the sport makes it the most popular sport in the US – a wealthy market to be playing in – as such the game now has increasing worldwide popularity. The NFL appears to be an unstoppable force, but the biggest threat to its success comes from within, with the ethics of player safety being a constant concern.
In late August, many in the NFL were stunned to hear the news that Andrew Luck – one of the superstars of the league – was to retire at a mere 29 years, due to the toll continuous injuries and pain had taken on his mental state. Luck has suffered many injuries during his 7 seasons in the NFL – the most enduring one being his shoulder, which required surgery and rehab – resulting in Luck missing out on 18 months of football. However, the other injuries suffered by Luck, such as a Lacerated Kidney and Abdominal wall tear, are injuries most commonly found when someone has been involved in a serious car accident. Add to this multiple concussions, and his latest injury to his right leg, Luck understandably decided to retire. However, this was met with boos from his fans as the news was leaked during a preseason game, and accusations of Luck being a soft millennial. This is unsurprising, as in the past those who have decided not to play through pain, and sit out whilst carrying injuries that they could perhaps play through have been branded weak and had their masculinity questioned.
The Andrew Luck saga follows on from 3-time Superbowl champion and future hall of famer Rob Gronkowski retiring earlier in the offseason at just 30 years old. Gronkowski described his own problems with injuries in wake of Luck’s announcement, describing the effect a routine hit during the Superbowl had
‘I slept for five minutes that night. I couldn’t even think. I was in tears, in my bed, after a Super Bowl victory. It didn’t make that much sense to me… And then, for four weeks, I couldn’t even sleep for more than 20 minutes a night after a Super Bowl win. And I was like, damn. This sucks’
However… this is just the recent news. Previously, and ongoing, we have the constant findings of studies into playing American football, and the development of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a neurodegenerative disease caused by repeated mild head traumas. Early symptoms of CTE involve confusion and dizziness. Later symptoms include impulsiveness, memory loss, depression, followed by dementia and suicidality.
A definitive test for CTE can only be carried out post-mortem. A recent study of 111 brains of former NFL players found 110 showed evidence of CTE. Additionally, in 2013 the NFL reached a settlement on a lawsuit with 4500 former players for damage due to head injuries.
The NFL continues to implement new rules regarding player safety. These rules limit methods of tackling, and makes the much prized quarterbacks almost untouchable arguably removes some of the excitement and qualities of the game, and has come under much criticism from defensive players who feel they can barely tackle anymore without punishment. Additionally more rigorous testing and higher standards of player equipment have been enforced, much to the dismay of star wide receiver Antonio Brown, who for a while refused to play in the helmets.
Despite these changes, there is still a great threat to playing the game. In fact, the number of school aged children playing the sport has reduced year upon year, as they or their parents choose to participate in safer sports.
The risk of playing the game is now impacting contract negotiations and the amount of money the league’s star players are demanding. In the NFL, it has been fairly common practice for big contracts to be handed out, but the money not guaranteed, meaning should the player get injured, or the team no longer feel the player is producing, they can simply release the player without paying them. Players are now beginning to demand guaranteed money, and placing the importance of more guaranteed money, above the importance of more money total within a contract.
A high profile example of this is Le’veon Bell, deciding to reject an offer of $70 million total from the Pittsburgh Steelers, due to only $10 million being guaranteed, and deciding to refuse to play in his final year for the Steelers to preserve his body for negotiations with other teams. Bell then signed the following off-season for the New York Jets for $52.5 million, of which $35 million is guaranteed. From the teams point of view, you can see why they wouldn’t want to hand out guaranteed money in such a brutal volatile game, where players physical peaks see a quick drop off. In fact it is usually a sign of the more stable teams to not overpay players. However, from a players perspective, it makes sense to not sacrifice your body without at least having the guarantee future income.
All in all, as much as America loves this sport, and as the world is slowly learning to love this sport, how long can it last? As we know, money talks, so as long as it is commercially successful, the sport will probably be played in some form regardless of the safety concerns. Further, just like boxing, those participating are being paid quite handsomely to put their bodies on the line for our entertainment.