08 May 2012

The NFL problem

The concussion problem.  Or rather the dead and suicidal people who had concussions problem.

I caught the Merrill Hoge response on ESPN. I turned it off because I found Hoge was propagandizing by attacking a straw man. This is more or less what I've come to expect from ESPN and the NFL on this issue (other than a few reporters and players). Warner, a fellow ex player, but more recently, to Hoge, wasn't saying something like "the NFL is dangerous and nobody should choose to play football". He was saying: "I know the NFL and football in general is dangerous and if I could, I would not want my children to play football professionally." This is an entirely logical response for a parent to have concerning a physical activity with known and severe risk factors to wish that they should avoid that activity. It's akin to why we vaccinate our children against diseases. (It's also akin to a lot of other dumber responses, like many child safety laws or the enforcement of neglect or endangerment laws). 

As someone who endorses a bit of free range concepts to parenting, it's also entirely reasonable for him to say "but I will let them play anyway if that's what they want to do", explain the risks to them so they are informed and can make other choices along the way if they want/need to, or so they can try to mitigate those risks. Which is more or less what he did. His kids play football. He hasn't stopped them. I'm not sure what the problem with that approach was from the perspective of others.

Hoge's "there's concussions in all sports argument is true", but there are not many ex-NBA or soccer or MLB players killing themselves with severe head-brain trauma involved (NHL has a fair amount of concussions too, though there's a key difference in the frequency of head trauma of any kind accumulating). The risks are steeper for one sport than the other. Parents will recognize that if their child has elite athletic ability or they desire them to do so, they could just as easily turn them into a baseball, basketball, or soccer player and make a very healthy living as a pro athlete (which is to say, not very easily). Football's primary physical problem isn't the concussions per se anyway, it's the constant pounding many players can take to their bodies and heads in particular on each and every play. Concussions are merely the most severe indications of this as a problem.

I think the problem for the NFL is not in fact how concussions and head-brain damages are treated or avoided in the long run. Because I think that will be taken seriously enough to be resolved in some way. There's too much money in the sport for it to ignore that they've got brain-related trauma resulting in suicidal and self-destructive former players and that they could take steps to mitigate that risk rather easily (better helmets, stronger rule enforcement of particular kinds of hits, changing practice regiments to lower contact drills and decrease rates of accumulation and pressure on the brain, teaching proper tackling techniques, etc).

Rather I think their real problem is that lots of parents may start thinking like Warner is here. And not all of them will decide it's okay for their child to pursue the goal of becoming a football player. That will eventually cut down on the talent pool and may make the game less exciting and well-played for fans to take in. That argument needed to be taken more seriously than to dismiss it or silence it. I think this same affliction has hit boxing to the point where the fighters are not the sort of pinnacle (American) athletes of an Ali era, but are instead drawn from arenas of the public where chances and opportunity are fewer. The talent and attention drawn to the sport are diminished (even if the money has increased). It would be wise for the NFL to make concerted efforts to push for changes all the way down the line in football play for children and students (amateurs) to encourage parents who have football crazy children that their sport is getting safer to play and that they won't have a child who could be dead before they are. Or who will develop serious mental difficulties and ailments as a result of their choice to play a sport they love. Hoge might have said something to this effect, and I think he was trying to get at what the sport has already done on concussions in particular as a "serious response to a serious problem". But he did it in a fairly dismissive way with the assertion of ignorance as though it is a totally misguided belief that feeds such decision making. It seems fairly rational to me to acknowledge severe and significant risks and want to see serious attempts to reduce them in order to feel comfortable. I also think it's entirely reasonable to say, I don't care, that's what just we do, as Toomer did, as I'm not one to use laws to compel people to pay attention. I just don't think it's reasonable to look at someone who you disagree with on this point of risk and say "shut the hell up". Demonstrate that the risk is not significant, or is balanced by something gained. (Much of the point of free-range parenting suggests that there are substantial gains in independence, decision making, etc to be had from allowing measures of freedom and risk into the lives of children rather than trying to legislate ever decreasing levels of danger out of existence entirely and ignoring actual dangers)

The tradeoff we are told is that players receive bountiful contracts to play. The players themselves might be okay with that trade, to risk abuse to their bodies in exchange for added wealth and fame and fortune. Their families might not be. These social pressures are real. And someone needed to speak on them, indeed someone deeply involved in the sport itself. It was not substantial and useful to respond with the idea that it was irresponsible to say something that acknowledges that there's a controversial difficulty that needs attention and redress for the future health of a sport.
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