By In Football

Hot Button: Concussions in football

Question 3. Statement: The concussions issue has altered the way I watch pro football.
Definitely agree. I find that I cannot/do not enjoy the game knowing people get permanently hurt: 9.6%
Agree. I still watch but it has had a clear effect on my football watching. 39.3%
Neutral. 10.8%
Disagree. I’m saddened by each concussion discovery but honestly I watch football the same: 35.5%
Strongly disagree. Don’t think about it. I love football as much or more than ever. 4.8%
Broken Down:
Agree: 48.9%
Disagree: 40.3%
Neutral: 10.8%

* * *
I thought this was the most intense question in the survey … if a question on a survey can be intense. It seems to me that we are told two broad things over and over again:

1. We are told that pro football is more dangerous than we imagined. We are told that concussions, which were often thought of as minor and temporary injuries — even badges of honor for the tough football player — are having horrible and devastating effects on the human brain. More evidence on this comes out every day. We see the pain and agony that many former players endure after their careers are over. We watch the living hell that amazing football players like Junior Seau and Mike Webster live after they have spent 15 years entertaining us with their violence.

2. We are told that pro football is more popular than it has ever been by every measure. The television ratings do not only dwarf everything else in sports, they dwarf everything else in entertainment. The crowds are massive despite the high prices and, in many places, a family-unfriendly fan experience. The money spent on pro football in America — through television, radio, the internet, newspapers, magazines, fantasy football, gambling operations — is utterly mind-boggling.

How do these two realities dance with each other? I hear people all the time jump to the most extreme views. They will say that people will soon stop watching football entirely (based on the gruesome facts that keep emerging and a few prominent people who do stop) OR they will say that people do not care at all about the violence of what it is doing to the men who play (based on the enormous success of football and the even higher projections).

My suspicion is that neither of those viewpoints is close. I think most people do care about the dangers of pro football, I also think most people are thoroughly engaged in pro football. I think most people want the game to be safer. And I think most people want the game to remain thrilling.

Pro football is embedded in our lives. It is the most perfectly situated sport in American history. It is played once a week, mostly on Sunday, in an era when we have less and less time during the week for recreation. It is perfectly designed for viewing on a high-definition, large-screen television in an era of high-definition, large-screen televisions. It is constructed in a way that suits advertisers and sponsors, it is structured in a way that encourages fantasy sports, it is the ultimate sport for gamblers. While baseball has thrashed against seemingly every notch of progress for 50 years, football just becomes more and more a part of our lives with every technological advancement.

But I don’t think that means most people are callous to the concussion revelations. I think most people look at a helmet-to-helmet hit differently now than they did even two years ago. I think most people would happily give up a little bit of the buzz and rush of watching football if it would make the game safer. I think most people, at least every now and again, do think about what the players may be giving up in order to play football at the most ferocious level.

What interested me most about this poll is that the vast majority of you — more than three quarters of you, in fact — checked either “I still watch but it has had a clear effect on my football watching” or “I’m saddened by each concussion discovery but honestly I watch football the same.” That says to me that football watching is evolving. Slowly. Well, evolution is slow. There’s an creeping awareness now. Maybe, for some, it’s a small twinge when we see a receiver and safety crash helmets. Maybe it’s a fleeting question about how these hits will affect players like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning down the road.

I’ll give you a personal example: Wednesday, it seems, the utterly desperate St. Louis Rams called 44-year-old Brett Favre to see if he might come out of retirement and be quarterback for their crummy team. My first reaction was the obvious one: The Rams have to be out of their minds. Brett Favre? Seriously? That man’s a grandfather, for crying out loud. Why not just place a call to Joe Montana and Sonny Jurgensen while you’re at it? That’s just such an act of desperation from a 3-4 team that you can’t help but shake your head.

But my second thought was different from what it might have been: Were they really trying to bring back a 44-year-old man who has already been sacked more times than any quarterback ever into the league? There seems something almost unfeeling about that, something almost cruel, let the man alone already, he’s done enough, he’s taken enough hits, quit trying to tempt him back with some money and a few last strains of glory.

No, the way we watch football will not just change, suddenly, overnight. Sure, a few people will stop watching. But only a few. Sure, a few people will refuse to believe that the violence in the NFL is that damaging or they will simply be unaffected by it. But only a few. For most, I suspect, there will be an evolution. It will take a long long time. And it will be unpredictable. I don’t know what direction it will go. But I feel pretty sure we will all watch football differently over the next five, 10 and 15 years.*

*I should add here that the essence of this question was entirely built around how we watch pro football. The many other changes — such as letting children play football, the dangers of high school football, the countless contradictions of college football on and on — are even more involved and are worth many other discussions.

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36 Responses to Hot Button: Concussions in football

  1. jkd says:

    The real change, I think, is going to come over time not because of how we watch but because of how our kids play, or don’t. I’m betting that there are plenty of parents out there right now who, though uneasy, will continue to *watch* football but will never, ever let their kid get anywhere near a tackle football field. That’s a poll I’d be interested in seeing.

    • DjangoZ says:

      I agree, I don’t think most thoughtful parents will allow their children to play football. If you’ve looked at the evidence and understand the very serious consequences how could you want that to happen to your child?

      • Bill White says:

        And, when parents stop letting their children play football, the interest in football will dwindle, not only among the parents, but among the children who will become occupied with other pursuits. And that spells long term disaster for not only the NFL, but college, high school and junior programs as well.

        • Chris Smith says:

          I don’t know that this is true. Soccer has grown by leaps and bounds in terms of youth participation over the past couple decades, but it’s done nothing to come close to football, basketball, or baseball in terms of professional following. Hundreds of thousands of kids participate in track, cross country, volleyball, and other sports, too, but they don’t grow up to start watching them in bars on Sunday afternoons. Except for every 4th year….

      • This comment was from someone who doesn’t have athletic teenage boys. Yes, we’d strongly prefer they play other sports…. I was never fond of hitting, especially getting my legs chopped, so my football career was very short….And fortunately mine haven’t been football players and prefer other sports…. But do you want to be “that Dad” who prevents their kid from playing a sport they are passionate about playing? To me, that’s something an ignorant Mom might do, but not a Dad who understands the nature of boys and the battles they are wired to take on.

    • 18thstreet says:

      I agree with JKD. And once you hold the opinion that you’d never let your own kid play football, it becomes hard to watch other kids play football, too.

      I have a relative who was a very good boxer; he’s retired now. I was never a fan of the sport, but I watched him fight (on TV) when I found out how good he was: with a win, he’d probably get a shot at the belt in whatever weight class he was in. He lost. And watching my relative get punched in the face made me never want to see a boxing match ever again. It’s gross. Just disgusting.

      I don’t like football much to begin with — I tried really getting into it when I moved to a new city and I figured it would be a chance to make some friends, watching NFL games at my team bar. It didn’t take for a lot of reasons. But I understand the sport just fine; I’ll bet that I understand the much better than most people who don’t like it. (I don’t like opera, either, but I don’t know a thing about it.) The point is, maybe I’m not the best critic on this topic. But the thing that really changed the sport for me is that a friend of mine (a guy who works a white collar job) got a concussion doing housework or something. Hit his head real hard while cleaning out his attic, something mundane like that. Fourteen months later, he still gets symptoms from it sometimes. It sounds awful.

    • Dan England says:

      That describes me exactly jkd. And I feel like such a hypocrite. But I don’t care. It’s my kid.

      • NevadaMark says:

        Dan: You are NOT a hypocrite if you like to watch football and yet don’t want your sons to play. Hypocrisy involves preaching one thing and doing the exact opposite. That is certainly not the case here. And for the record, I LOVE watching football and I thank my lucky stars my sons never played the game in school.

  2. DjangoZ says:

    I’m one of those people who no longer watches. I’ve found other sports that I prefer. It wasn’t just the concussion issue…but that was definitely a factor.

    I still miss it though. I still check the standings from time to time.

  3. likedoohan says:

    Agree with above. Boxing was once the biggest sport in America, but the number of kids participating plummeted and now it is a fringe sport. I would never allow my kids to play tackle football. The other issue is that while the NFL is making a very public effort to limit helmet-to-helmet hits in the open field, there is evidence that repeated, less intense hits (such as occur to linemen like Webster) are dangerous as well.

  4. Richard says:

    I’m wondering if there should have been another possible answer: “I am not a football fan, so this issue does not matter to me (other than that I do not wish to see people injured).”

    • Anon21 says:

      That’s what the neutral option said, in essence. I don’t remember the exact wording, but it was something like “I don’t watch anyway.”

  5. rwh78 says:

    Here are a few of my random thoughts about this issue, some personal, likely none unique:

    1) I’ve never been much of a football fan.
    2) The increasing information about the dangers of the game have put me off it further.
    3) My son preferred non-contact sports (baseball, swimming, track, tennis, golf), so I faced no conflicts on his choosing football. (That would have been a tough one.)
    4) The players are so anonymized by the uniforms/helmets that I suspect many viewers forget that they’re actual human beings.
    5) If it were predominantly rich white people getting destroyed by this sport, it might be banned.

  6. Mike Round says:

    I don’t think it will take a long time. Information and awareness about concussions might change a person’s perception. To many, though, it remains just a word. Knowing someone directly impacted by a concussion, however, changes you immediately. And with more knowledge, this group of people directly affected is increasing rapidly.

  7. Rick says:

    It used to be rich white kids getting destroyed. Ivy League footballers were dying by the dozen a century ago, and the game was nearly banned

  8. dominicancamp says:

    I hope the recent concussion debate isn’t suddenly making people aware that football is a dangerous game. People have been getting crippled with knee and leg injuries and paralyzed with neck injuries for years from football.

    I spend a lot of time overseas in third-world countries. One of my general impressions is how much tougher the kids (and people in general) are in these countries compared to the United States. Yet despite that toughness, when asked about American football, they think the game is too violent/reckless…etc. Tough is one thing; stupid is something else.

  9. PaulS says:

    I’ve enjoyed the Hot Button topics, but I think Joe may have skewed the results on this one by virtue of how he phrased the Disagree answer. On the previous topics, the ‘qualifiers’ attached to the Agree and Strongly Agree were definitely on one side of the issue, while the Disagree and Strongly Disagree qualifiers were on the other.

    In this case, he used ‘I’m saddened by each concussion ….’ as part of the Disagree answer, so you could answer Strongly Agree, Agree, or Disagree, and still be on the side of worrying about concussions.

    What if it had been phrased, ‘Disagree, NFL players understand the risk and are compensated well, so I watch football just the same’? Probably a different result.

    I’d be interested to see how all these topics would play out if he simply used Strongly Agree, Agree, etc…, rather than attaching a semi-loaded statement next to each, none of which may reflect the reader’s actual view. But, still love the columns.

    All that said, I agree with previous posters that football’s popularity may diminish when we have a generation of men who didn’t play the game as boys, but then again, football is incredibly popular among women, so what does that mean?

    Here’s a question – if you wanted to avoid multiple concussions and their associated health problems, would you rather play in today’s bigger, stronger, faster NFL, with the new anti-headhunting rules, concussion protocols, and better equipment, or would you take your chances in the old NFL, with slower, smaller players, but with the wild, wild west rules?

  10. wordyduke says:

    Joe, you write, “I expect there will be an evolution [that] will take a long long time.” I agree. The people who perpetuate what football has become do not — by and large — have sons who play. They are the pro owners who, when they sell their teams, get fabulous capital gains. They are the university donors who get their names plastered on stadia, indoor practice fields, every fancier training facilities to make the gladiators more lethal to one another. These people have lots of money to use on their football hobby. Only when association with football becomes embarrassing are they likely to step back from their role in perpetuating what it has become. And what would take football’s place? What would we do with all the facilities?

    Suppose we put the $$$, effort, and time that we devote to football into an activity that could, in a generation, make the USA truly a better place for all its citizens. . . .

  11. I just want to reiterate what likedoohan said above. Research into CTE suggests that repeated, low-impact collisions to the head may be as harmful as concussive events. It’s possible—maybe even probable—that there’s simply no way to play the sport of football without serious risk of CTE, regardless of concussion protocol, targeting rules, outlawed helmet-to-helmet hits, etc.

  12. “Agree. I still watch but it has had a clear effect on my football watching. 39.3%”

    Of course this got chose the most. When you change a rule it is going to change how we watch the game. Every hit now gets disected by analists during and after the game and there are the fines and suspensions. So it has changed how we watch the game.

    I think a better answer for you to give people to choose would have been something like:

    I never want to see a football injury but a head injury isn’t really any different than a knee injury.

    or even:

    I never want to see a football injury but I would rather see a concussion than a torn ACL/MCL.

    I think either of these questions would have completly changed your poll.

  13. Steve Adey says:

    I am a teacher. Many of us agree that the first time a high school gets successfully sued over a football head injury will be the end of the game as we know it. Just a matter of time.

  14. clwalcott says:

    I don’t understand this…these are grown men. By all means the information about the risks should be out there, but the idea that we should protect grown men from themselves is paternalistic and symptomatic of our regulation crazed society. Now, I don’t mind helmet to helmet rules (although I think, along with most people I suspect, that roughing the passer has gotten ridiculous, hate the 35 kickoffs although thankfully defenseless receiver calls seem to be dying off a bit) and some tweaks to stop the most dangerous stuff perhaps but this “someone think of the children” stuff is exasperating in the extreme for me. I will concede the NFL has an obligation to help these players in their retirement with some kind of fund, and am not over the details as to whether this is, or to what extent, the case.

    But yeah, grown me, taking risks, we should not legislate risk out of our society.

    I voted “Strongly Disagree”


  15. Ed says:

    It has definitely changed how I view football. Especially after discovering the danger of subconcussive blows.

    I started doubting my love of football after some stories several years ago about the physical damage players undergo. Guys in their thirties who can’t lift their hands over the heads. Old running backs who couldn’t walk up stairs.

    Now we find out about the brain damage.

    Unlike boxing, a sport that has lost popularity due to its brutality, football seems to be weathering the storm. I think a lot has to do with the anonymity of a lot of these players. They are so heavily armored they don’t look like humans on the field. I think it’s very telling that one of the most popular video games in this country is Madden football. We view these guys less than as people than as colorful figures who entertain us on TV.

  16. Sam says:

    Biggest football fan here. Would watch 4 games per week (2 on Sunday afternoon, 1 Sunday night, another Monday night). 3 FF teams. 10 different blogs/writers to follow every week. The concussion thing has killed that. I try watching it, but it feels weird. I can’t get into it anymore, and definitely can’t watch kids play. I have no problem with others watching it. I just can’t.

    So, I’ve purposely thrown myself into Premier League soccer. I wish there were more fans to talk to though.

  17. I played high school football with Pete Johnson. Anyone else old enough to remember Pete? I was a 130 lb. safety. Pete’s thighs were as big around as my waist. One afternoon in practice, my face collided with Pete’s thigh as he accelerated just past the line. I wear glasses. Did then, too, so I had a helmet intended for linebackers, with a cage across the face. After the play, I couldn’t see clearly. Figured my glasses were messed up and took off the helmet to get at them. As soon as the thing cleared my face, I could see fine. Pete’s thigh had bent the cage. It took two of us, one holding the helmet and the other the cage, leaning away from each other, to force it back into place. Yes, I was probably concussed. It was the 70s, and no one paid any attention. But think of the force needed to disfigure that helmet. Pete, by the way, felt nothing from the collision. I imagine he got bigger and stronger in college and in the pros.

  18. I coach an 8th grade youth team and have been involved with youth football for a long time. The participation numbers in my city ( I live in the State of Hockey, not football) are steady. I played contact football for many years and absolutely sustained multiple concussions. However, I believe the long term risk of concussions has reached the nanny state level of media hysteria. My son has played tackle football since the age of 8 (he’s 13) and the only concussion he’s sustained was from a collision during a baseball game (it was a doozy, unconscious, broken nose, tooth, ambulance ride, etc.). Since day one, my son has been taught the proper way to tackle and protect himself from a hit. The boy loves the game and I am not going to deny him life because of concussion fears. He still plays and loves baseball as well, despite plastic surgery, a TV and video game less week spent confined to a dark room to minimize brain activity, and the root canal and dental insert necessary to fix his tooth.

    Times have changed since my youth. I remember a light bulb moment while playing varsity football as a 15 year old sophomore…..if I used my helmet more and put the crown on the opponents face mask (I was actually taught that by a coach), I could actually shed blocks on defense and break tackles on offense much easier. The awareness issue related to concussions has improved immensely and if proper technique and form are practiced, the game is relatively safe. I am not talking NFL players, that’s a different animal, but the size and speed of the youth game (including high school) in relation to the protective equipment available makes the game as safe in my opinion as “non-contact” sports such as soccer and baseball.

  19. KHAZAD says:

    I do feel sorry for the older players who had untreated concussions, many of them not making the money that players make today. I have bad feelings towards the NFL as a corporation for trying to cover it up.

    It doesn’t stop me from watching or enjoying the game. Sometimes I think the NFL actually overcompensates for this now-handing out fines for perfectly legal tackles simply because of the result.

    We have the knowledge now, and kids are being trained at a young age, and the game will change as a result. When I was young and starting to play football, you were not considered “manly” if you needed water during a hot two a day practice. Then people started to notice that kids were dying every August, and now hydration is a focus. It made the game safer and better.

    I do sometimes wonder if the helmets meant to protect from concussions actually have the opposite effect. As anyone who has played organized football and also played in pick up games knows, the more padding you have, the more invulnerable you feel, and the harder you hit. The more we try to protect players, the harder the hits will become.

  20. Mark Daniel says:

    This makes the game much worse for me. There were already way too many catastrophic injuries in the NFL. Fans would go from “I think we’re a Super Bowl contender” one minute, to “I don’t even think we’ll make the playoffs” the next minute after one of their star players tears an ACL. It’s just a reality of the sport, and you have to expect it to happen to your team more often than not.

    A few years ago, when a player was laid out you felt a sense of relief when it turned out to be “just” a concussion. “Concussion? Oh good, he’ll be back next week. Thank God it wasn’t his knee.”

  21. mncharm says:

    I don’t disagree that NFL players are (or should be) well aware of the risks of playing football. That may not have been true even five years ago, but it’s crystal clear now.

    A couple of points, though:

    Just because they know the risks and are willing to take them doesn’t mean it’s crazy for viewers to think of the long-term health impacts.

    Further, the practical reality is that, while the NFL does not have direct control over the NCAA/high school/youth sports, they are leaders in football, and what they do will have effects on the sport at those levels. To me, it’s not “think of the children” in terms of them watching guys get injured on the NFL field, it’s “think of the children” in that if the NFL takes steps to keep its players safer, there is a high probability that lower leagues will follow in kind.

  22. mncharm says:

    AmishElectrician — I too live in the State of Hockey. There was a recent story locally (MinnPost, maybe?) about declining numbers of football players in Eden Prairie, the hotbed of youth football (to the extent we have one).

    Also, while limiting concussions is obviously a worthy goal, it’s the subconcussive hits that neither helmets nor proper tackling technique can stop that concern me most.

    • KHAZAD says:

      Interesting that Hockey is brought up, though only tangentially. It is a fact that the rate of concussions (per 1000 players) is higher in hockey than it is in football. (For players of college age and younger) It is also higher in girls soccer (In every sport played by both sexes, females have a higher concussion rate) Men’s Soccer is right behind football and gaining.

      I say this because there were people above that said that they would have their child play soccer rather than football because of the concussions. While there is no doubt that football is a violent game, and there are other injuries that come into play, the exposure to concussions is not as large a difference as some people think.

      The history of concussion treatment in football is a sad one, and it has certainly been in the news, first with the lawsuit, now with the new standards and practices for concussion in football.

      But while football has the highest amount of concussions, the rate per participant is lower than the sports mentioned above, and while boys soccer is lower, it certainly has significant concussion rate, and is not a place to hide.

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