Is Football Destined to Become a "Sissy" Sport?
Remember the NFL bounty scandal in 2011? Remember when the league fined players, suspended coaches, and took away draft picks, all in an attempt to quell violence? Presumably, the goal here was to minimize serious injury. That or to mitigate the glorification of injury infliction (though I suppose the distinction between the two is irrelevant). In exercising its judicial authority, the NFL effectively split fans into two camps: the “let them play” people, and the “protect the players” people (perhaps it’s a bit more complicated, but for the sake of argument, two groups is appropriate).
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On one end, there were the people who thought, “this is football, it’s a violent sport, the players know it’s a violent sport, they signed up for it, let them hit each other.” While this may seem an attractive stance, it poses a moral dilemma. The rationale behind the “let them hit each other” argument allows for the justification of an action based on the fact that consent is provided. Consider a more extreme example; if players were allowed to kill on the field (essentially turning them into gladiators), but people continued to play the sport, would the fact that those people consented render a “no more killing” rule unethical? Obviously this is not a direct parallel, but its relevance is nonetheless apparent. If we would frown upon manslaughter (or even murder) in sports, why would we not frown upon a less serious crime like aggravated assault?
But of course the line must be drawn somewhere. After all, sports would be no fun if they weren’t physical (sorry curling). So society has bent the rules, and allowed for legal lenience on the court and in the stadium. If we accept (for the sake of discussion) that athletes on the field should not be held liable for violent acts to the same degree as those off the field (begging questions such as; should that New Mexico women’s soccer player be convicted of a crime? Or, for that matter, should Kevin Garnett, for an open-floor intentional elbow to the face?), is it then unreasonable for a league that is liable for player injury to prohibit said violence, if only to a slightly greater extent than it initially did?
Certainly the recent NFL settlement can shed light on this quandary. The settlement yielded several pertinent outcomes, and I will wade through the convoluted legal issues so as to explain its result as simply as possible. Essentially, the NFL had to pay a relatively small sum of money ($765 million) to former players for injuries they incurred while they were in the league. More importantly, however, the NFL was not required to provide an admission of guilt. To put it bluntly, the NFL said it didn’t know the degree of risk its players faced during their careers.
Hence, the case created an interesting paradox. Assuming that the players fined for bounties actually wanted to participate in the illegal practice and thus cause injury (as opposed to disliking the practice but adopting it so as to make extra money, which would nevertheless leave them vulnerable to liability), it is counterintuitive to reason that this same body of athletes (only a few years older, and now retired) would claim that the league is responsible for their injuries. Apparently nobody told these guys that they can’t have their cake and eat it too. But I digress.
The point is, the league is going to be the target of heated criticism one way or another. If the NFL decides to be strict and limit violence in the sport, it will face admonishment from those who would see the game played as initially intended; brutally. If, on the other hand, the league allows violence that it cannot help but recognize to be life-threatening, or at least long-term-damage-causing, it will face heightened legal and fiscal retribution.
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The conundrum yields several more pertinent derivative problems, which the NFL has handled poorly. Though the settlement preserved the league’s supposed innocence, studies have linked brain disorders to the repeated trauma incurred during football games. Thus, fewer children are participating in youth football than in the past and parents (even former NFL athletes) are removing their kids from the sport. Returning to the gladiator analogy; fans loved watching people kill each other in the Coliseum, but nowadays the practice would seem appalling. How long then, before inflicting injury in football games is perceived in a similarly taboo light?
While there is some positive to be noted in all of this; namely the improvement of protective equipment, the limitation of violence in football will inevitably continue to isolate fans and participants alike. As players continue to get bigger, stronger and faster, hits will continue to inflict more and more long-term physical damage. Ultimately, this paradox will be resolved in only one conceivable fashion; the NFL will be forced by its own players and fans to restrict the sport so severely that rather than, “Roethlisberger is blindsided and slammed to the ground!” we’ll hear something along the lines of, “I think he got two hands on Roethlisberger there, that’s a sack for a loss of ten.”
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