Getting punched in the face hurts. So do high speed car accidents. The existence of the risk of injury in sports is not the mystery we pretended it was with the NFL. Now, in order to maintain the charade, we have to keep pretending we’d have done anything to prevent it if we’d only known.
Therein lies the rub. I suppose it’s possible that in some bygone era a century or so ago, we really didn’t know that repeated, violent, blows to the head could cause permanent injury. That seems unlikely, though, since violence has been around forever, and therefore so have people living with its long-term effects.
No one got kicked in the head by a horse and suffered permanent injury in the 1800s? No took a beating at the hands of a war enemy that left them permanently traumatized? I find that hard to believe. The great myth of sports is the suspension of disbelief surrounding the injury risk of dangerous activities. It’s not that we didn’t know or suspect; it’s that we didn’t care.
And that’s pretty awful, right? If we approach it from the standpoint that we’re obligated to disallow people to take on risks they know are potentially harmful to them, then yes. However, we have to be comfortable, then, with the idea that we’ll be eliminating a lot of what makes sports entertaining.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not claiming that injury and violence are inextricable necessities of the level of entertainment modern sports supplies. Extreme physical performance is, though, and that carries with it the risk of injury.
Do we tell rock climbers that they can’t climb because they might fall? Do we tell distance runners the toll on their bodies is too great? Where do we draw the line for the risk of injury to which a player is allowed to choose to subject themselves?
I agree that accidents and intentionally damaging activities may be different animals. Driving a car 200 miles per hour is dangerous, but the intention is not the collision. Shall we eliminate only contact sports, then? Are boxing, hockey, and American football over? What about the concussions soccer players suffer from heading the ball? That’s not caused by another player, but it is an intentional act known to carry a substantial risk for permanent injury.
The NFL is currently embroiled in a battle to determine how to make high-speed bodily contact safer. A recent experiment with eliminating any lowering of the head to initiate contact with the helmet is severely hampering the game. Even proponents of greater anti-concussion safety measures are admitting that.
This is not a claim that anything less than near decapitation ruins the integrity of a historically barbaric game. It is an acknowledgement that, at a certain point, safety can restrict performance to the point that the interruption to the game detracts from the enjoyment of it. And maybe that’s still the way to go.
I can’t help but feel however, that, exposed and unaltered, the problem naturally resolves itself, though. Consider the popularity of boxing. At one point, boxing was arguably the most popular sport in western civilization. As we’ve become less and less tolerant of the permanent damage it causes, though, fewer and fewer young men are entering the sport.
Simultaneously, fewer and fewer people are finding it entertaining. Most people can’t tell you right now who the Heavyweight Champion of the World is. There was a time, not long ago, when that wasn’t true. People eventually grew weary of the violence and turned their attentions elsewhere. I hear constantly now how more and more parents are forbidding their children from playing American football, as well. The tide may naturally be shifting.
So, why wait for that to happen in the NFL? Why not actively cause the downfall of American football to speed it along? I don’t know that I have a better answer for that than that I believe in choice and freedom. We didn’t need to disallow boxers from boxing, and we didn’t need to castrate the mechanics of the sport. We just changed our reaction as fans to the violence and let nature and free will take their course.
I can’t argue against safety in football; I don’t need injury to be entertained. However, I also don’t want to protect individuals against their own will. Let’s sing from the mountain tops the dangers of football. Let’s do what we can to provide the players as much protection as still allows the game to be played. But then let’s give players the choice of whether or not they want to subject themselves to those risks, and let’s let concerned parents make the choice to let the sport die out by not feeding their children into it.
Are we really opposed to risks of injury associated with American football, or are we just trying to make it look like we are. Do we really feel strongly enough about protecting players from themselves that we’re willing to turn our backs on the sport, or are we instead going to hamstring it with such burdensome countermeasures that it eventually dies a slow and undignified death in the midst of a great deal of complaining, denial, and hypocrisy?