Monday, January 28, 2013

Countdown to Super Bowl XLVII – the future of professional football

One of the biggest stories throughout Super Bowl week has nothing to do with the Baltimore Ravens and the San Francisco 49’ers, but everything to do with the future of the National Football League. More than 3,800 retired NFL players and their families are suing the National Football League, believing the Lords of the Pigskin willfully withheld information relating to the impact concussions had on football players and related safety issues. The issue – the future of the National Football League, the safety of the game and how football is played “colliding together” with the future of the NFL at stake.

“I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football. And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much.” President Barack Obama told NPR in regard to concussions and player safety in football.

“I tend to be more worried about college players than NFL players in the sense that the NFL players have a union, they're grown men, they can make some of these decisions on their own, and most of them are well-compensated for the violence they do to their bodies. You read some of these stories about college players who undergo some of these same problems with concussions and so forth and then have nothing to fall back on. That's something that I'd like to see the NCAA think about.”

When the most powerful person in the world steps into the football safety debate – player safety will be front and center throughout Super Bowl week.

There is an inherent danger in playing football, football is controlled warfare. Those who play football are well aware what can happen during a football game. There are close to 4,000 retired NFL players and their families, while aware of safety issues want to be heard. There are those who currently play on Any Given Sunday who seemingly could care less about player safety. Ravens safety Bernard Pollard believes the NFL faces a very uncertain future.

"Thirty years from now," Pollard told CBS Sports. "I don't think it will be in existence. I could be wrong. It's just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going -- where they [NFL rules makers] want to lighten up, and they're throwing flags and everything else -- there's going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it.

"Guys are getting fined, and they're talking about, 'Let's take away the strike zone' and 'Take the pads off' or 'Take the helmets off.' It's going to be a thing where fans aren't going to want to watch it anymore."

"The league is trying to move in the right direction [with player safety]," Pollard offered CBS Sports, "but, at the same time, [coaches] want bigger, stronger and faster year in and year out. And that means you're going to keep getting big hits and concussions and blown-out knees. The only thing I'm waiting for ... and, Lord, I hope it doesn't happen ... is a guy dying on the field. We've had everything else happen there except for a death. We understand what we signed up for, and it sucks.

"Like I said, I pray it never happens, but you've got guys who are 350 pounds running 4.5 and 4.4s, and these owners and coaches want scout-run blockers and linemen to move walls. At the same time, they tell you, 'Don't hit here, and don't hit there, or we'll take your money.' Like I said, I hope I'm wrong, but I just believe one day there's going to be a death that takes place on the field because of the direction we're going."

The genesis of the current lawsuits the NFL is facing date back to July 2011 when 75 retired players filed a lawsuit in Los Angeles claiming the NFL were aware as early as the 1920’s (the NFL began in 1920) of the inherent risks of concussions on players' brains, but concealed the information from players, coaches, trainers and others until June 2010.

The 3,800 suing the National Football League include members of the Football Hall of Fame, including Tony Dorsett. In the second quarter of a 1984 Dallas Cowboys – Philadelphia Eagles game (Dorsett was playing for the Cowboys) Dorsett suffered a helmet to helmet hit, the hardest hit of his Hall of Fame career.

"It was like a freight train hitting a Volkswagen," Dorsett says now. "Did they know it was a concussion?" he asks rhetorically during an interview with The Associated Press. "They thought I was half-dead."

And what did the Dallas Cowboys do? They shined a light in his eyes, asked him who sat next to him on the Cowboys team bus and put him back in the game in the second half. Dorsett remembers running plays the wrong way in that second half – yet he still managed to run for 99 more yards.

"That ain't the first time I was knocked out or been dazed over the course of my career, and now I'm suffering for it," the 58-year-old former tailback says. "And the NFL is trying to deny it."

What about the risk vs. reward – that playing football is dangerous – and Tony Dorsett was paid to play in the NFL. Much of the money he made while playing football was lost through a series of bad investments.

"Yeah, I understand you paid me to do this, but still yet, I put my life on the line for you, I put my health on the line," Dorsett says. "And yet when the time comes, you turn your back on me? That's not right. That's not the American way."

That, in many ways, is the heart of the matter – how the NFL is treating its former players, the athletes who built the NFL into one of the most successful businesses in the world today. Out of the four major North American sports: the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League, NFL player contacts are the only ones that are not guaranteed. Only the bonuses players receive when they sign their contracts are guaranteed. The NFL generates in excess of $9 billion annually. In what is arguably the most dangerous professional team sport, the NFL does not offer its players lifetime medical insurance.

There is risk vs. reward in any profession and NFL players are well paid and are aware of the risks playing football presents. The real question that needs to be asked: Is the NFL responsible for the quality of life their former players are being forced to lead –and are later-in-life health issues, a direct result of having played in the NFL?

More than 100 million Americans will watch Super Bowl XLVII on CBS. Families across America will gather together to watch the $4 million commercials, Beyoncé's half time adventure, the last game of Ray Lewis’ Hall of Fame career and the Baltimore Ravens meeting the San Francisco 49’ers in the biggest “event” of the year. More than 100 million Americans have little if any understanding as to what’s happening to the gridiron greats, the close to 4,000 former players desperately looking for answers.

Where is the moral outrage from the tens of millions of Americans who NFL football Sundays from early September through Super Bowl Sunday?

"What's a crisis for the league is just the perception of football and its safety and the sustainability of the game,” Robert Boland, a sports law professor at New York University told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It is the single biggest sustainability concern for the league."

There is a day of reckoning coming for the National Football League. The NFL will be forced to deal with their alleged inaction in Federal Court. A business that generates more than $9 billion annually in revenues needs to be “taking care of their own” and needs to be held accountable.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom

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