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Concussions, Bounties, and the future of football | NFL

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In the wake of the NFL‘s recent emphasis on player safety and a spate of concussion related lawsuits, ‘Bounty Gate’ must have been the last thing the league wanted to see coming its way.  A league investigation of the New Orleans Saints uncovered the involvement of both coaches and players in a ‘bounty’ system that saw members of the team receive financial rewards for injuring their opponents.  The NFL has gone into hyperdrive in its efforts emphasize that this is unacceptable, but somehow their position smacks of hypocrisy.

In truth, the bounties paid in the New Orleans Saints locker room for physical play on the field are only a microcosm of the NFL as a whole.  The on-field actions that earned players small financial rewards in the locker room are the same actions that earn them multimillion-dollar contracts from front offices across the league.  No new ethical line of sportsmanship has been broached in this scandal.  The NFL has been profiting off of–and rewarding–the violence inherent in the game of football since its inception.  Violence and the intent to injure have always been a part of the game.  This is nothing new.  Delivering devastating hits and inflicting pain and intimidation on the opponent not only helps sell tickets, it also helps win games.  Many of the league’s greats are loved and revered as the epitome of what it means to be a football player precisely because of their ability to deliver this punishing style of play.

So where does a league built on controlled violence and brutal collisions go from here?  How long can the NFL have it both ways?  Celebrating the bone jarring hits in the weekly highlights on its own network and in NFL Films productions, while positioning itself as a league focused primarily on player safety strikes a discordant note.  The league has sold and continues to sell exactly what it claims to be trying to prevent.  And it is the reason we watch.  Not, one hopes, because of some primal sadistic joy in the pain of others, but because without the brutality, less courage is required.  We love the wide receiver who goes over the middle and makes a big third down grab because he has the courage to do it while knowing that a linebacker is about to lay him out.  We love the quarterback who stands in the pocket and delivers a strike as a lineman bares down on him, trying to take off his head, because we can only imagine the guts it would take to do the same.  There is beauty in these moments.  They are events and individuals that demonstrate some of the best characteristics in humanity: Selflessness and sacrifice for the team, bravery, toughness, focus, strength and resilience.  Without the brutality on the other end of the equation, the achievement is diminished.

And the change has already begun.  We aren’t living through the era of the quarterback because today’s players are better at playing the position but because less is asked of today’s quarterback.  A fundamental component of quarterback play from past eras has already been removed from today’s game by rules designed to protect these players from injury.  In addition to reading a defense and delivering an accurate and timely pass, there was, once upon a time, a baseline level of grit and toughness required to play the position of quarterback in the NFL.  Without that threshold the pool of potential NFL quarterbacks has grown dramatically but the achievement of successfully playing quarterback in the NFL is cheapened.

How long can the NFL straddle the line between player safety and the violent nature and integrity of the sport?  It’s either a violent sport, as it always has been, or it’s not.  Will America still love the NFL when it’s not?  At least one Hall of Fame quarterback isn’t convinced.  In regards to the emphasis on concussions and player safety, former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman recently said in a Los Angeles forum about the future of the NFL, “The long-term viability, to me anyway, is somewhat in question as far as what this game is going to look like 20 years from now,” according to the LA Times, in comments that went on to question whether football can remain America’s number one sport.

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