The NFL announced a new policy yesterday. Teams found to have violated the league’s concussion rules, letting woozy players stay in the game for example, will now face fines starting at $50,000. They may even lose draft picks. On the surface, the policy seems like a solid move for safety and the league’s future. After all, increasing knowledge about concussions is an existential threat to the NFL’s multibillion-dollar operation. Concussions happen in just about every sport, but the frequency and severity with which they happen in pro football, and the long term effects that we know so much head trauma causes, makes the very popularity of football up for moral debate. At the very least, a league that is stunningly inept at managing its reputation hopes to avoid another high profile lawsuit from its former players.
It’s possible that the league naïvely believes that its new policy will make the game safer. More likely, it is cynically trying to absolve itself of as much responsibility as possible. Either way, the policy will make little to no difference.
For one thing, commissioner Roger Goodell’s official disciplinary policies mean next to nothing, as he bases his decisions solely off of public opinion. When TV cameras during a Vikings-Panthers game caught ball boys illegally warming footballs in cold weather, the public didn’t make much of it, so the league issued a warning. Yet when the unpopular Patriots were accused of illegally deflating footballs, the league imposed far more severe punishments on both the team and Tom Brady then fought bitterly for more than a year to make sure the legal system upheld them.
When Cris Carter, at the NFL’s official rookie symposium, encouraged law breaking players to save themselves by having a fall guy, the league thought the message worthy of posting on the NFL’s website. It was only after a year, when the public found out about the video, that the league realized what an atrocious message it was sending, especially in light of the actions of players like Ray Rice.
Rice was indicted for aggravated assault against his fiancée, a charge with a potential five-year prison sentence. There was also a video of him casually dragging her unconscious body out of an elevator. Goodell suspended him for two games. When the full video later came out, showing what everyone pretty much knew had happened, Rice brutally knocking his fiancée out cold, the public was horrified. Goodell re-suspended Rice indefinitely.
The commissioner even announced a new official disciplinary policy for domestic violence, with a six game ban for a first offense. But when the first high profile case came around, star pass rusher Greg Hardy’s conviction for brutally assaulting his girlfriend, Goodell declined to act for months, then suspended Hardy for ten games. On a moral level, even a lifetime ban might well have been appropriate given Hardy’s despicable actions. But on a practical level, Goodell was ignoring his very own policy once again. So forgive me if I doubt that yesterday’s announcement will impact the league’s discipline in any substantive way.
But even if it did, it would have next to no impact on safety in football. The fact is: football is a sport with collisions on every single play. It’s impossible to put on an NFL uniform, except perhaps as a kicker or punter, and not receive significant head trauma, both from concussions and many also damaging sub-concussive hits. I can only assume that the concussion symptoms a typical person might experience a few times in their lives are almost daily reality for pro football players during the season. As the recently retired Calvin Johnson told us, concussion-like impacts happen on almost every play, and nothing short of making the game flag football will change that.
To be fair, the league’s new policy doesn’t seek to keep the players from ever getting injured but rather to responsibly get concussed players out of the game. But that won’t happen either. The warrior culture of sports is too strong to let it. It’s a culture that has definite benefits; it is both useful and empowering to learn to push your physical limits and deal with pain when needed. At the same time, sports culture is uniquely unequipped to deal with concussions, a nearly invisible injury whose worst effects may be felt decades in the future.
I was reminded of that when, during a recent beach volleyball game with some friends, a woman on the other team fell and hit her head hard. Clearly dazed, she stayed on the ground for a minute or two, then got up, claimed to be okay and finished the game. I realize that an anecdote has little value to serious discussion of societal values. At the same time, I was struck by just how little the woman had to lose by removing herself from the game and yet how after she refused despite her almost certain concussion, everyone else just accepted it and kept on playing.
An NFL player experiencing similar symptoms would begin with the same basic societal values. However, he would presumably have much more experience receiving (and probably hiding) concussions. More importantly, he would have a massive monetary incentive to stay in the game. The fact is that very few NFL players have good job security. An injury could mean falling down the depth chart or even off the roster entirely. There’s a reason why “next man up” is such a popular mantra in football. If they had to lie to a trainer to keep making millions of dollars, most rational people would do just that.
And with anything less than a very severe concussion, evading medical attention is just not hard to do. For example, I would bet that Draymond Green did just that in Game 7 of the NBA’s Western Conference Finals. After hitting the ground hard and staying down, clutching his head, for more than thirty seconds, Green apparently assured the trainer he was fine. Maybe he was; Green is the type of guy who would exaggerate an injury to annoy an opponent. But maybe he wasn’t, and he was never so much as screened for a concussion. (In the Finals, Kevin Love got hit in a similar way and also stayed in the game, only later taking himself out in a concussed haze.)
So what can the NFL be expected to do? One side effect of Goodell’s clueless handling of so many other issues, not to mention the fact that the league knew about about the dangers of head trauma far before many of its players did, or that it tried to manipulate concussion research, is that the NFL and Goodell have lost the benefit of the doubt. Going forward, though, as long as there is football, there will be concussions, and there is very little that Goodell or anyone else can do to change that.
What we’re left with is football, an extremely entertaining game that often cripples its former players, and the NFL, a massive corporation stunningly bad at pretending to care about anything but profits. NFL players may well decide that as dangerous as the game is, the reward outweighs the risk. Football fans may well continue to embrace a violent game between consenting and very well paid adults. But nobody should be fooled into thinking the NFL’s new policy, or any policy it is likely to adopt, will change much of anything.
Images courtesy of The Associated Press, The Sporting News, Tom Gralish/AP Photo/The Philadelphia Inquirer, The NFL on Twitter