NFL players keep getting bigger, faster, and stronger. Helmets and other equipment can’t possibly keep up. What is the NFL to do?
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is leading the league during a watershed period. The league is more popular than it has ever been, it is the most watched sport in America, and owners and players are making historic money.
At the same time, more than 100 former players are suing the league for long-term damage allegedly caused by concussions and other injuries. Injured players are sitting out games or entire seasons in record numbers. And in a crazy contrast, current players are furious with rule changes imposed to protect them from these injuries. Many fans also passionately oppose these new rules, as well as referee calls that seem to err on the side of over-protecting players.
So far, Roger Goodell has risen to the challenges these issues have created. He drove the ban on “defenseless” helmet-to-helmet hits on quarterbacks and kickers, ban to blows to the head on kickers and quarterbacks, declaring a dead-ball when a player’s helmet comes off, increasing touchbacks by moving the kickoff line to the 35, and declaring receivers “defenseless players” until they have full balance and control. The league has also allocated $100 million for medical research into the effect of the game on players over time, particularly as it relates to concussions. I’m sure Goodell is contemplating other rule changes and policies to add to these.
There are many questions to be answered. First and foremost, can rule changes and adaptation allow the league to exist for another 50 years as players become faster and stronger? As new rules are implemented and in effect change the game, will fans stick with the game and still enjoy it as much as they do? How hard will current players fight such rule changes? And how will former players who are claiming debilitating health issues do in their efforts to sue the league, and what will the consequences be if they win?
I have predicted in this blog that an NFL player may very well lose his life on the field in the next 5 years. We’ve seen players in rare occurrences become quadriplegics and/or paralyzed, and we’ve witnessed a few terrible career ending injuries (See Joe Theismann). But all in all, the rare extreme injury has been reasonable and tolerable for the players, fans, and NFL. Roger Goodell likely has a contingency plan for a death on the field, but even a great plan will have an uncertain outcome for the league. In the meantime, the best thing Goodell can do is what he has been doing, and more of it. While fans and active players may not like rule changes to protect players, Goodell needs to be the responsible person who takes the right and long view to ensure he provides reasonable protection for the league’s players. This will protect the lives of not just the players, but of the league itself.