Football is a dangerous game—too dangerous, say increasing numbers of commentators and former players. Longtime Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, whose Hall-of-Fame career was cut short by a rash of concussions, has suggested he would not encourage any son of his to play such a violent game. And last year, economists and sports prognosticators Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier imagined a scenario in which football could fall into the cultural scrap heap due to public outcry over serious head injuries.
The volume of outcry over football’s danger spiked during Super Bowl week when President Barack Obama added his voice to the chorus of concern. In an interview with The New Republic, the country’s leader echoed Aikman: “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.” Obama went on to predict that the game would undergo significant changes in coming years that could “make it a little bit less exciting” but would better protect players and “those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”
The president’s comments raise important questions, chief among them perhaps: Do fans share a moral responsibility to demand reform in this sport they enjoy? With more than 100 million people tuning in to watch the Ravens and 49ers clash on the NFL’s grandest stage, most fans seem little troubled with the game’s present state. But could that change?
Social commentator Malcolm Gladwell, author of bestsellers Blink and Outliers, believes it can. In a public debate in New York last May, Gladwell teamed up with Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger to make a case for banning college football. His argument: How can institutions that ostensibly exist to develop young minds promote a sport that destroys them? Indeed, recent studies prove a link between playing football and increased risk of brain damage.
The force of Gladwell’s argument is such that it tends to gain traction whenever given a fair hearing. The audience at his New York debate voted overwhelmingly that he had won the day, despite impassioned counterpoints from sports writer Jason Whitlock and former NFL player Tim Green. How much better might that argument fair now with the backing of the world’s most powerful bully pulpit?
The NFL is scrambling to stay ahead of cultural concern, suggesting recently that it will hire independent neurological consultants to work the sidelines of games next year and provide on-the-spot diagnoses of concussions. But that’s not enough, says the league’s players union. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith used the media spotlight of Super Bowl frenzy just three days before the big game to call for the hiring of a neutral chief safety officer to police league rules and practices. The conversation isn’t going away. But the question remains whether fans will follow the nation’s first fan and add their voices in a meaningful way.
In addition to criticism about player safety, the NFL is taking shots over its general failure to hire minority candidates for general manager and head coaching positions. The so-called Rooney Rule, implemented in 2003, requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate every time the organization’s top two spots come open. Since the rule’s inception, the league has hired 12 minority candidates in those positions after having only hired six in the previous 80 years.
But this year, none of the 15 vacancies for the league’s top jobs were filled by minorities, and that has several black coaches crying foul. “Obviously,” says former Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy (above), “it’s not working the way it should.” —M.B.