Drop everything. All hail the NFL. The money-making, recession-proof, ad-pushing industry known as the National Football League returns to action full-bore today. Berkshire fans of the New England Patriots will be hunkered down in front of their wide-screen TVs at 1 p.m. as the perennial Super Bowl contenders kick their season off in Buffalo. The county’s many New York Giants fans must wait until 8 tonight to watch their team square off in Dallas against the arch-rival Cowboys. Yes, the fun will be interrupted by injuries and extended commercial breaks when players are stretchered off, but this mayhem is the Faustian bargain all have made -- owners, players, fans -- to profit from and to enjoy the NFL.
Football is an exciting game, and the NFL has the best players in the world. With only 16 games in the regular season, all are important, which lends itself to wagering, another industry in itself. Football and modern computer technology proved to be a perfect match, leading to the creation of fantasy football, yet another multi-million dollar industry fueled by fans crafting their own online football teams. The TV ratings climb, the ad prices skyrocket and the profits surpass expectations.
As does the body count. Athletes in all sports have grown bigger and faster over the years, but only in football are they expected to hurl themselves at each other on every play. Beefy linebackers run like wide receivers and swift wide receivers hit like linebackers. Something has to give and often it is the knee, which is not designed for football. This August there was an epidemic of torn ACLs, MCLs and PCLs in meaningless exhibition games.
Sometimes what gives in these collisions is the brain. Concussions used to be shrugged off, even by the concussed, until retired players in their 40s and 50s began coming down with dementia. The horrible stories of players sinking into depression and anger as their minds went became far too common, and the suicides of high-profile players like Junior Seau focused increased attention on this crisis. The brains of these players, donated to medical researchers by distraught families in search of answers, often resembled those of elder citizens in advanced stages of Alzheimer’s.
Last month, the NFL agreed to a $765 million payout over 20 years to settle a lawsuit brought by 4,500 players because of brain injuries they claim to have suffered during their careers. That is a lot of money that will do a lot of good, but if it would put a major dent in the NFL’s coffers the league’s attorneys would never have agreed to it. The NFL is also spared a court case in which it may have had to reveal what it knew about the dangers players’ brains had been exposed to on the football field and when it knew it.
Going forward, the league has in place medical protocols to keep players who have suffered head injuries off the field until they have recovered. Brain injuries are hard to diagnose, however, and other than going to tag football rules, there are limits to what can be done to prevent injuries in such an inherently dangerous game.
The players, it must be said, are not exactly victims. A plan to test for Human Growth Hormone, which can make huge players even larger, is being held up by the players. While they would benefit from testing, they are loathe to surrender any chemical advantages. That Faustian bargain that enables the NFL to thrive despite crippling injuries to brain and body will never be broken as long as the players themselves are the most determined to preserve it. Almost time for kickoff.