Commentary by Bill Buchanan
It seems incredible for me to say this, but I can foresee a day when I may quit watching football. I’ll hedge my bets on this statement because there are few things I enjoy watching more than college football. I’m a huge fan of the Crimson Tide of Alabama, but I love watching just about any quality college game. I don’t have the same passion for professional football, but if a game is on, I usually watch some of it, and I almost always catch the play-off games and Super Bowl.This is slowly changing for me. Recently, Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw went public with the information that he is feeling the effects of several concussions he sustained during his football career. These effects include short-term memory loss as well as the loss of hand-eye coordination. He is starting to experience symptoms that we now generally associate with those who are many years older than a 62-year-old. Studies on the effects of multiple concussions sustained in sports have been slow in coming. But a 2009 study commissioned by the NFL reported that Alzheimer’s disease, or similar memory-related diseases appear to have been diagnosed in the league’s former players at enormously higher rates than in the national population. For men aged 30 to 49, the rate is a staggering 19 times the norm. This is no longer a subject that can be ignored or swept aside.The NFL has defended their rules and policies, saying they promote safety. These policies sound eerily similar to the assurances made by the Japanese government that there were no leaks in their nuclear facilities, and we all know how that worked out. Congress has also made some noise about getting involved in the issue. It seems a little ironic that a group of people who often seem to have no brain at all want to monitor the brains of others.I see three main obstacles with any attempts to control this problem in football — the three M’s — muscle, machismo and money. There is more muscle in today’s game than ever before. The size and speed of players in the NFL has increased tremendously over the years. Since 1970, the average weight of the players has increased by nearly 25 pounds. These large men are also significantly faster than their earlier counterparts. So you have very big people hitting other very big people at very high speed — and it can only get worse. Some of the collisions you see on TV look like train wrecks. You can’t believe the guys aren’t killed — yet they get up and walk right back into the huddle for more. Football is played by large angry men. Machismo is a big part of the game. Playing with pain is not only valued, but demanded. One of the reasons Terry Bradshaw received so many damaging blows is that he was considered one of the “tough” guys. He returned to the game time and again following hard hits. He, and others like him, went back into games when they should have been held out for their own safety, but weren’t. All-Pro safety Ronnie Lott once had part of his damaged finger amputated rather than miss part of the season. Doing what most of us would never even consider only added to his legend. No one wants to be seen as weak, or unwilling to play with pain.But the biggest driving force is money. Many players’ contracts have incentive clauses attached that increase a player’s pay significantly if they meet certain goals. There are no incentives for sitting on the bench. So if a player wants to increase his pay, he has to play. Players are also afraid of losing their job to someone else if they sit out with an injury. Starters get paid a lot more than those who sit on the bench. So players do everything they can to stay on the field, often at their own peril.Several newspaper articles and some TV shows, such as the excellent “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel,” are beginning to address the concussion issue aggressively. It is especially painful to see the larger-than-life football heroes of your youth reduced to physical and mental shells of their former selves. That said; no one is forced to play. No one holds a gun to anyone’s head and says, “Now get out there and get some concussions.” But your heart goes out to those men and their families. After seeing those images, I am starting to feel a little guilty about supporting something that leaves those men in such terrible shape. It’s becoming harder and harder for me to enjoy the game thinking about what lies ahead for many of those on the field.