"Numerous studies have shown connections between the repetitive head trauma associated with football, brain damage and issues such as depression and memory loss…More than 70 former players have been diagnosed with progressive neurological disease after their deaths" - ESPN, 2015
Former San Francisco 49er Chris Borland was coming off of a fantastic season in 2014. As a rookie inside linebacker he recorded over 107 tackles in only 8 starts and appeared to be slated for a long and financially lucrative career. However, instead of living out his NFL stardom he chose to retire from the game altogether at 24 years old. What motivates a young star to walk away from millions of dollars? The inconvenient and undeniable truth that playing football can lead to long-term brain injuries.
Speculation is that unless the NFL is able to find a way to mitigate the risk of brain injuries for players, football will not be played in its current form in the future. Former Dallas Cowboy's quarterback Troy Aikman has suggested that the NFL replaces the plastic helmets currently used in favor of leather helmets used when the game first originated. Aikman believes that having less protection around the head will force players to be more conscious of their form and stop leading with their head when they tackle, which will lead to less concussions. With all due respect to Mr. Aikman, I believe it is important to use our heads in resolving this issue and not to revert backwards in technology.
The NFL has tried to address this issue by enforcing financial penalties and suspensions for players who hit hard. While this in theory sounds good, the inescapable fact of the matter is that football is an inherently violent game and the big hits are part of the on-field product that fans know and love. This makes for a particularly hard issue to solve, because if we accept the premises that A.) Big hits are a part of football and B.) Big hits are a part of concussions, then we must accept the conclusion that our problem is engrained in our product. Therefore, to isolate the issue of concussions and eliminate them while leaving the game of football fundamentally unchanged is a tall task.
By nature, football is a collision sport being played by men with incredible weight-to-speed ratios. Physics would say that launching these massive humans at each other like projectiles will inevitably lead to high impact collisions and ultimately concussions. To continue playing football in its current form, we must first admit that high-impact collisions between players causes concussions. Secondly, we must modify the game to de-incentivize big hits in any way possible.
Removing hard hits from football would take some rule changes, but would not compromise the schematic integrity of the game. However, it is the public perception that hard hits are exciting and so to remove them from the game altogether could be met with negative reception. Nevertheless, when forced to choose between no-big-hits and no football at all, most fans would likely elect to modify football for the sake of its longevity. So ultimately, although hard hits have become iconic in the NFL, the game must move farther away from glorifying them because they make football unsafe for players and we must treat athletes as humans with respect.
If the external motivation of being fined by the NFL does not work in reducing big hits, perhaps an internal motivation of eliminating reasons to hit big will. One motivating reason players have for making big hits is to cause a fumble. They want to hit the ball carrier so hard that he drops the ball, so that he or his teammates may pick it up. Turnover rates are highly correlated with wins in football, so it is perfectly logical for players to hit the ball carrier as hard as they can at every opportunity to cause a fumble. To eliminate fumbles from the game would give the defensive player significantly less inspiration to hit a ball carrier at full power, and schematically would alter the game of football very little. Game plans would not be disrupted, total scores will not change, and the only difference would be that players are not hitting each other as hard.
Another way to reduce the total impact of hits on brain health would be for teams to stop placing such an emphasis on players getting "bigger." Of course this is more hindsight, and will be close to impossible to reverse, but if the average player was lighter than hits would be less substantial.
An interesting data piece created by reddit user Abresler shows just how far NFL athletes are pushing the weight-to-speed ratio limits of the human body.
"The 34 offensive linemen drafted in 1974 weighed, on average, 255 pounds. By 1999, the 34 drafted offensive linemen weighed an average of 317 pounds, a 62-pound, 24 percent increase. During the same span, rookie defensive linemen gained 34 pounds, tight ends gained 33 pounds, and linebackers gained 19 pounds."
In a collision sport like football, maximizing the weight and speed of players enhances the on-field product of the game from the viewer's standpoint. However from a practical standpoint, the laws of physics would suggest that maximizing the weight and speed of colliding objects would greatly increase the impact of the collision for both parties. When our acting "parties" are realized as vulnerable humans with the ability to be injured, perhaps it makes sense want to reduce the amount of impact they take over a career. Further, when incentives like fumbles for hitting a player as hard as possible are already ingrained into the game, it is no wonder that NFL athletes are experiencing brain trauma. My proposal? It's simple. Start encouraging players to lose weight and remove fumbles and we will be part of the way to seeing a sustainable future for football.