“Football.” That word can have many different connotations, depending on where you are. Possibly stemming from the action of kicking a ball, or possibly stemming from peasants playing on foot instead of mounted on a horse, this word encompasses several sports. Association football, also known as soccer, is the most widely played sport in the world. Rugby football is played in several styles, which to an outsider bears a strong resemblance to Australian and Gaelic football. The football style that dominates American culture is fittingly known as American football, or gridiron.
Gridiron is a tough sport. When you say that someone is built like a linebacker, you are not calling them weak - the sport takes a severe toll on those that play. During its early development in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, gridiron was notorious for its violence and bloodshed, with many college-age fatalities turning public opinion against it. With some colleges starting to turn to organizing around Rugby football, Theodore Roosevelt called on universities to organize a reform of gridiron rules. Adopting helmets, body armor and the forward pass helped to drastically reduce deaths, but injuries still remained a problem.
One type of injury that was not easily picked up on in the 1900’s was Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, or CTE. While the degeneration of knees and hips were obvious outcomes of gridiron, CTE was not readily visible to the public eye. This changed with MRI tests, which could show the physical decay of brain matter over time for NFL veterans. Most damaging to the institution of gridiron, this decay does not only affect college and professional players - this decay begins as soon as a kid puts on a helmet and runs into somebody, which could be as young as 5 years of age. The point where this decay starts to have a tangible affect on someone’s personality and quality of life is not known; what is known is that sufferers of CTE have anger management issues, severe memory loss, crippling headaches and a tendency to suicide. This is compounded by widespread addiction to painkillers that veterans of the NCAA and NFL depended on and continue to depend on.
Attempts to address CTE have been hampered by the NFL denying it exists, then denying they knew it existed (which holds as much weight as Exxon claiming it didn’t know about human influence on climate change). The massive popularity of gridiron makes the NFL awash in cash, and as long as that cash is still there, there is no tangible impetus for the league to drastically change. Concerned parents may withhold their children from gridiron, but it has such a strong hold on so much of the culture of the country that it is unlikely to have an affect. Moreover, as long as the financial incentive of a professional contract exists, there will be those that pursue it, particularly by those who believe they have no other viable path to wealth.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t channel Theodore Roosevelt and figure out a way to save football through reformation. For this, we can look at another sport that TR was a fan of - boxing. For a long period of time, boxing was illegal in the United States. The introduction of boxing gloves supposedly made boxing safer and more pliable to the American public, but boxing gloves had a consequence - it made it less painful to punch somebody in the head. Considering how effective a hit on “the button” is, this increased the incentive to hit your opponent in the head. This has led to instances of CTE in boxing that would not exist if they had not been hit in the head so many times. As such, it could be argued that bareknuckle boxing, considered brutal and unacceptable in American culture, might actually be safer than gloved boxing if one considers having kidney or liver damage better than brain damage.
With that in mind, would the removal of helmets and armor be counter-intuitively safer? If paired with reformed tackling rules similar to Rugby, this might lead to drastically reduced incidence and severity of CTE. There might be more ankle, rib and knee injuries, but as terrible as those can be they must certainly be preferable over brain damage. Furthermore, if we are to accept injuries as an inherent part of gridiron, it would be fair to guarantee the contract of every football player so an injury - which is an intrinsic part of their job - does not leave them destitute. That is what Major League Baseball does; the MLB also gives every player that steps on a major league field health insurance for the rest of their life. The NFL can absolutely afford this - it has over twice the total amount of value as the MLB. It goes without mentioning that the NCAA deserves its own reformation, with similar concerns.
The NFL is already trying to implement methods to reduce the likelihood and severity of injuries with changes to rules for pass interference, tackling a defenseless receiver, roughing the passer and horse-collar tackles. The effectiveness of these rule changes are varying, as is the referee’s judgment in using these rules to penalize offending players. All these attempts to soften the game have drastically increased the amount of flags being thrown, which extends the length of the game and takes determining the game’s outcome more and more into the referee’s hands.
Getting rid of armor and only allowing Rugby tackles are unlikely to get popular support in the near future, but guaranteeing football contracts and health insurance in return for allowing for more frequent injuries and a faster pace of play will likely be received positively by players and fans alike. Inevitably, it falls on the team owners and the commissioner they install to make that call.