"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

NFL Concussions And Lance Armstrong–Market Solutions, Not Regulation

There has been an increasing focus on concussions in the NFL, and the furor has quickly reached down to Pop Warner, a youth football organization.  Coaches are anxiously looking into the eyes of little five-year-olds and 250 lb. running backs with the same concern over lawsuits.  For years American football’s ethos was ‘man up’, shake it off, get back in there, take another hit for the team, etc., and no one paid attention to the brain-rattling injuries that were occurring. Foggy athletes who were helped off the field were more or less themselves the next day, so who knew that they couldn’t remember the name of their Aunt Sadie?.  If any one of us had given this issue half a thought, we would have realized that the brains of football behemoths get banged around their craniums just like punch drunk boxers.

Now that the issue is out in the open, the NFL and its shill, ESPN, are scrambling for answers.  In the past few Sundays, a number of key players have gotten clocked and been forced out of important games because of new league rules. The Sean Payton New Orleans Saints affair where athletes and team management were fined and censured for bounty-hunting – bonuses for coldcocking quarterbacks – was the last straw.

Executives at both corporations are shaking their heads at the concussion flap.  They know that only a tiny fraction of NFL athletes out of the thousands who had played have ever suffered mental decline because of football.  More importantly they know that the crowds love the mayhem and violence.  NFL fans love the bone-shattering, brain rattling, head-on train crashes of the National Football League. Professional football is a blood sport.

Football may not be quite like NASCAR where millions of fans watch souped-up versions of their own boring Chevys and Camrys go ‘round and ‘round until they eventually crash in a metal-shredding pile-up, hit the wall at 200 mph, or explode in a nuclear fireball; but it is close. Most NFL fans do love the intricacy, the complexity, and the athletic skill; but boy, do they ever love those hits.  “That’ll make the highlights”, say the announcers when the train wreck happens, bodies are strewn on the turf, and the ambulance crew rushes in. Without the carnage, the NFL would be like Major League Soccer – bo-ring.

The League, however, has bowed to the outcry of the concerned, and instituted and enforced concussion rules which are currently so conservative that the loss of at least one player per game is assured.  Owners who want the on-field brutality to continue, but who see the legal vultures perched high up on stadium parapets ready to chase the ambulances that cart off franchise players, are – at least for the time being – keeping their mouths shut.

Here is where I am perplexed.  Everyone knows that there is a good chance of someone getting their clocks cleaned in every single NFL game.  The League knows it, the owners know it, the coaches know it, and the players know it.  Is there any dearth of young athletes who risk everything in high school to play at a top Division 1 team? Or any college player who doesn’t try to excel and bruise and maim others along the way?  Of course not. 

If they know the risks and we know the risks, then why all this fuss?  We are all complicit in the blood and dementia, and no one seems to mind except ‘The Concerned’ – the well-meaning vigilantes of American society who want to expunge any risk, any danger, any compromise to a long life and the pursuit of happiness.  The same people who want to remove slides and monkey bars from playgrounds and force bike helmets on 3-year olds on tricycles on vernal park paths. 

I don’t see the need for any regulation because of this three-way contract – owners, players, and fans – works just fine; but if something must be done, then put a warning message on every ticket and every TV broadcast and in every professional contract.  “THIS SPORT IS DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH.  It can cause physical damage and mental impairment.  Play at your own risk”.  The market would then regulate the game.  Top athletes might opt for soccer; fans might turn to golf and tennis; and the NFL might morph into a violence-free and elegant game of touch.

Which brings me to Lance Armstrong and the issue of doping.  For years it was assumed that at least some athletes in most sports doped.  Although many baseball fans had convenient amnesia while watching Barry Bonds, Mark McGuire, and Sammy Sosa bash more home runs than ever thought possible, or admiring weak slap-single players who now lashed dingers to all fields.  Most knew what was going on, but guess what?  They didn’t care.  The sound of a cannon report as the bat of Mighty Joe Young crushed the ball; the majestic arc of the trajectory of the ball as it flew over 450 ft., and the sound of it rattling around the empty nose-bleed seats high the upper upper deck were thrilling.

My solution, rather than simply ratchet up the blood-snooping or make the cat-and-mouse game more challenging, is to issue the same NFL-type warning to fans:  BE ADVISED - ATHLETES IN THE SPORT YOU ARE WATCHING ARE DOPING. And for athletes: WARNING! DOPING CAN SHRINK YOUR BALLS, CAUSE HEART FAILURE AND HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE. 

Some fans will not watching the Tour de France because it is doped.  Others will watch with increased enthusiasm because they will see even greater feats of strength; but the fans will decide.  Similarly, many cyclists will drop out and head for the golf links, while others will take the risk.  “A few years can’t hurt”, they will argue to themselves, “and besides, the money’s good.”

So, let it be.  Let the blood sports continue.  Let’s stop reining in hockey enforcers.  Once they are aware of the risk and sign on to the program, let ‘em go at it. Let NFL knuckle-draggers club each other silly.  Put no speed governors on race cars. 

Let there be room in an increasing nanny state for at least one unregulated, untamed, undisciplined outlet for the mayhem and violence in all of us.  Hey, at least someone else is committing the brutality. 

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