As a Patriots fan and an avid follower of football, watching the NFL is one of my favorite pastimes, as it is for millions of viewers across the U.S. It is becoming increasingly difficult, however, to reconcile my own interest in the sport with how the league has handled itself as a business. Specifically, the NFL has faced scrutiny for one specific and significant issue: player safety. In past years, the NFL has been repeatedly accused of neglecting player safety and prioritizing entertainment over the health of its players, and I believe many of these concerns are valid. Against mounting allegations of brutality, neglect, and callousness, the NFL must learn to accommodate for the safety of its players if it is to live up to the expectations of its viewers and fans.
In order to examine the issues within the NFL, it is crucial to understand its corporate structure, as the way it is operated is to make money, not to be a willful provider for its employees. The league considers itself a trade association — an organization formed and funded by 32 individual businesses or teams. The commissioner has the authority of hiring league employees, negotiating television deals, and disciplining any individual that exhibits, “Conduct detrimental to the welfare of the League or professional football.” This power structure often comes into direct conflict with the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA), the players’ labor union, which works to operate in the best interest of the players. Although most arguments come down to the salary cap and financial discussions, there is a growing discussion about player safety with regards to concussion protocol and long-lasting brain diseases such as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
The NFL’s relationship with player health and well-being has always been tumultuous. For example, on March 14, 2016, after many years of comprehensive lawsuits from former players over head trauma, the NFL’s senior vice president of health and safety, Jeff Miller, finally admitted to a causal relationship between playing football and degenerative brain disease. Even though this issue has been settled in court and the NFL has agreed to pay over a billion dollars to past players for brain-related injury and compensation; they are not required to offer monetary compensation to retired players if they develop CTE in the future, the brain disease most commonly associated with football. This is especially concerning when considering the alarming prevalence of CTE among football players. A scientific study done by the CTE Center showed the brain tissue of 90 out of 94 deceased former NFL players tested positive for the disease. Despite their authority in football, the NFL has regularly turned a blind eye to new scientific evidence linking repeated head trauma to long-term brain damage and cognitive decline.
Unfortunately, we cannot change the generations of negligence by the league office, but we can ensure the safety of current and future football players by implementing new safety measures. Helmet-to-helmet hits are now penalized in-game, and concussion protocol is required for players who have been hit hard to reenter the game. The current problem with the latter, is that players and teams will bypass the protocol if it hinders their ability to win the game. The NFLPA is trying to get the league to enforce harsher penalties for teams that override concussion protocol. In addition to this, the NFLPA is trying to mandate more effective helmets for players. Unfortunately, the most protective helmets available in the NFL are the least worn because they are heavier. This can be solved if the NFL and NFLPA compromise on a mandate.
In an environment where collisions to the head happen during every single play, it is imperative to ensure less likelihood in the development of degenerative brain disease in players. If the NFL wants to preserve its public image, further investigation and effort must be made to keep its players safe. Frankly, the NFL needs to match the NFLPA’s efforts to create the safest possible environment for its players to operate. Many kids all over the country are hesitant to pursue and play football because of the danger that the sport potentially poses on the body. Because I believe these concerns are legitimate, it is time for the NFL to assure people that they hold player safety to the highest standard. It is their responsibility as a fixture of American culture and as a billion-dollar business to assure the public that safety is their priority and that their players are in good hands.
William Lam is a two-year Lower from Lawrence, Mass.