How can the NFL make football less dangerous? Try market incentives!
Football is a dying sport...literally.
It’s a fact that football players’ concussions and “normal” hits to the head cause dementia and long-term brain conditions, such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. Just last year, NFL team owners reached a settlement with players to fund $1 billion to care for the men who played a game that forever damaged their brain.
The owners didn’t volunteer to do this. It took a legal process. That process also brought concussion protocols to improve safety and targeting violations. Yet football remains a violent sport. As we all know, players’ prospects — and fortunes — are often made or lost by those who can inflict the most harm.
“Don’t hit too hard!,” said no coach ever.
I’m ready to cheer for the Texans, but I’m not ready to see J.J. Watt with brain damage in his early 50s. The billion-dollar settlement didn’t change the heart of the game, so players of all ages continue to face harm.
No other business could get away with this. If employees were frequently injured at work and risked suffered long-term disabilities, OSHA, our nation’s occupational safety regulator, would shut them down. Instead, OSHA has turned a blind eye to the employees of professional football teams. Why is football above the rules? Because society doesn’t consider football a normal business.
Football’s customers (the fans!) want to see action on the field. They enjoy the spectacle of a wide receiver taking a hard hit mid-air. Or seeing a body blow to a running back in the hope that he might funble. Or watching a quarterback blindsided, injured and knocked out of the game. This violence is not incidental to football. It’s the heart of football.
Football franchises are incredibly valuable. For the NFL, dollars to pay off aggrieved players is an economic investment that protects the value of the franchise. The NCAA face a similar dilemma. They don’t want to upset the financial apple cart by taking out all violence, because, at the end of the day, they know no one wants to watch professional flag football.
Football is also different because its employees, the players, willingly ignore the risk of brain damage for the prospect of a million-dollar payday. An 18-year-old who wants to be a millionaire football player doesn’t worry too much about CTE.
It’s clear to me, however, and to the scientific, healthcare and retired player communities, that football as it’s played today is a dying sport. It’s also clear that NFL owners, universities and fans are not going to lead on this issue. Neither will OSHA, nor our political leaders — who can’t even bring themselves to lead on gun safety or education funding, let alone upsetting football fans. If changes aren’t made, the growing public awareness of the effect of football on players’ brains could make watching football taboo in the not-so-distant future.
If anyone is going to fix football, I believe it must be NFL owners and state university board members. Instead of being slow to change, they should take a leadership role on this issue to protect their long-term investment. Let me suggest a step in the right direction:
Incentivize players to avoid causing injuries. Institute rules that force players who cause an injury to miss the same amount of playing time as the injured player. In this way, both teams will pay the consequences of excessive on-field violence. This small change would maintain the spirit of the game, while shifting the one-sided effects of injuring a player onto both teams.
Some potential drawbacks are that it’s not always possible to know which player caused an injury, and that this rule it could incentivize “flopping,” the over-dramatic pretense of injury so common in professional soccer. Both of these concerns, however, can be resolved with the instant replay. Also, if an injury is caused by a pile of players, then a player of similar position and ability would sit out.
With this rule in effect, the owners remove the benefit of causing an injury, and the interests of the two teams are aligned. Football should be tough, but if it’s going to survive, it can’t continue to be violent. This rule will save lives while protecting the heart of the game. And maybe, for once, we’ll start hearing coaches say, “Don’t hit too hard!”
At the very least, can we get rid of the congratulatory head-butt on the sideline?