Friday, September 6, 2013

Is This The End Of Football As We Know It

I have written a lot about football and concussions in the past (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and finally here).  The subject is beginning to be taken more seriously by many, although not by all.  There is still a lot of chatter on ESPN and other sports shows about how you "can't take these hits out of football", and how "getting hurt is just part of the game."  But we're not talking about a torn ACL or a broken finger, this is the brain.  These injuries are a lot different because of the significant long-term impact they have on people's lives, and the vast majority of people playing football and sustaining these injuries are not million-dollar athletes, but children and youth.

Last week the NFL settled a class-action suit regarding concussions.  This was a win for the NFL.  First because it allowed them to be done with it, and not face a much, much bigger penalty had they lost the case. Second they didn't have to divulge what they knew and when they knew it about concussions.  Third they can say they are doing something about concussions because part of the money goes into a research fund. And finally, and most importantly for the NFL, they won because they didn't have to divulge in court, under oath, what their financial statements really look like, and that is truly the holy grail, just ask the MLB and everything it does to protect the true financials of the teams.

Some of the players also won because rather than having to wait a long time for money they need know for medical bills, that money will be forthcoming.  But it won't really help most of the players, and I don't necessarily think it will have a long-term impact on the NFL or their behavior because they didn't have to admit wrong doing and the judge even said that this is unique case and does not  establish a precedent for other cases. Other judges can disagree with that, but the NFL lawyers have to be partying.

But the case doesn't really end there, because few people ever make it to the NFL, even those who play college football are a fraction of those who play high school football and Pop Warner (or its ilk) football. When Junior Seau's family joined the lawsuit against the NFL following his suicide, and later detection that he had CTE, even though he had never been diagnosed with a concussion, I wrote that while the NFL suit had legs, what was really going to change the game was when suits came against other groups.

Then this past week Gregg Easterbrook wrote a great piece on this very issue (and if you like football and aren't reading Tuesday Morning Quarterback, you are missing out).  He points out the number of individual lawsuits that have already been settled for megabucks, with the expectation that many more will be coming.  This week, three former players began a class-action suit against the NCAA asking what they knew and when they knew it about concussions.  This follows up on a similar suit filed last year.  This only has bad consequences for the NCAA, and it is just a matter of time before others join this suit, and similar suits are brought against other groups.

The NFL has deep pockets, as do some of the large football factory universities, and perhaps the NCAA. They can afford to fight these lawsuits for a while, but smaller schools, high schools and pee wee football leagues do not, and soon it is simply going to be too expensive to get insurance coverage to allow football to be played.  And when groups can't get insurance, football will stop being played because no one can risk the lawsuits any more, and written disclaimers and waivers are not deterents of lawsuits, no matter how much groups say they are.

It's not going to happen overnight, as these things take time, but as more cases are filed and more are settled, things will change.  Insurance companies are not in the business of losing money and so they are going to charge premiums in line with the risk they are taking, and local pop warner groups and school districts simply don't have the resources to pay the obscene premiums that will be charged.  And when they don't either parents will have to pay it, unlikely, it will have to be raised another way, and you can't hold enough car washes and bake sales to do that, business will have to foot the bill, and how many business will want to be associated with causing brain damage to 13 year olds, football will have to dramatically change, or it will simply go away.  It's happened before.  How many high school boxing teams are there?

Football has faced challenges like this is the past, and it made radical, for the time, rule changes.  Can they do it again?  The verdict is still out.

And if you haven't already, you must read this article on concussions and football by Malcom Gladwell, most especially if you have a child who plays football, know someone who plays, or even heard of someone you think you might know who plays.

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