By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) When the news of Junior Seau’s tragic death by apparent suicide – and perhaps provoked by repeated head trauma from football – broke on Wednesday afternoon, the tweets about the potential perils of playing pigskin started flowing soon after.
“One reason I’m glad I had daughters,” @csupp wrote to me on Twitter, “Don’t have to tell a son, ‘You absolutely CANNOT play this sport.'”
“Not a parent,” @jstreibel22 chimed in, “but I’m adamant that any sons I ever have won’t play the sport. It’s simply not worth it.”
CBSNewYork.com: Football’s Junior And My Senior
Another Twitter friend, @sth749, then retweeted a message from NFL on Fox pregame host Curt Menefee, who wrote: “Concussion issues not just about today, having a real impact on future of NFL as more & more parents not letting kids play FB cuz of it.”
My friend then added: “I never played football, so maybe it isn’t saying much, but I don’t see me ever letting one of my three boys suit up.”
“It’s difficult to imagine such a scenario, to be sure,” I wrote. “But, at the same time, it’s not inconceivable. Not if the league is unable to wrap its collective head around the increasingly troubling topic of football-related head injuries and find some sort of suitable solution.”
At the time that issue, already a hot-button one, had been greatly exacerbated when the NFL announced that the New Orleans Saints had employed a bounty system from 2009 to 2011 in which players were rewarded with cash bonuses for seriously injuring opponents during games.
I speculated in March that the “Bountygate” scandal was just another log on the fire for critics who already believe football to be too dangerous for young men to play and it could put the NFL’s future in doubt. Along those lines, I referred to an article authored by financial experts Tyler Cown and Kevin Grier at Grantland.com that examined football’s twin crises of concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and painted a doomsday scenario for the NFL because of them.
Their piece asserts that, “The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits” and then spun a hypothetical tale in which ex-players suffering from conditions such as CTE start winning judgments against the NFL, prompting insurance companies to stop insuring colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits.
In Cown’s and Grier’s Armageddon scenario, coaches, officials and advertisers would start steering clear of the sport, and a growing number of concerned parents would also begin to keep their kids off football fields and involved in safer sports, resulting in a nationwide domino effect would ultimately dry up the NFL’s feeder system.
“This slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years,” Cown and Grier wrote. “Imagine the timeline. A couple more college players – or worse, high schoolers – commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn’t worth it.”
If Seau’s autopsy does ultimately show signs of CTE the way former Chicago Bear Dave Duerson’s did, the NFL is going to have to act somehow – and act soon. In his column on Wednesday, Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples wrote how the sport may still have time to save itself, as it has faced a similar crossroads before.
“When the ‘flying wedge’ formation was killing players near the turn of the 20th century,” Staples wrote, “U.S. president Teddy Roosevelt shouted down those who would ban the sport, gathered the leaders of the football-playing colleges and forced them to make rules to make the game safer.”
On Wednesday, one of my friends suggested trying to improve football safety by increasing the size of football fields (an idea that I’ve previously heard) or by instituting mandatory retirement for NFL players after eight seasons (an idea that I had not).
Now, such measures might make a difference, or they might not. After all, ending the “flying wedge” is surely infinitely easier than avoiding CTE in a sport with such contact. Perhaps the most difficult thing of all for the NFL, however, will be changing the growing public perception about football, which took a big dip this week – justified or not – with Seau’s shocking passing.
“Seriously,” one of my good friends, who is the father of a young boy, wrote me in a text message on Wednesday. “I don’t see how any sane parent would allow their son to play football.”
The NFL has to hope it can convince parents otherwise.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.