Originally published on Monday, May 14, 2012
DETROIT _ The true threat to the NFL isn't the sorrowful headlines of another former player's life ending far too early or the suspicions of craftily articulated bounties against opposing players spreading much further than the New Orleans Saints.
The real danger is what happens 10 years from now.
It's when today's 13-year-old athletic prodigy opts against concentrating on football and shifts his attentions toward basketball or baseball. Or his parents insist upon it.
The NFL will tap into fewer and fewer of that pool of exquisite athleticism as time marches on through the subsequent lawsuits, the potentially billions of dollars in liability settlements and, most tragically, the sad deaths of more former NFL players because of the possible residual effects of football-induced physical trauma.
What happens when the next Calvin Johnson figures he can make more money and enjoy a much healthier post-career life as a levitating 6-foot-5 NBA small forward or a power-stroking major league rightfielder?
What happens if NFL teams become uninsurable because of the flood of litigation in the coming years? Will playing the game in the future require players signing some form of liability waiver stating they clearly understand the enormity of the physical risks attached to the sport?
Will the league have no alternative but changing its rules in an effort to "slow down" the collisions and, it hopes, reduce the blunt-force trauma, specifically to the head?
If so, then you can wave good-bye to the NFL that became so immensely popular, powerful and profitable because it was controlled violence. It bordered on the reckless. That's what makes it so alluring to so many.
We try making football more complicated than it actually is. It's really simple: See that guy over there with the ball. Separate it from him by any means necessary.
The NFL's image problem isn't as easily correctable as learning how to tackle properly. Football is about a player's brain fooling his body into believing that it's perfectly normal behavior repeatedly running into a brick wall.
Chortle all you wish, but there's no guarantee the NFL will still reign as the undisputed entertainment giant in another 10 years. Like the players, the business of big-time football isn't indestructible.
Apply the metaphor of your choosing.
I've always thought NFL players had a screw loose. They're playing a couple aces shy of a full deck. But they willingly made the decision and, thus, must accept the consequences of a sport designed to physically intimidate the guy lined up across from you.
Before, it was accepting the possibility of replacement joints where once there was a fully functioning knee or hip. Or maybe it's a medicine cabinet resembling a fully stocked pharmacy with all the available prescription pain killers to make those first steps out of bed every morning in your early 40s a little more tolerable.
But if there's now medical evidence for suspecting that playing in the NFL reduces the chances of living to see your 50th birthday, then it will become less a league of transcendent stars in the coming years and more of a collection of non descripts.
The athletically gifted with choices in sports will choose something else.
(c)2012 the Detroit Free Press
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