As studies and accompanying news coverage about the long-term dangers of head trauma have emerged over the past few years I’ve been thinking about what American sports will look like a generation from now. The NFL’s recent $765M settlement with retired players has me thinking about it again.
In the US, football players are our modern gladiators, and we love to watch. A century ago, the survival of football was threatened due to the uproar over 19 fatalities in 1905. Rules were changed and the game became somewhat safer, but as we now are starting to understand, signs of serious damage may not emerge for years after retirement.
Will football and other violent sports survive? And if so, how will they look compared with today?
At the one extreme, I think it’s possible that football and boxing will be banned and that the rules of hockey and soccer will change substantially as a result of awareness of head injuries. If that seems extreme, consider how dramatically social norms on an issue like smoking can change over time. The Surgeon General first made noises about the danger of cigarettes in the 1960s, but when I was growing up in the 1970s and complained about secondhand smoke my mother told me to “get used to it.” It was inconceivable to me then that in 2013 smoking would be banned in so many places and so heavily stigmatized.
On the other hand, it’s been obvious forever that boxing is a dangerous endeavor. While there have been changes over time to ensure the safety of fighters the sport is still around and not all that different from what it was a generation back. So if boxing is the model then the modest changes we’ve seen so far in the other violent sports may be about as far as it goes.
One of the keys to the equation is what happens with youth sports. Parents of high school athletes are aware of the newer research on head trauma, and leagues and coaches have made reasonably strong moves to protect players with concussions from aggravating those injuries. But what of the parents who are having kids now? Will they be as eager as current and past generations to let their kids get involved in the more dangerous pursuits? I’m not sure.
An area to keep an eye on is technological change. Football helmets to protect players from death and serious injury inadvertently made things worse in some ways by encouraging spearing. With a better scientific understanding of head trauma and a desire to prevent it, equipment makers may be able to devise helmets and other gear to make the games safer without making them slower or less physical. That’s my hope.