Football’s future: An open question

What’s the future of football?

A couple of developments in recent months make that a fair question.

One is the news about the harmful effects of repeated concussions on brain function of former National Football League players. The other is the attempt by Northwestern University football players to organize as a labor union.

The danger to the brain in later life from a career in big-time football is real.

Several former NFL players are now shells of their former selves, with serious memory loss, motor skill problems, inability to think clearly — all the signs of early onset of dementia.

The NFL itself has offered millions of dollars to settle claims and lawsuits by the players or their families.

Careful studies, including autopsies, leave little doubt that repeated concussions are a major contributor to the retired players’ condition.

The findings are sending shock waves through athletic programs at every level, from peewee programs up through high school, college and professional teams.

The irony is that those players most affected are the truly gifted ones, the ones who succeed at each successive level until they are taken in the NFL draft and then launch careers as professionals. They’re the ones who accumulate long skeins of concussion events.

Most of us who were introduced to the game as fresh-faced junior high kids flamed out after high school, unlikely to have jarred our brain casings to the extent that any aftereffects show up.

At least that’s the most likely situation at present; future research may turn up more disturbing facts.

I started seventh-grade football at 67 pounds, entered my freshman year at 95, and graduated at 135 pounds.

I played as a starting varsity linebacker my junior and senior years, and had my share of tackles, but I can recall only one incident that might have produced a concussion. (But maybe that says something about my memory, thereby defeating my argument.) Needless to say, I never went on to a college gridiron career, nor to consider pro ball. So far there’s no evidence that football has affected my brain function, although wife Kathy may wish to disagree from time to time.

On the other hand, brother Tom passed out on the practice field three weeks into his senior season, and spent several days in a coma in a Des Moines hospital.

It turned out that repeated blows to his head during practice broke blood vessels in his inner brain, and they hemorrhaged until the loss of blood shut down his consciousness. With the respite from tackling drills, and recuperation in the hospital, his vessels healed and he regained his full capacities. But he never played football again.

Parents everywhere across the United States are mulling whether to let their kids play football, as a result of the NFL revelations. Manufacturers of football equipment, particularly helmets, are investing big bucks into safety research. Everyone involved in the game is analyzing whether it’s all worth it.

And that gets us to Northwestern.

Recently, the Wildcat players announced they would seek legal recognition as a labor union, with all the benefits and powers that such status would provide. It’s a radical departure from the current status of college players as student-athletes, and America will follow the coming court battles with great interest.

College football, especially at the Division I level, is big business.

Football coaches at large public universities are usually the highest-paid public employees in their respective states, and the teams generate millions of dollars from gate receipts, TV performances, souvenirs, bowl trips and related sources. Football revenue usually funds most of the other sports at any college or university.

But players are expected to remain as amateurs while they attend school, and the NCAA cracks down hard on any deviation from that standard. Universities can provide full scholarship rides to their players, and nutrition programs and tutors at no charge to the athletes as well. But pay-to-play has always been a no-no, sometimes carried to ridiculous extremes.

The Northwestern players contend that they are actually employees, putting in full-time hours per week in the football program, and operating under the detailed direction of that program.

They make a good point. If they win their argument, college football will never be the same.

If college players are actually employees, and therefore eligible for union organization, workers’ compensation would logically be among their bargaining rights.

What that would do to bigtime football pocketbooks in light of the concussion studies is anybody’s guess.

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