By Garth Shanklin – News Democrat
There’s a perception around some circles of media that the NFL is dying and just doesn’t know it yet.
Concussions are becoming more and more concerning to teams and players alike, although the NFL itself doesn’t necessarily acknowledge the link between the sport and the injury. Sometimes people closely associated with the league do. For instance, last month the NFL’s senior vice president for health and safety Jeff Miller said the link between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy has been established.
Two weeks later, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay said “I can’t say I agree with that comment,” when asked about Miller’s statement. So, in a span of 14 days, the NFL made one huge step forward and then immediately returned to where it was, like someone playing a frustrating game of Chutes and Ladders.
There is at the very least a reason for the inconsistency, even if it’s a terrible one. The NFL is currently in a court battle with former players and a proposed settlement in that battle is under appeal. The Washington Post’s Mark Maske believes that if the NFL were to come out and acknowledge a link between the sport and CTE, it could hurt them in court.
The courts are about the only place to hurt the NFL, because they certainly aren’t hurting in terms of television ratings. According to Sports Illustrated, FOX drew nearly 21 million viewers total for all of it’s broadcasts this season. CBS said their broadcasts of NFL games averaged 19.1 million viewers and ESPN’s Monday Night Football broadcast averaged 12.9 million viewers, with the Bengals-Broncos finale pulling in nearly 16 million pairs of eyeballs.
Even NBC, which has a hard time finding people to watch their actual television shows, did well in the ratings. Sunday Night Football hauled in 22.5 million viewers, or roughly three times that of NBC’s highest scripted show, “Chicago Fire” (roughly eight million). Those numbers are nearly double that of “Little Big Shots,” the network’s most-watched program.
Clearly, forcing a decline in viewership would be one way to hurt the NFL, but it’s hard to get a group of five people to agree on a place to eat, so I’m going to guess that trying to get millions of people to stop doing something is a waste of time.
There is another way for the NFL to get the message, however, and the fans don’t have to lift a finger.
More and more players are retiring from the league at a young age. In March 2015, three players under the age of 30 abruptly retired from the league. Former Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker Jason Worilds made roughly $13 million in his five-year career before retiring to reportedly become a Jehovah’s Witness.
Other players retired for different reasons. Patrick Willis left the game around the same time Worilds did due to foot problems. Former first-round pick Jake Locker retired at 26 years old, one year after another first-rounder, running back Rashard Mendenhall, retired at that same age.
The big retirement blow came a few days after the retirement of Worilds. San Francisco linebacker Chris Borland, at just 24 years old, announced his retirement from the game. From a strategic standpoint, that was a problem for the 49ers, who had just lost Willis. From a health standpoint, it’s a bigger issue for the league.
Borland told ESPN the reason he retired early was because of the potential for brain injury, saying “I don’t want to have any neurological diseases or die younger than I would have otherwise.”
Another player, Buffalo Bills linebacker A.J. Tarpley, cited concussions as the reason for his retirement at 23-years-old earlier this month. He had a pair of interceptions for the team last year but played in just three games due to two concussions.
Those are the type of retirements that can be a blow to the league. Admittedly, the retirement of one player isn’t going to cause anyone higher up in the league office to lose sleep. However, when several younger players look at their options and decide leaving is the best one, that has to cause some pause.
Not every player is going to leave the league early. Most, even after acknowledging the risk, will continue to play the game and that will keep the NFL around for much longer than people seem to think it will be. Fans and foes of the league shouldn’t want the league to fold because of this. The NFL needs to acknowledge the problem, work with scientists to fix it and support the players that have already been negatively impacted by it.
All of those things are steps in the correct direction, but the NFL has been hesitant to do any of those things. Once the league begins to take those steps forward, the chance for an actual solution to the problem increases. Until then, we’re stuck in an endless loop of accidental acceptance and purposeful denial that helps nobody and hurts the players that some of us idolize.