Football, Safety, Health and Our Society

April 2, 2012
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The NFL has received a lot of press and attention in the last few weeks: Peyton Manning signing with the Broncos, Tim Tebow being traded to the Jets and the New Orleans Saints Bounty scandal.

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The NFL has received a lot of press and attention in the last few weeks: Peyton Manning signing with the Broncos, Tim Tebow being traded to the Jets and the New Orleans Saints Bounty scandal.

As a society, we love football. We love the NFL–it is the most profitable of all the professional sports and head and shoulders above the other leagues. The interesting facet to me is that the very sport we put on a pedestal is the most violent one, causing the most short term and long term injuries.

Here is an interesting article about why the NFL is like the tobacco companies. We like the hitting and we like the violence. We pay a lot of money every year to continue supporting more and more of it.

And so the New Orleans Saints “Bounty Gate” peaked my attention, not because of what actually was going on, but because of the reaction to it. I listen to sports radio when I am driving and for the most part, the reaction seemed to consistently be: football is a violent game but football players are motivated more out of a desire to play hard and win then motivated to get a big hit, injure a player and make a few thousand dollars.

Throw into the mix the current state of the game where there are forces at play to make the game as “safe” as possible that run side by side with the push for greater technology to make the equipment better. The very football helmets that players use are the most potent “weapon” of the game.

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I will be upfront with you: professional football is my favorite sport. While I am a sports fan in general, there is nothing like football Sunday. So from where I sit, I want the NFL to succeed and do super well (like it continues to do every year), but I am also conflicted. Football is entertainment, but that entertainment usually comes with somebody else paying a price (I just returned from watching The Hunger Games where that idea is even more true).

To help me understand this more, I interviewed Derek Abney, All-American receiver/ kick returner for the University of Kentucky and former NFL player.

CK: What do you make of this talk about bounties? Was that going on when you played?

DA: As a team, we certainly had incentives, but our objective was never to hurt anyone. Football players are motivated to hit hard because that is a part of the game. The idea is to hit as hard as you can to get the job done.

CK: Do you think the NFL is striking a balance with limiting injuries and promoting the sport at the same time?

DA: I do. I think the NFL has rules in play to limit unsafe hits and strives to promote clean play. I think, as well, for the most part that the NFL players want the game to be clean and want to hit hard in the spirit of play. But, football is a hard-hitting sport. And so every football player knows that there is a chance of injury.

CK: The game has been played for a very long time, but it seems only recently that we are more focused on injury prevention–what do you make of that?

DA: Pro football careers are very short and are getting shorter and shorter. We now have guys who are stronger and faster and bigger than years ago and so the dynamics of the game has changed on that level. A big problem is that when you increase how fast and strong a player is, you really cannot speed up or even change the recovery time when a player does get hurt.

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CK: How do you explain our society’s gigantic interest in such a violent sport?

DA: I think we really enjoy seeing action. It’s interesting, but it seems that as a society we are moving to a place where we promote more “fairness” and “everyone gets a chance” at the same time we are falling more and more in love with the hard-hitting NFL. This is just an observation, but I wonder if that promotion of fairness, etc. is then resulting in an outlet for people rooting for more and more violence from the sidelines.

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What to do?

I liked Derek’s observations and I think they are spot on. As physicians we seek out health and promote health on many levels with our patients. But privately, most of us are probably rooting for more action and more hits on the playing field.

We want health to be fair and even, yet when we root for our favorite team, we want them to be the ones causing the biggest hit.

I think we are reaching the precipice in terms of health and violence in sports and society. The great observation by Derek Abney seems to ring true: the more we promote this type of fairness in sports, the more as a society we seem to be promoting the violent sports.

That concept alone has great health implications. What do you think?