NFL no longer capable of properly informing players on safety

spsidneyricecourtesywikimediacommons

Every fall, over one million high school boys step onto the football field to participate in America’s most popular sport. College football has taken on a life of its own and has become a cash cow for the NCAA. The National Football League earned over seven billion dollars last year and set itself a revenue target of $25 billion by the year 2027. Despite a thriving business side, the sport has significant PR problems involving player combat, compensation and health. Though the first two issues are significant and can inhibit the long-term growth of the sport, the concern over the safety of players is by the far the greatest threat to the longevity of the sport and the business.

Over the last five years, the medical community has made significant strides in understanding the impact that football has on the body and mind of players over the course of their lives. The plethora of new information and the push to raise awareness regarding the dangers of the sport are will continue to make a profound impact on the sport. Events over the course of the last two years suggest that the sport might be at a tipping point.

Retired players recently sued and settled with the NFL in a lawsuit that could potentially cost the league a billion dollars over the course of 65 years. Potential payout of the lawsuit equates to a little over $150 million per year. For a business that has a set an annual revenue target of $27 billion, $150 million is a paltry sum and amounts to less than 0.6% of yearly revenue. Safe to say, the NFL got off easy considering that by its own admission the NFL thinks that nearly 30% of its retired players will develop Alzheimer's or dementia in their lifetime.

The most significant threat to the league now is not the lawsuits or public relations issues but rather the actions of young players like Sidney Rice and Chris Borland. Both Rice and Borland walked away from the game at young ages citing concerns for their health moving forward. The retirement of Borland was shocking — he was only 24 years old and coming off a memorable rookie season. Both Rice and Borland cited the mental struggles of retired players Tony Dorsett, Ray Easterling and Hershel Walker in their decisions to retire.

These new concerns put the NFL in a tough position — it is obligated to educate young players like Borland and Rice about the dangers of the sport for moral and legal reasons, but risks losing players who deem the risk-reward unworthy.

The NFL has no real incentive to educate its players — 200 players actually opted out of the aforementioned lawsuit settlement alleging the NFL knowingly hid the dangers of the sport from players. For some, government regulation is the answer.

Government involvement in sports is not a novel topic. In 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives held hearings to address the failure of Major League Baseball to deter steroid use. As it currently stands, the responsibility to properly educate over one million high school boys and thousands of college and professional players falls on entities like the NFL which simultaneously face disincentives to do so. It would be a mistake to continue to rely on the NFL, whose bottom line is affected by the number of talented players that it can attract, to properly raise awareness or set standards when it comes to player safety.

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