Nick Mercer: Bubble Times – Is it going to pop?

Continuing with my analogy from my last post, “Brain injuries and pro contact sports: Bubble times” , in which I compared the concussion issue in pro sports with the financial crisis, I thought I’d try to complete the comparison without, hopefully, forecasting the end of contact sports, notably the NFL and football in general.

In my previous post I said that fans, teams, and leagues play the same role in the concussion issue as the banks/financial institutions did in the recent financial crisis; interested only in their short-term benefit, making them unintentionally complicit in the looming collapse. Players are like the borrowers; they want to play the sport they love and make lots of money doing it. Consequences be damned. Just like people wanted to buy houses and a bunch of other stuff, not thinking, wishing away the potentially negative long-term consequences. It’s about the looming collapse that I will write.

Since my last post, I have listened to Malcolm Gladwell talk about the undesirable, yet inevitable decline of football. Then I read an article on the Oxford University Press blog Why football cannot last’ discussing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a neurological disorder resulting from repetitive blows to the head. It got me thinking about the optimism shown at the end of my last post – had I not considered the situation fully? Was it simply wishful thinking?

Gladwell makes a convincing case for the demise of football (NFL) as we know it. He’s a big football fan, and he’s not encouraged  by his conclusions, but he thinks that in the not-too-distant future the NFL and football is likely to go the way of sports like boxing today – still watched by many fans, still lots of money, but not in the mainstream as it once was. When reading about boxing, you’ll read one article using words like “pure” and “artful”, while the next will use words like “undignified” and “barbaric”. This seems to be the way reporting on football is going. How long can the money keep the NFL (and CFL for that matter) prominent?

I live in a city, a province, even a timezone, without a pro football team. Without high school teams. Without any sanctioned contact football leagues. Still, from September to February, every Sunday friends and I sit in front of my TV with food, with beer, watching every game and every snap. It’s a lot of fun. Side note: My favourite team is the San Francisco 49ers. You cannot live in North America and live farther away from your favourite team (unless you root for the Chargers).

When I watch games, I see the receivers make incredible, sideline, toe-tapping catches, running backs perform amazing cuts and spin moves, and quarterbacks throw passes at finger-breaking speed just before being tackled by a big, powerful, yet somehow graceful, 250 lb  linebacker. It’s a spectacle to be sure, and I love watching all of it. Problem is, it’s not sustainable. We don’t know how many hits are too many. We don’t know how big a hit is too big. We don’t know a lot. The big hits are the worst obviously. Right? Maybe not. The offensive and defensive linemen are big, and not 6’1″, 225 lb big either. More like 6’4″, 300 lb. Large men. They run into each other, receiving sub-concussive hits on almost every play. These hits aren’t big enough to knock anybody out, but their frequency is enough to cause major disruptions in brain functioning.

There are millions of football fans, it’s the sport in many Canadian and American cities, and there are billions of dollars in TV contracts to support it, so it’s got to go on forever. Not if no one’s playing it doesn’t. We know much more about the effects concussive and sub-concussive hits have on long-term brain functioning now than ever before. That said, we know very little. We know enough to say that knocking your brain around your skull isn’t good, that it will do damage, but not enough to say who is most likely to be effected, or how many hits a player can take.

There is mounting evidence of the effects playing football and taking all those hits has on mental health, and it’s not good. To choose only the famous players and well-documented cases as examples has been done and those extreme cases gloss over the more common, but still debilitating brain injuries that many former players deal with everyday. When these brain injuries were first truly noticed, the question was, at what age should children begin contact football? Now it’s, should we introduce contact at all? 

Back to my analogy: The financial crisis began as interest rates went up and borrowers (players borrowing from their future) began defaulting on their mortgages (loans from banks, i.e. fans, teams, leagues) – granted, there were more financial shenanigans going on that made it more of a mess than it needed to be. The interest rate is simply the cost of borrowing. As players realize the devastatingly high cost of borrowing from their future they will; demand more money up front, seek a lower interest rate (i.e. less contact), or not borrow at all (i.e. not play contact). None of these are conducive to hard-hitting football.

In the last paragraph of my last post I wrote, I think there’s hope, then I wrote, If attitudes can change quickly in a large society in which rules, regulations and ‘socially acceptable norms’ are more difficult to enforce, then surely attitudes towards brain injury in pro sports – a smaller society in which rules and regulations can be relatively easily enforced – can quickly adapt. While I think/hope this is true, after reading, listening and thinking about it more, I believe that the attitude that needs to change is our attitude toward contact. Fortunately, though there will be a lot of kicking and screaming from fans, players, media as changes are gradually applied, the general attitude shift should occur gradually. If leagues like the NFL and CFL are to last, it will depend on the innovative ways in which they foster and accept the new reality. I agree with Anthony Scioli, author of ‘Why football cannot last’ that pro football as we know it is coming to an eventual end. How long it will take to reach this end depends on how quickly, or if, fans accept it.

9 thoughts on “Nick Mercer: Bubble Times – Is it going to pop?

  1. joe bloggs February 21, 2013 / 08:45

    Great piece. One only needs to look at the fact that 2/3 will let their children play football. Once it drops below 3/5 the decline will be swift. Universities already challenged by academically questionable players will no longer be able to recruit. High Schools will run from the liability and place money elsewhere and the beast will die.

    The NFL will only have itself to blame. It elected to create this mess rather act. Conflate the issues with phoney facts and science. Layoff the liability to parents and schools to preserve the NFLs profits.

    Medical boards will take action – that is just time. One only needs to look at the bogus Harvard, GE and NIH funding to see these are just delay tactics that will result in the loss of any credibility the game ever had. Could something have been done, sure. On the other hand, lawyers control this and it will come out badly for everyone but the lawyers.

    • A Concerned Mom February 21, 2013 / 15:25

      Do you think the NFL is too big to fail? I suspect it is. After watching what did and didn’t happen following the economic collapse, I’ve become more of a cynic (there are historical patterns there too). Extend and pretend seems to be able to go on for long periods of time (believe this cycle of reforming football to make it safer has actually been going on for 100 years or so – maybe this time they’ll actually be successful or we’ll at least get some incremental improvement).

      • jbloggs February 21, 2013 / 15:47

        The NFL will fight this all the way down; a managed death spiral. The NFL buys off mom blogs, congress, state legislatures coaches, docs, scientists but that does not change the underlying facts that this is a dangerous sport the way it is practiced (See – Bob Costas). Bodies will keep floating up and sooner or later the feeder system breaks down. Now that legislators are involved nothing will stop them from shackling the powers that be down.

        I think modern boxing is a better example (this had displaced bull bating and cock fighting). In 1928, it was the highest grossing sport in the US (note: football was largely a college endeavor at this point). Martland identifies pugilista dementia (CTE). Boxing remains a top level draw into the late 1970s. Children were encouraged to box, television gave it lavish coverage, and local newspapers sponsored and promoted golden gloves. Think of the great fighters like the Joe Lewis, the Sugar Rays, Rocky Marciano, and Ali. No football player was even remotely in the same league in popularity as these men. By the early 1980s, the medical community had enough and demanded the sport be banned. While they did not succeed in a ban, it has essentially became a marginal entertainment.

        Football will go faster because it is hard to recruit large numbers of knowledgeable parents to sacrifice their children so a few naive genetically gifted can go to the circus and be put on display.

        Again, this probably does not need to happen but the hubris of the league and its union will be its downfall. I am sure the NFL can adjust to NASCAR footprint over the next couple of decades.

  2. George Visger February 21, 2013 / 11:44

    The NFL has known for years how damaging it’s industry is to it’s employees. They have been doing all they can to maintain and grow their cash cow. If they were truly concerned with the damage repeted non concussive hits have on their employees, they wouldn’t be pushing for 18 game seasons, year round organized workouts, and entertaining opening venues in countries that do not have our health protections in place. Problem is now that information that we players have known for decades, is finally getting to mainstream, how many of you will allow your children to play a “game” you know will impact and shorten their lives?????
    I won’t.

    ESPN Outside The Lines: The Damage Done 02/08/13

    KVIE Channel 6 Sacramento: Sidelined: Concussions In Sports 12/19/12

    CH 13 News Sacramento: Former NFL Linebacker Falls Into Homelessness

    George Visger
    Wildlife Biologist/TBI Consultant
    SF 49ers 80 & 81
    Survivor of 9 NFL Caused Emergency VP Shunt Brain Surgeries
    Benefactor of ZERO NFL Benefits

    The Visger Group Traumatic Brain Injury Consulting

    • Kris Pitcairn February 25, 2013 / 11:39

      HIRREM (High resolution, relational, resonance based electroencephalic mirroring) is an option to anyone suffering from post concussion syndrome. After all, it employs the brains ability to create itself anew, neuroplasticity, and allow it’s inherent wisdom to self calibrate. Holistic, leading edge, high tech and PROVEN! (Wake Forest University School of Medicine, Chas. Tegeler, MD, neurologist).

  3. G.Malcolm Brown February 21, 2013 / 11:49


    Yes , the economics of the game is topical, but secondary in importance.

    The real concerns must be safer sports for everyone – at all age levels..!

    Helmet to Helmet hits ,,even for linemen are a problem , and the helmet manufacturers are frozen , stuck — making the hardest strongest head ramming helmets possible..!

    One company spokesman claimed they want “fast recoil” on contact …?

    It is “fast recoil” which is accelerating players skulls relative to their brain…leading to the damage.

    With better headgear we can reduce the majority of concussions in football .

    • Ima Mom February 21, 2013 / 18:07

      George – your link does not work

  4. Glenn Beckmann March 1, 2013 / 15:35

    Just a reminder to everyone here. There is NO causal evidence or definitive link between football and CTE. There has been a correlation effect shown in a very small number of cases out of tens of thousands of players. Correlation does not equal causation, despite what many of you so desperately seem to want.

    The relationship between CTE and football must be examined to the fullest extent, so that the causal connection between the two is proven or is shown to be nonexistent.

    Sub concussive impacts need to be studied exhaustively to prove once and for all whether or not they are the danger that everyone wants them to be.

    The casual and flippant connection of CTE to any discussion of football injuries is the story de jour and likely will be for at least the next few years, since noone seems interested in the real science behind head injuries and football.

    As Dustin has said many times, the real problem is the mismanagement of the injury once it’s been found.

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