Fans Will Pay for NFL Settlement

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The Eagles' Chuck Bednarik hovers over the Giants' fallen Frank Gifford in 1960.

The Eagles’ Chuck Bednarik hovers over the Giants’ fallen Frank Gifford in 1960.

If there is one thing that is fascinating in the media’s initial analysis of the NFL concussion-damage settlement, it is the absolute lack of understanding that the cost of this will be passed onto the fans.

While people like Darren Rovell can say the spread-out cost will be a “drop in the bucket” for the NFL over the course of 20 years and makes presumptions about the continued revenue growth of the league, no business incurs new expenses without rolling them over into the cost of the product.

For fans, this will mean even higher ticket prices to view games in person and will translate into incremental fee increases for TV packages. Both will likely be somewhat higher than what the normal demand rate might have driven otherwise.

Any player who does not understand the risk involved with playing football at any level is a fool if they think anyone is trying to conceal anything from them. No one has ever held a gun to anyone’s head to play football at any level, but all anyone has to be shown is film footage of Chuck Bednarik’s viciously legal near-death blow upon Frank Gifford or Jack Tatum’s impact that paralyzed Darryl Stingley and you do not need a network of “medical monitors” to understand what is at stake. Again, this is a case in society of some people unwilling to accept responsibility for decisions that they themselves make.

Raiders' "assassin" Jack Tatum paralyzes Patriots' wideout Darryl Stingley for life with this hit in 1978.

Raiders’ “assassin” Jack Tatum paralyzes Patriots’ wideout Darryl Stingley for life with this hit in 1978.

There have been a handful of such most extreme violent collisions in NFL history and yet you have players like Hall of Fame defensive tackle Art Donovan, who just passed away recently at age 88. He did not seem to bear any deep scars from having played the game in reaching such a high age.

Gifford himself just turned 83 years old and say what you will about how he was as an announcer, but he clearly enjoyed a long and successful career remaining connected to the game, instead of being just a casualty.

This is not to absolve the NFL from anything in this discussion, but like any other line of work where there is some high physical risk involved, only so many precautions can be taken and still keep the outcome viable. The questions become, what are fans willing to pay for and will athletes be dissuaded from turning out for the gridiron? Pro football has other questions about players of enormous girth adjusting to life after the game, simply due to their size and weight and the health impact of that.

This is entirely anecdotal, but instructive: When my third brother was in his late teens in Milwaukee, he and a handful of some cohorts played a sandlot pickup football against guys who were actual members of a local high school football team. There was no protective equipment involved and the prep players were shocked by the physical nature of play. My brother, wearing eyeglasses, drove through a mud bath in street clothes to score what was the winning touchdown. Soaking wet from the rain, his shirt was stretched and torn down to his knees. His buddies and he rained what we now call “trash talk” upon the high school players, questioning their manhood, because they couldn’t play without protective equipment and thought my brother’s team were crazy. My own grade school experience included playing tackle football during recess on a snow-packed playground that was like a craggy lunar landscape, without equipment.

That was the game in uncontrolled environments, with no money at stake and yet that was the nature of the game. I’ve had relatives suffer and pass away from the effects of  things like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s, often at high ages, but none of them ever came within a whiff of a gridiron. How come we can see photos of some men, who still did not wear any helmets of any kind, playing in the NFL in the 1920s and those men did not seem the suffer the adverse effects being claimed by players now?

The gridiron game was threatened with outright abolishment by US President Theodore Roosevelt by 1906, after a series of severe injuries and deaths caused by the mass formation-style of play at the end of the flying wedge era. That ushered in use of the forward pass to open the game up, but look at how receivers, now strung out in the open, have been the targets of the sort of spearing hits now causing concern. Players can be coached and taught whatever, but how they actually do things out on the field in a game can be something else altogether. Have you just seen any NFL pre-season games?

Those of us old enough to have grown up watching the game through the 1960s and 1970s that made the NFL the phenomenon it has since become have grown frustrated with the trend towards turning the game into a passing track meet of almost flag football-like dimensions. Even though the rules do not force the three-down, wide open, pass-happy nature of its Canadian counterpart, NFL coaches have chosen to de-emphasize the running game and yet we have even greater concern now about concussions.

As an industry, it behooves the NFL to take care of its prime assets, its players, and anyone in any line of work should be accommodated medically for any adverse effects from their work. However, for anyone to proclaim ignorance about the risks associated with playing a violent collision-contact sport played by increasingly larger men, well, whatever these players were taught in the high schools and colleges from whence they came could apparently fit on the back of a matchbook.

In order for the NFL to now financially take care of these ex-players and those to come, it will have to remain the most successful sports organization in history. For a sport fueled by fantasy football devotees and weekly workplace pools, the ultimate question now is how much are fans willing to pay to perpetuate that?

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