Statistics showed that it was the nation's most injurious team sport, but those who despaired of the weekend casualty lists were encouraged to look at the sport's virtues, at the lives and the profit statements it enhanced. ...
Eventually the professional league commissioned a study of injuries. The investigation was supposed to be private, but word of it got around. The study showed that the game's equipment and many of its rules needed to be overhauled to keep pace with the times. Players were bigger, faster and stronger, but the laws of physics were constant: e.g., force = mass x acceleration. Nonetheless, the report was regarded as science fiction by the league. Only minimal changes were made; key recommendations were ignored. ...
And all the while men of goodwill who loved the sport, and were involved in it, grew fearful for its future. And wondered what would happen next. And if any good seats were left for the big game.
- John Underwood, Sports Illustrated (Aug. 14, 1978)
Thirty-five years ago Wednesday, an article entitled "Brutality: The Crisis in Football" ran in the pages of Sports Illustrated.
In it, journalist John Underwood described in great detail a growing sense of dread surrounding the game of football. From the high school ranks on up to the NFL, more and more players were suffering injuries -- serious, repeated, debilitating injuries -- and the governing bodies of the sport mostly turned a blind eye.
Underwood recalled a message from former Penn State president Dr. Eric Walker to Joe Paterno, in which Underwood warned of what he believed to be football's approaching demise: "Joe," Walker said, "if football doesn't do something about the injuries, soccer will be our national sport in 10 years."
Walker's prophecy went unfulfilled. Not only did football maintain its popularity, but also the sport exploded, with the NFL developing into quite possibly the world's most powerful professional league.
That exponential rise has happened despite the constant threat of injuries and the relative failings of measures introduced to protect the game's players. Football equipment is sturdier, more reliable; medical advances have made the diagnosis and treatment of injuries much more efficient; rule changes have added extra layers of protection for quarterbacks, kick returners, defensive players, wide receivers and just about everyone at every position on the field.
And yet, the injuries -- and most troublesome, the crippling, occasionally life-threatening injuries -- continue to occur. Is the NFL fighting a losing battle?
"It is no longer enough," Paterno said, in Underwood's piece, "to accept it as part of the game."
In this, the NFL gradually came around to a point of agreement. Commissioner Roger Goodell has made the understanding and prevention of concussions one of the central foci of his regime. The league announced just this May a $60 million partnership with General Electric, dubbed the Head Health Initiative. "The goal of the research and innovation program, guided by healthcare experts," read an NFL statement, "is to improve the safety of athletes, members of the military and society overall."
Of that pledged $60 million total, $40 million was set aside for "next generation imaging technologies"; the other $20 million left for "research and technology to better understand, diagnose and protect against mild traumatic brain injury."
"The future of our great game is bright," Goodell said in the announcement. "The NFL has made tremendous progress in making the game safer and more exciting. But we know we have more work to do."
The league certainly is more proactive in the venue of player safety now, at least publicly. Close to 80 former players recently signed on with USA Football's "Heads Up Football" program, which aims to teach young players proper and safe technique. The NFL also launched the website NFLEvolution.com to allow fans to keep tabs on how the game has changed. New rules for this season include the "crown of the helmet" rule, prohibiting a runner or tackler from initiating contact with the top of his helmet outside the tackle box; and the mandatory requirement for all players to wear knee and thigh pads.
"Is the game safer than it was 35 years ago, or even five years ago? We would say yes, just based on the rule changes that prohibit a variety of dangerous techniques that were once allowed," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told SI. "There are injuries in any sport, whether it's a 'contact' sport or [not]. Things happen, accidents, all sorts of non-contact knee injuries.
"It's a risk in any physical activity, from running to riding a bike, playing lacrosse or soccer or football. Our mission is to continue to evolve the game, to make it better and safer."
Underwood's 35-year-old piece begins with a moment Aiello also referenced: President Teddy Roosevelt's demand in 1905 that the sport of football, then played only at the college level and below, "change the rules to better protect the players -- or else". The resulting regulations famously "saved" football from becoming too barbaric, too violent.
Fast-forward 108 years, to this past January, just before Super Bowl XLVII. In an interview with the New Republic, current president Barack Obama sounded a similar alarm:
"I'm a big football fan, but I have to tell you if I had a son, I'd have to think long and hard before I let him play football," Obama said. "And I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence. In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won't have to examine our consciences quite as much."
Hand in hand with the important steps forward in football's use of medical technology is the frightening evidence those advancements can uncover. Of great interest currently is a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Ex-NFL players Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, both of whom took their own lives, as well as the recently deceased Cullen Finnerty, all were found to be suffering from that ailment. The link between CTE and football's close-quarters ferocity is not yet fully understood, but there is enough evidence to suggest some level of relation.
One solution informally opposed on occasion has been to eliminate the use of face masks. Paterno advocated for such a rule change. So, too, did Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Bob Ford, who took the idea from HBO's Bryant Gumbel, who borrowed it from Washington Redskins founder George Preston Marshall.
The argument there being that players would be far less likely to lead with their heads if they had nothing to protect their faces. People in agreement with that line of thinking would be quick to note that while improved helmet technology may be preventing some head injuries, it could be causing others by allowing players to generate contact with more reckless abandon. Helmets are far from a failsafe, as detailed by SI's Jeremy Repanich in a 2012 piece, "Helmets alone won't save football."
Of course, football in the Roosevelt era -- and for upwards of 50 years after -- was played without the benefit of face masks. Traumatic, even fatal injuries still occurred.
So, how can the NFL get ahead of the curve?
The development of programs like the aforementioned "Heads Up Football" is a significant start. Injuries that occur in the NFL are the most visible for the masses, but the 32 NFL teams represent a very small percentage of football being played across the country. Players that arrive in the league have honed their techniques for years and years, in college, high school and youth leagues. Underwood mentioned coaches teaching their players to lead with the head or to use their helmet as a way of delivering extra force. Such teaching points are no longer promoted.
The NFL also has moved to the forefront of sports science. The MMQB's Peter King tweeted this week that the NFL sent a memo to all teams telling them that "players can be tracked using GPS 'for select games and practices'". The Buffalo Bills are one of the franchises already utilizing that technology to help them better understand their players' health.
The Bills employ a system known as Catapult, which uses GPS (among other things) to "capture measurable data on each player, such as acceleration and deceleration, change of direction, top speed and total distance run." In doing so, the Bills can improve how their players work out and, in turn, hopefully can develop a better understanding for how to keep them healthy.
Perhaps all of this is akin to the folktale of the Dutch boy plugging a leaking dam with his finger. The game of football, by its very nature, has been and probably always will continue to be a high-speed, high-impact sport. Try as it might, the NFL never will make it fully safe for the players involved, and everyone in the league understands that.
"Injuries are endemic to a physical sport, and certain risks are implied," Underwood wrote in that article, which the NFL has sometimes used as a jumping-off point for modern-day discussions of player safety. "The issue is not the risk of injury, but how much injury is necessary and therefore acceptable.
"Apparently," Underwood continued, "a lot." Less now, though, than in 1978. And, realistically, there is only so much the NFL can do to keep its players on the field.