Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Assessing risk

The National Football League is by far the most popular professional sports league in America. In terms of revenue generated and television ratings, that's indisputable. What's also indisputable is the game has a taken a public relations hit given some of the seedy off-field activity of players.

The NFL has also taken a P.R. hit over allegations it failed to properly warn players of long-term physical issues resulting from multiple concussions suffered during their respective careers (Over the past couple of years, there's been legal haggling over a $765 million settlement the NFL reached with players diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)).

Now that there has been more light shed on what players may endure as a result of multiple brain injuries, we may be getting to a point where potential and current NFL players begin to seriously assess the risk. Just last year, then Chicago Bears safety Chris Conte raised a few eyebrows with some statements he made after a season where he was documented to have two concussions.

I’d rather have the experience of playing in the NFL and die 10 to 15 years earlier than not play in the NFL and have a long life. I don’t really look toward my life after football. I’ll figure things out when I get there. As long as I outlive my parents…. I’m not saying I’m going to go die when I’m 45, 50. I’m fortunate to go out and play football.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a player coming off a fine rookie season decided enough was enough.

Linebacker Chris Borland of the San Francisco 49ers, one of the top rookies in the N.F.L. last season, is the latest case, and perhaps the most noteworthy. He said Monday that he was retiring because of concerns about his safety, and his decision may have ripple effects well beyond the professional ranks.

“From what I’ve researched and what I’ve experienced, I don’t think it’s worth the risk,” Borland told ESPN, referring to the multiple concussions he had sustained.

For all the disturbing video (e.g. Ray Rice slugging his then fiancee in an elevator) and images (e.g. Adrian Peterson's son having multiple cuts/lacerations from being whipped with a switch) NFL fans witnessed as a result of players' off-field behaviors in 2014, it had zero affect on the game's popularity as well as the league's bottom line. But when quality NFL players like Borland begin to ponder if an NFL career is worth the legitimate risk to one's long-term health, this is one area where the league is vulnerable. Quite obviously the NFL can't maintain its grand status as America's favorite pro sport/entertainment source if the talent pool becomes more diluted with each passing season. No amount of tinkering with on-field rules will completely deter risk to a player's physical well being.

Whether a scenario like Borland's is an anomaly or becomes more the norm remains to be seen. But if the NFL brushes this off as an isolated incident, they do so at their own peril.


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