Columns, Opinion

Burke’s Bully Pulpit: Where does the NFL go from here?

The National Football League has been a source of joy for many people in America since its inception. Getting ahold of me on Sundays can be a problem, because I am usually fixed on my TV, checking my fantasy team and rooting for the New England Patriots. There have been many fundamental changes introduced to the game in recent years, met with criticism, but understanding. The question is: how does this work for the NFL in the long-term?

I have recently started to think back and reminisce about the NFL when I was younger. I would sit at my computer for hours watching YouTube videos of the hardest hits of the week. I loved to see a defender de-cleat an unsuspecting wide receiver or quarterback. Now, I can barely stand to watch these types of plays happen. Maybe I’ve grown soft as I’ve gotten older, but I think it points more to the fact that fans are actually starting to care about the players’ long-term health. This doesn’t bode well for a league based on hitting the man in front of you as hard as you can for 60 minutes.

There are now countless examples of NFL and college football players that have killed themselves. Junior Seau shot himself in the chest at his home in 2012. Jovan Belcher shot himself in the head after taking the life of his girlfriend in 2012. Former Oklahoma State quarterback Tyler Hilinski killed himself earlier this year. Once a mystery, we now know that chronic traumatic encephalopathy, known widely as CTE, is likely to be the root cause of these incidents. CTE can cause symptoms such as clinical depression and lead to things like ALS. How much longer can we be complicit with paying money to see people throw their lives away for the prospect of a “better life” thanks to the game they once loved?

I walked away from football in my senior year of high school because I knew I was not good enough to get to the NFL and did not want to risk further punishment on my own brain. The new research that was coming out helped me to comfortably make my decision, but I had other options. For the players who have only one option, to make it or break it, the choice is not that simple. One can try as hard as they can to get to the highest level of a sport destined to break you, but is it worth it? I think fans and players alike are starting to realize that it is not.

NFL ratings have dipped sharply since 2015, according to a Sports Illustrated article. If I were a betting man, which I am, I would say that this is probably a culmination of the anthem protests, new rules and a newfound genuine care for a player’s safety. I don’t think the anthem protests will hurt the NFL in the long run, but the rules that have been created to address the recent problem of CTE have fans at an impasse.

Watching Clay Matthews of the Green Bay Packers be called for roughing the passer in consecutive weeks had my mind in a pretzel. I thought the way Matthews hit the quarterback was in line with the new NFL rules, but I was proven wrong. One of the penalties essentially cost the Packers the game.  

There are two clear options: we could sit idly while the NFL tries to figure out what a roughing the passer call is, because it is in the best interest of everyone involved, or we could demand these rules get revoked in order to get back to smash-mouth football. I think there is only one way to fix the current ratings problem.

As tough as it is to say, the old rules are best for the average viewer of the NFL. No one can expect these guys — who have been trained their whole lives to kill the man in front of them — to suddenly be able to softly place another player on the ground. That’s just not what football is or was ever meant to be. Playing football is a dangerous decision, and kids young enough to play in Pop Warner leagues should be made aware of the potential harm that football may cause in the long run.

At this point, most NFL players know what the dangers are. They are getting paid millions of dollars to potentially expose themselves to a dangerous disease. It may be the only way out of a bad situation when you’re younger, but you don’t have to stay in the sport forever. This is why I say that to fix the recent ratings decline, these new rules should be thrown out. Football is a risk-reward occupation. You can make millions of dollars in your life, but your life may not be as long as you want it to be.

The players have a choice, and whatever decision they make is their own. If the risk outweighs the reward for you, walk away. If not, let’s get back to real football.

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