Even as the NFL reaches all-time highs in popularity and revenue, the callous disregard of players’ health by those at the top threatens to destroy the sport.
I first became aware of this attitude when I covered the Raiders from 1967-71. Players were expected to play through injuries, or be benched. Kent McCloughan, a superb cover cornerback, had his career cut short because he played despite a catastrophic knee injury. Dan Birdwell, a defensive tackle on a ferocious front four, did the same, with the same results. They were discarded and replacement players were brought in.
The 49ers did the same with Charlie Krueger, but Krueger did something that was unheard of then: He sued the 49ers and got a $2.3 million award.
That should have been a wake-up call for NFL league and team management, but it wasn’t. Now, the big problem is the head injuries suffered by former players, some of whom brought a suit against the NFL. That seemed to be settled with an agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association until a judge ruled two weeks ago that it would be insufficient to cover the cases not yet discovered.
The judge was absolutely right. We’re just starting to learn about the damage to players’ brains, usually after they’ve died much too young.
The league is paying lip service to all this. New rules have been put in place to protect players from head injuries, though officials interpret these rules differently, as we saw in the 49ers’ playoff wins over the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers. Players who suffer concussions have to pass tests before they can return to games.
Meanwhile, though, every other action taken or contemplated by the league is detrimental to the players’ health. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is the point man, but never forget that the commissioner is hired by the owners. We have to assume that they approve of his actions or he’d be fired.
Goodell keeps floating the idea of adding two games to the regular-season schedule, which was once 10 games and is now 16. He proposes cutting two exhibitions, but that’s not quid pro quo because starters play very little in those games.
Meanwhile, there are an increasing number of Thursday night games. There is no way players’ bodies can recover from a Sunday game the previous week in time for these games.
Nothing has been done about the equipment, which causes injuries in itself because of the hard surfaces. Rugby is a physical game which compares with football, but which has far fewer injuries because rugby players wear shorts and shirts, not uniforms which make them look like Roman gladiators.
Nothing serious has been done to slow the use of steroids, which have led to massive, muscular bodies. Occasionally, a player gets caught and serves a four-game suspension, a slap on the wrist.
And oh, yes, there will be more games in London next season, so teams can make even more money selling merchandise.
Money is the name of the game in the NFL. Players are just pawns.