Bernard Pollard, safety for the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens team, recently foretold the coming demise of the NFL. He claimed that if the current trend of NFL rule changes was allowed to continue, the game would cease to exist in “another 20, 30 years”. Pollard certainly isn’t prescient. And his moniker “Patriot Killer” which he earned by laying low a number of New England players including Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski throughout his career, doesn’t earn him an overabundance of credibility as a critic of rule changes promoting player safety. However, with all that being said, Pollard’s statement is far from absurd and probably hits closer to the mark than most NFL enthusiasts would care to admit. The NFL could very well be on borrowed time, and the reason might be that football is the closest thing the United States has to a nationally-embraced “blood sport”.
Of course football isn’t literally a blood sport, but it’s close. NFL players aren’t gladiators and the Louisiana Superdome isn’t the Roman Coliseum but the violent spectacle taking place every Sunday throughout the NFL season is creating a growing cause for concern nonetheless. The NFL averaged 5.4 concussions per week in 2009, 7.6 in 2010, 8.4 in 2011, and the concussion numbers aren’t expected to plateau any time in the near future. Combine this with the string of recent suicides by retired NFL players, and you’ve got a recipe for gridiron disaster. As scientists continue to discover the alarming long-term repercussions of repeated concussive trauma to the brains of professional athletes, the growing prevalence of the head injury will only bring greater scrutiny on the NFL. In fact the concussion issue has already garnered enough attention to warrant a PBS and ESPN collaborative special report on the topic scheduled for release in Fall 2013. And if Frontline is on the case, you know the issue is deadly serious.
So football may not literally be a blood sport. But if retired players continue to suffer from long term mental health problems like those that allegedly resulted in Junior Seau’s suicide, concussions may make football the first indirect blood sport in history. It’s an epithet that won’t read all that differently on the NFL’s tombstone.