The multibillion-dollar National Football League (NFL) is locked in an extremely divisive controversy that can only be solved with a simple, but controversial, sandlot solution — a flag stuck in the back of the quarterback’s pants… and then of all ball carriers and receivers.
The solution may seem absurd to those who don’t want to watch professional football. However, it addresses a major health and labor issue that NFL athletes face.
Much of the progress toward understanding the seriousness of the concussion problem has come from the football players’ union, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), and from an organization of former playersKen Jenkins, a retired running back.
“We’ve come a long way since I played,” says Jenkins, who retired in 1987. “You were supposed to be able to shake off a little stinger or dinger or a small concussion or a bell rung. That was what was expected back then. And, if you didn’t … it was almost like, ‘Well, he’s not tough.’ Now we know that a concussion can cause problems down the road and even lead to death. It has opened our eyes and created a cascade of safety measures to be put in place that have helped our game, especially for the youth coming up.”
Pioneered by former Colts player John Mackey in the 1970s, the NFLPA struggled long and hard against the billionaire owners who still view “their” players as dispensable employees. The union was faced with almost impossible odds over the decades, as it was led by Ed Garvey and Gene Upshaw, a former player. fighting through brutal battlesOver pay, working conditions and free agency, as well as collusion and collusion. Gradually, the union gained immense power through organizing.
But perhaps the union’s biggest fight has centered on the discovery that many players have been suffering a previously undiagnosed form of brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian-born Pittsburgh coroner, first identified the problem with the death of Mike Webster, a former Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs star center.
Webster played football from 1974 to 1990 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1990. He was known for his violent outbursts. Webster eventually suffered from depression and mental illness. He also struggled with drug addiction and displayed signs of schizophrenia. erratic behaviors. He died suddenly at the age of 50. According to The Atlantic, while the hospital report said Webster had died at Allegheny General Hospital from a heart attack, he also “suffered from ‘depression secondary to post-concussion syndrome,’ suggesting the syndrome was a contributory factor to his death, thus making it accidental.”
When Omalu used his personal funds to examine Webster’s brain tissue, he discovered a previously unknown syndrome of cell damage caused by the repeated trauma that is at the core of tackle football. Soon, the syndrome was confirmed by other retired players who had died from it, thanks to NFLPA support.
The NFL and its super-rich owners were unable to deny the connection between smoking and lung cancer. Omalu, his supporters and other NFL owners viciously attacked Omalu. They vehemently denied that their immensely profitable sport could cause any lasting harm.
But the NFLPA took Omalu’s findings into the public mainstream. The union gradually organized retired players and their families — many of who continue to struggle with players’ high rates of depression, domestic violence and suicide. In the end, the union sued NFL to protect its battered veterans and their too-often abused spouses. An initial 2013 court settlementA settlement of $765 millions opened the doors to a long line of legal battles.
The union also battled the leagueOver funding for medical research The 2015 film is now available. ConcussionThe film starred Will Smith and was about Omalu. His research brought new attention to the matter. Medical researchers discovered that Junior Seau’s brain had suffered from depression after he, another Hall of Famer, took his own life at the age of 43. “cellular changes consistent with CTE.”The findings profoundly influenced public opinion.
The NFL and other major sports leagues have been around for a long time. criticizedRalph Nader, a legendary consumer advocate, was one of his critics. Much of his critique has focused on the ability of professional teams’ wealthy owners to gouge the public for huge sums of money to build enormous stadiums that only benefit the rich. Nader also attacked contact sports like football and hockey for marketing the brutal contact that leads to CTE and other serious injury.
In recent years, controversies have erupted over “race-based adjustments in dementia testing that critics said made it difficult for Black retirees to qualify for awards in the $1 billion settlement of concussion claims,” the Associated Press reported. The testing procedures, which the NFL agreed to end in 2021, had caused complex conflicts within the players’ union.
However, the league and the union continue to fight over brain damage. It’s been generally assumed that football is the United States’ most popular sport, in large part because its most loyal viewers love the violence itself. Trump’s macho rantings have helped to promote football. who once owned a non-NFL professional football team (and the contract of running back Herschel Walker, the GOP’s far right candidate for Senate from Georgia), harm done to players has been considered “part of the game.”
The current uproar stems from two seemingly opposite situations — the disturbing concussive damage done to a young Miami Dolphins’ quarterback, and an overly protective penalty called in favor of an aging veteran QB.
The more serious side of the controversy surrounds Tua Tagovailoa, Miami’s 24-year-old star passer. Tagovailoa sustained head injuries in successive games that could have permanently endangered his health.
Under intense pressure from the players’ union and public advocates like Nader, the NFL has instituted some protocols to protect its most valuable assets: its star quarterbacks. The risks are somewhat mitigated by the rules that now govern how QBs can be hit hard by defensive players and when they must be replaced after suffering obvious trauma. However, the protocols are seriously flawed and contradictory.
Tagovailoa fell to the ground September 25, 2022. experienced a concussion. But the Dolphins claimed he’d suffered a “back injury” and put him back in. He suffered another serious hit on September 29, 2022. According to People: “While lying on the field, Tagovailoa’s raised his hands and arms above him and appeared to be unable to control their movement, and medical assistance was called. Tagovailoa remained motionless on the field for around 10 minutes before being carried out in a stretcher.”
Despite obvious trauma Tagovailoa was allowed play the following week. He was again hit in ways that were too terrible to ignore. Commentators were outraged that Tagovailoa, a player in his twenties, could be so recklessly risk his life and future health for a simple ball game.
Ironically, when Tagovailoa was made to sit out the next game, his replacement — Teddy Bridgewater — was himself on the very first play hit too hard to continue. Miami’s third-string passer then led the team — which had been streaking — to an abysmal defeat.
The futures Tagovailoa and Bridgewater, as well as the future of the Dolphins themselves, are up in the air. There is no clear resolution to the divisive, angry and confusing debate over when and how concussed QBs should play.
The flip side of this debate erupted in a marquee match between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (TBC) and the Atlanta Falcons, when legendary Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady was fired. The hit was routine and showed no signs of excess within the league’s protocols. Brady appeared uninjured.
But as one of the NFL’s all-time leading passers, Brady had license to jump up and down with theatrical complaints. The referees granted him a very dubious penalty, which probably decided the game in the Bucs’ favor.
In response, one of U.S. sports’ most popular commentators, Stephen A. Smith, made what could be a definitive suggestion. While expressing his outrage at Brady’s antics, he argued that a flag should be stuck in the back of the quarterback’s pants… and then of all ball carriers and pass receivers. Instead of letting these key players be smashed by massive pass rushers and thrown to their knees, the flag could simply be pulled, ending play. This would prevent the extreme violence and damage that can be caused by this crucial part of any football game.
The suggestion to use flags in professional football may have been first discussed in public as a “serious cultural issue” 10 days prior by four former players on this writer’s weekly Green Grassroots Emergency Protection Zoom call and Progressive Radio Network’s “Solartopia” radio show.
“He [Tagovailoa] had a concussion from four days earlier and they let him play,” said former player Dan Sheehan. “It was just bizarre.”
The suggestion to use a cloth strip to be pulled and thrown to the ground is a throwback to “flag football,” the sandlot version of the sport played by millions of amateurs in parks throughout the country. In this more pacific version of the game, there’s no tackling. Each play ends with the ball carrier’s flag — rather than the players themselves — being thrown to the ground.
Such a version of the game is of course viewed as “wimpy” by Trumpian fans, most of whom have never played the sport
themselves, but who pay the big bucks to see hired gladiators (most of them Black) smashing each other’s brains to oblivion on the field.
Despite all the attention given to quarterbacks, the essence and spirit of the game remains in its violence. expectation of injuryBeing practically universal.
In the long run, going to flags — and not just for quarterbacks — may be the game’s only hope.
While European “football” — what people in the U.S. know as soccer — has grown exponentially, tackle football in the U.S. is tanking among young people. A new study suggests that half of adults in the U.S. disagree with the idea that tackle football is an “appropriate sport for kids to play.” Fearing injuries, lawsuits and a spreading revulsion against violence, high schools and colleges around the country are dropping the sport altogether.
A major orthopedic study in 2003 revealed that there were as many as 350,000 high-school football players. were being injuredEvery year. Even though the NFL makes huge profits and enjoys high ratings, it cannot continue to attract young players.
For the league, a good quarterback is vital to the game’s allure. Tagovailoa is currently on a four-year multimillion dollar contract. The Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes recently signed a long-term deal for a half-billion dollars.
As we have seen in Miami, a team led by a mediocre quarterback is barely worth watching, even for the game’s most devoted fans. The quality of the NFL’s “product” is degraded every time a star QB is forced to sit out a game.
In the short term, protecting the quarterback, runners and pass catchers with a flag protocol rather than murky, hard-to-define concussive protocols should be — forgive the pun — a no-brainer.
The violence lovers will whine that the sport is going “wimpy.” But in the long term, the whole game must be overhauled and made less brutal. It is not sustainable to have young, seriously injured stars being removed from the field. The NFL cannot afford to ignore the wise choice of young athletes who choose other sports.
How will American culture be affected by professional football being less violent? Realistically, it’s hard to think otherwise.
Football is the nation’s premier spectator sport, watched weekly by tens of millions. The Super Bowl is most watchedAnnual sporting event around the world.
A weekend of blood sport can be a drain on the American psyche. Taming it down to the beautiful nonviolent ballet it really should be could constitute a great leap forward for the nation’s cultural mindset, and for the health of its athletes.
We won’t know for sure until we try. Flags are the better option when it comes to football tackle.
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