EDITOR’S NOTE: This column also appears in this week’s issue of TimeOut Chicago, as part of our weekly web-to-print partnership.
The year is 2033…
The clock is ticking away the final seconds of Super Bowl LXVI. Despite home-field advantage, Chicago is down by five points and buried deep in its own territory with 20 seconds to go in the fourth quarter.
From the ten-yard line, Bears’ quarterback Devin Hester Jr. takes the snap and drops back, almost to the goal line. While the Dolphins’ two pass rushers wait two seconds for the green light to appear on the clock above the goalposts, not to mention the lights installed on the field, Hester throws a bomb to one of his seven receivers. The receiver, open down the right sideline, makes a clean catch at the 50, and while two mid-left-sidebackers get a hand on him, neither gets both hands. He continues to flash downfield toward a touchdown, but the deep-left-safety is faster, and catches him, slapping both hands on the back of his jersey just short of the goal line.
The microchips in the defender’s gloves and the receiver’s uniform together signal the tackle had been made to end the play. The chips implanted in the pigskin of the ball place the prolate spheroid six inches from the goal line. Four seconds remain on the clock—time enough for one more play.
The crowd rises and screams. This is it. One play, all or nothing. The Dolphins line up all eleven defenders to stop the pass, because almost no one ever runs the football anymore. A center and two guards protect Hester. Coach Lovie Smith, now in his 29th year with the team, sends in a play.
Before the snap, the receivers weave an intricate pattern of fakes and reverses. Hester fakes a quick out and hands the ball to his lead receiver, who, unaccustomed to such a trick play, bobbles it slightly. The receiver regains control of the ball just as he leaps over the confused defenders. As soon as the microchip breaks the plane of the goal, mere milliseconds before two defenders get their hands on the runner, roborefs—permanent replacements, if you will—signal the touchdown.
Game over. The final score of Super Bowl LXVI at the New Soldier Field Dome: Chicago 81, Miami 80.
Sounds crazy, right?
Our contemporary game, with its amazing athleticism and astounding violence, will soon have to change in order to survive. If the game doesn’t look something like this in 20 years, it might not be around at all.
Not that fans are tiring, or losing interest in the modern game. Far from it. Football is America’s most popular sport, from Pop Warner through high school, amateur leagues, small colleges, the NCAA, and the NFL. That fervor is threatened, though, by growing evidence of the physical toll the game takes on its players. Not torn ACLs or separated shoulders, but something much more grave: brain damage caused by the repeated collisions that are all but unavoidable, with continual collisions at the line, and brutal tackling of ball carriers.
Scientific evidence suggests, powerfully, that the repeated head trauma inherent in football irrevocably damages players’ brains. Concussions cause football players to experience early-onset dementia, to lose not merely their ability to reason but even their personalities, their souls. Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the formal diagnosis, affects players at every position. Better helmets or other equipment changes cannot help, since no helmet can undo the physics of soft brain tissue colliding with solid bone.
It’s not just players with decades of hits at the highest level—like recent suicides Dave Duerson or Junior Seau—who are at risk. The maturing brains of young players are endangered as well, and perhaps even more so.
So, enjoy football while you can. It will be changing, because of America’s real national pastime.
Not baseball: litigation.
Prophecy is a risky business, but here are three predictions.
The NCAA and the NFL will settle the outstanding lawsuits brought by former players who claim that the collegiate cabal and the professional league endangered players by how they treated or failed to treat concussions. Neither the NCAA nor the NFL wants doctors on the stand to testify about the scientific evidence that the game is simply too dangerous to play safely. They will pay out tens of millions of dollars to keep the hundreds of millions in TV, ticket, and merchandise revenue flowing.
Pop Warner football has already changed its practice rules to limit contact and potential head trauma, which suggests they’re trying to head off legal trouble, too.
As soon as a scientific consensus emerges (with or without lawsuits) about the risk of CTE to young players, thousands of pin-stripers, briefcases in hand, will swarm like linebackers after a loose ball around the potential cash settlements promised by liability lawsuits. The parents of many a young player who got his bell rung and then saw his GPA plummet will sue their local school districts for allowing such a thing to happen.
After a few large settlements or judgments, insurance companies will refuse to provide liability coverage to elementary and high schools, park districts, and non-scholastic leagues. Without such insurance, these programs will shut down or change their rules, and the NCAA and NFL will have to as well. The game as we know it will wither from the bottom up, as its roots are cut off.
Sure, players can sign waivers; or, more accurately, parents can. People sign waivers to take part in risky ventures all the time. But it’s quite telling that even men who made their living at football are now saying that they wouldn’t want their sons to do so. Former NFL MVP quarterback Kurt Warner was excoriated by Merrill Hoge on ESPN for saying that very thing. The irony that Hoge’s journeyman NFL career was cut short by repeated concussions should be duly noted.
Cultural issues will delay the transformation. In some benighted parts of the country, prep football is so important that some parents probably wouldn’t sue for fear of becoming local pariahs, the litigious SOB’s who turned off the local heroes’ Friday night lights. But they might quietly hold their sons back from playing. Football will wither, like boxing did. (Remember NCAA boxing? No? It stopped after 1960, not coincidentally after the death from brain hemorrhage of Charlie Mohr, a University of Wisconsin middleweight.)
I’d bet, at reasonable odds, what I spent on my Bears tickets this year that in twenty years, the NCAA and NFL will still be a billion-dollar businesses, the secular focus of our weekends, and a zillion gambling dollars will still flow through Vegas and at the local bookie’s hands.
But the game will resemble high-tech flag football, as imagined above. There will be much more emphasis on quarterbacks and receivers. Blocking on the lines will be like sumo wrestling, with lots of slapping but no collisions to rock crania. The running game will be a thing of the past, like the flying wedge or the t-formation. Downfield, there’ll be no hitting, and tackling will be computerized. The sort of electronic chips used to confirm that marathon runners pass mileage checkpoints will be in defenders’ gloves and on ball-carriers’ uniforms, so a two-handed touch by a linebacker or safety between the receiver’s knees and shoulder pads would signal a tackle and spot the ball.
(One upside of this future: no more instant replay delays.)
Such dramatic change has happened before. At the start of the 20th century, college football was both immensely popular and a scandal because of the number of players killed or crippled annually. A serious movement attempted to outlaw the game altogether, and similar concerns are raised now. The Sun-Times’ Rick Telander has been all over this story, and did a Pulitzer-worthy series about his former Northwestern teammates’ experience with concussions and their aftermaths. But it’s not just a conversation among sports fans. A recent editorial in the Tribune argued that the high school game should be outlawed, and writers like Steve Chapman who normally cover national politics are writing op-eds about the topic.
In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt met with coaches and college presidents, and rules were changed to make the game less deadly. The forward pass was legalized, the flying wedge outlawed, and first downs changed from five yards to ten. American football became a much different game from its ancestor, rugby.
Through the years, rules have been changed repeatedly to minimize injuries: spearing, clipping, clotheslining and chop-blocking were once legal. So far, though, such rules changes have not taken the new scientific understanding of brain trauma into account. They will soon enough. Hitting has to go.
This final evolutionary step in football might seem unlikely or undesirable, maybe even un-American. But it’s also inevitable.