NPR logo In Protecting Players, NFL Would Protect Itself

In Protecting Players, NFL Would Protect Itself

The debate over football, hard hits and premature deaths has gone in a million different directions. It'll kill football, fines aren't enough, fans are to blame.

But last night during the Packers/Vikings game, Bob Costas made a simple appeal to the NFL, hitting the organization where it really hurts: the wallet. But not the players' wallets — the league's.

Four decades ago, Steelers linebacker Jack Lambert said that fretting over violence in the NFL would lead to quarterbacks wearing skirts. But in fact since Lambert's playing days, the game has, in some respects, gone in the other direction, if only because players are bigger stronger and faster, and newer equipment, designed to protect, them ironically allows some players to turn themselves into self-proclaimed heat seeking missiles. And as a result, many collisions are even more violent.
Following the dangerous plays last week across the league, and the reaction that followed, commissioner Roger Goodell wisely spoke of the need to change the culture of the game for the better, to take out the malicious and gratuitous acts of violence that pervade the game.  Not only is this the enlightened and humane thing to do, it's also the prudent thing.
As we learn more and more about the brutal toll this game takes on so many of its players, particularly with regard to neurological effects, one other consequence is the potential lawsuits. The James Harrisons, Brian Urlachers, and all the others have to understand, it's not just the health of players that's at stake, though that's important enough.  It's also the financial health of the league.
The NFL has to be able to say convincingly in a court of law, when that time inevitably comes, that it did everything it possibly could to lower the risk of catastrophic injury. And then players knowingly and willingly assumed whatever risks remained.
If it can't say that, the NFL leaves itself as vulnerable in a court of law as players now are when they go over the middle to make a catch.

(Please forgive any inaccuracies in this transcript — they are mine, not Costas'.)