Acting like it was no big deal, the NFL quietly confirmed on Tuesday that their official position on head injuries has finally changed. They accept the truth that playing football can lead to degenerative brain disease.
It began when one of their senior vice presidents faced direct questioning in front of a congressional committee and agreed that football is “certainly” connected to chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Instead of scrambling to isolate Jeff Miller or reinterpret his words, a league spokesman said his comments “accurately reflect the view of the NFL.”
So here we are, at the start of something more than the end of it.
Years of obfuscation and bluster were exposed as the insulting waste of time we knew them to be. Even up to just days before the last Super Bowl, an NFL doctor flatly denied that football caused brain disorders. The abrupt pivot — planned or not — caught longtime observers by surprise, even as it probably has less immediate effect than headlines may suggest.
Giddy lawyers fired off letters, trying to retroactively undercut previously stated positions in civil suits and settlement negotiations. But all the NFL admitted is that the evidence is now clear enough — even to them — to admit that repeatedly slamming one’s head into things is bad. This is a far cry from saying that they knew all along and conspired to withhold the information from players, as alleged by some plaintiffs.
The goal of the entire process is informed consent, the open agreement that NFL players are paid well to do something inherently dangerous. If that’s understood from the outset, future collective bargaining can result in health protocols that benefit all parties amid proper transparency that spares every one from cynical, halfhearted attempts to make football appear safer.
If the admission results in more honesty at other levels of the game, that’s good too. Privatization of high school football is inevitable, as public educational districts will have to get out of the brain injury business due to either ethical decisions or advice from lawyers and insurers. The same may go for public colleges. The mechanism by which future NFL players arrive will change significantly. But as long as the financial incentives exist to compete, there will be a talent pool.
This had to happen at some point, just as the tobacco companies were eventually forced by the government to admit that cigarettes were addictive and caused cancer. Most of the public has understood for some time that the evidence of football’s danger is overwhelming, just as we knew that breathing in tar-filled smoke was probably unhealthy.
How will this new openness be applied to the NFL and the game in general? Some will sound football’s death knell, painting apocalyptic scenarios of frightened officials suddenly waking up to the sport’s inhumanity and swearing off their involvement. Others will talk of fans by the millions confronting their complicity in the infliction of mass brain damage and turning off their televisions, choking off the ad-revenue lifeblood.
But we knew what we’ve been watching this whole time. And we love it.
It only gets better when we don’t lie to each other about it.