Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Future of Football?

Saving a sport that may be harming its players

American Football is getting a lot of attention these days. On the face of things, that may be no surprise – football gets lots of attention every year at this time, as the NFL teams get positioned for the playoffs and top college teams contend for a limited set of bowl games invitations. But a good deal of the attention these days is negative. Increasingly, football is implicated in concussions and traumatic brain injuries. NFL teams are having a hard time fending off tough questions as players from the past admit to cognitive issues, and parents are starting to wonder whether Pop Warner football or High School football is the right place for their children.

Many have wondered whether the NFL could make some key adjustments to rules to reduce the risks of concussions and head injuries to players. I'm inclined to believe that it would be too hard to make the drastic changes necessary. So here's a different proposal for the NFL: Embrace the issue, take up the challenge, and invent the future. The NFL should create an additional league - one based on today's NFL but designed from the start to do everything possible to eliminate the known risks of head and brain injury. This new league would be a brother to the NFL of today, and could play during the same season (playing in an alternate season is a sure way to have fans ignore it).

The NFL should pick several big market teams to create, at their own expense, the initial NFL Lightning League (or some other clever name that attracts fans). This League would have the same commissioner as today's NFL, and a set of 8 teams, each sharing the team names and stadiums of their home city NFL team. These 8 teams would play 4 heavily promoted and televised games each week, in the stadiums available when the NFL team that calls that stadium home travels. The rules of the game? A modified set of rules that make spearing and other high risk actions grounds for very serious penalty - to both the team and the player. The game might even be played without helmets.

Lighter pads, no helmets? Can it be safe? I'm not qualified to say. The NFL should put serious effort into this, drawing on the best experts in sports medicine and in traumatic brain injuries. Let's see if we can design the game to be fast, exciting, and safe, all at once. We might even borrow some expertise from other sports, such as rugby.

Where will the players come from? At first, they might be the practice squads and third stringers from the NFL teams, augmented by undrafted but otherwise strong prospects. But if the league is successful, in a few years these teams could participate in the college draft. A few years after that, we might expect that some NCAA teams, perhaps within the Big Ten or ACC, may start to field Lightning League teams of their own, and those players would hope to play for big money in the NFL Lightning League.

The league could borrow some marketing tactics from the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). The UFC knows how to draw the interest of a certain demographic of fan. Perhaps the NFL can portray the lightly padded, unhelmeted players as athlete-warriors using the UFC techniques, making the game that much more appealing. It's worth noting that players not wearing helmets are easier to recognize and therefore may more easily become celebrities. A few superstars recognizable on and off the field can go a long way for the game and for the league, as Michael Jordan and LeBron James have made clear in basketball.

Why will people watch? The game will be heavily marketed by the NFL, and the teams will be familiar - they will have the names of today's NFL Teams (the San Francisco Lightning 49ers, the New York Lightning Giants, the Dallas Lightning Cowboys, etc.) They'll wear the same colors. The games will be called by the announcers that fans have come to know and like, and thanks to the common parent organization, use the same graphics, theme music and major advertisers. In short, it will at once feel like the NFL and also something new.

The league could easily fail for a whole range of reasons, but the right investments and marketing could give it a chance. And this proving ground for a safer way to play football could inform the NFL or someday, even replace it.

My disclaimer comes at the end. I'm no football expert and I'm certainly not a qualified medical professional. I'm a fan of football who doesn't like seeing retired players suffering and dying young. 

It's starting to become clear that the long term effects of concussions and frequent blows to the head are serious and it's getting harder to ignore it. If we can find a creative way to bring safer play to a great sport, we owe it to the players to try. I suggest that the way to do this is through a companion NFL league called the Lightning League. Like the idea? Hate it? Leave a comment and tell us what you think.


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