The NFL in 2043
To make a long story short, without mucus we'd be dead (Ron Wolfley, reporting). One of the major functions of mucus is to protect against infectious agents such as fungi, bacteria and viruses. The average human body produces about a liter of mucus per day. (After fighting the Mongolian-Shanghai Surprise all week, this seems a little low to me).
Such an unpleasant topic to discuss, isn't it?
The NFL's concussion issue is like mucus: concussion-generating hits have been an integral part of the league's existence and nobody wants to talk about it. Playing the game of football generates concussions like breathing generates mucus. This is always going to be the case: play football, get concussions.
But why didn't we see Ray Nitschke show signs of CTE before he passed away from a heart attack at age 61? Why is Mike Ditka still going strong at 73? Why can Dick Butkus still speak? Why is Jack Lambert not suffering from the effects of concussions? Why did Jack Tatum not show signs of dementia before he died of a heart attack? Why is George Atkinson okay? These men played a brutal brand of football and all had long and storied careers.
Something changed: the helmet.
The first polycarbonate helmets arrived in the NFL in 1986. Space age rigid Polycarbonate alloy plastic helmets and vinyl coated steel alloy face masks were the norm in the 1980s and 1990s. These helmets were much heavier and hit like a sledgehammer.
It didn't take long; players realized they hit like a sledgehammer and started thinking of them as a sledgehammer. I know this because I wore one of these helmets and knew the best way to use it was to take the spot above my eyebrows and put it on the spot below my sworn enemy's lips. The combination of these helmets and the realization of what they could do to the opponent took head hunting to a whole new level.
And coaches applauded. Hitting your opponent in the game of football by "sticking your face in there" became the proverbial badge of honor, the true test of a football player's courage. And once players realized they could support their families by "sticking their faces in there" the triumvirate of trauma to the brain became the norm in football. All a hungry boy need do was to weaponize the polycarbonate helmet, destroy your opponent by "sticking your face in there," and the badge of honor that was placed on your person by coaches could be traded in for money.
Lambert never used the polycarbonate helmet. Ray Nitschke didn't think of the helmet as a weapon but a necessary safety device. Coaches in the sixties and seventies never taught players to go helmet-to-helmet or applauded their fearlessness for "sticking their face in there."
And this is why I disagree with Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard, who said this week that he didn't think the NFL would be around in 30 years.
The NFL will be around in thirty years (if we haven't nuked each other into eternity). Players are adjusting to the new rules and making concerted efforts to keep their helmets from becoming weapons. And coaches now understand performing well no longer requires "sticking your face in there." Helmets are improving, research and treatment of concussions are now taken seriously, drug testing has never been more aggressive (to get chemically induced bigger, stronger, and faster out of the game), training camps are relatively benign and practices are often more like walk-throughs.
The question isn't whether or not the NFL will be around in thirty years, but will it be as popular? The popularity of this sport is based on contact and collision. I wonder how fans will respond to a watered-down version of football carnage?
One thing is certain: the helmet will dictate what football looks like in 2043...provided players wear one.
Ron Wolfley, Co-host of Doug & Wolf