Life After Football

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Issue 16, Volume 110

By Philip Von Mueffling 

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Is it time for America’s most watched sport to prioritize a player's health and life over football? Absolutely.

By America’s most watched sport, we are, of course, talking about football. In recent years, controversy surrounding how the National Football League (NFL) treats and punishes dangerous hits, as well as the frequent rate of concussions, has arisen.

The NFL clearly outlines their critical stance on hitting a defenseless player. According to the official rulebook of the NFL, “it is a foul if a player initiates unnecessary contact against a player who is in a defenseless posture.” Essentially, any player being hit must have ample time to defend and prepare themselves for any impending contact. I have no issue with this rule: unlike some subjective penalties like pass interference, this one is usually clear cut and obvious. The larger problems at hand are the effects that illegal hits can have on the victims of the contact.

A classic example of the dangerous results of an illegal hit is Antonio Brown, a generational talent struggling with his mental health. It is rare to see a football superstar with all the talent in the world have such a drastic fall from grace. Never have we seen someone who was generally considered to be the best receiver in the league transform to someone seen as a blatant distraction and a criminal. On the surface, there are some very questionable actions that led to his demise, but if you take a closer look, there might be a reasonable explanation for these acts.

In the first round of the 2016 NFL playoffs, the Cincinnati Bengals led the Pittsburgh Steelers by one point and only 22 seconds were left on the clock. After the ball was released, Brown was brutally hit by Bengals linebacker Vontaze Burfict. The infamously dirty Burfict absolutely leveled Brown with a hit to the head, and the wide receiver suffered a serious concussion as a result. While the Steelers were rewarded with a penalty and won the game, Brown may have developed a serious case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and lost his career.

According to the Boston University CTE Center, CTE “is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain found in people with a history of repetitive brain trauma (often athletes), including symptomatic concussions as well as asymptomatic subconcussive hits to the head that do not cause symptoms.” These cases are nothing new, as CTE has been discovered in numerous NFL legends posthumously. It is important to note that CTE can only be discovered after someone dies. The condition is clinically asymptomatic, leading to a lot of uncertainty because there is truly no way to know until it is too late.

It is time for the NFL to take a much stronger stance on these issues and make the consequences of hitting a defenseless player much more severe. The fact that a dangerous player like Burfict was allowed to continue playing is unacceptable. It is crucial that in the event of a serious breach of the NFL’s defenseless player rule, a committee of the NFL immediately deliberates and votes to remove the player from the league—rather than temporarily suspending them. The hope is that if the punishment is severe enough, it will deter the offense from ever being committed.

The time to act is now. The sports world cannot bear to see another superstar like Antonio Brown collapse.