Keeping Score

What if There Were No Super Bowl?

A Baltimore Ravens player is predicting the NFL's extinction. How this Super Bowl is grappling with player safety

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Patrick Semansky / AP

Ben Nix, from NFL security, carries the Vince Lombardi Trophy in preparation for a news conference between San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh and Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh for the NFL Super Bowl XLVII football game on Feb. 1, 2013, in New Orleans.

For probably the first time in NFL history, players are talking about the Super Bowl’s possible extinction, just a few days before the big game in New Orleans between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.

You can thank two people for that: Ravens safety Bernard Pollard and President Barack Obama. Late last week, Pollard told CBS Sports that he did not think the NFL would still exist in 30 years. “I think with the direction things are going — where [NFL rulemakers] want to lighten up, and they’re throwing flags and everything else — there’s going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it,” Pollard said. He also said with players getting bigger and stronger every year, it’s nearly impossible to make the game safe. “The only thing I’m waiting for … and, Lord, I hope it doesn’t happen … is a guy dying on the field,” Pollard said. Such a catastrophe could turn more fans away from the game.

Then, in an interview with the New Republic, Obama wrestled with the safety issues that threaten the future of football. If he had a son, Obama said, he’d “have to think long and hard” about letting him play football. “I think that those of us who love the sport are going to have to wrestle with the fact that it will probably change gradually to try to reduce some of the violence,” Obama told the magazine. “In some cases, that may make it a little bit less exciting, but it will be a whole lot better for the players, and those of us who are fans maybe won’t have to examine our consciences quite as much.”

Where is football going? That crucial, complex question — which has no clear answer — is at the forefront of Super Bowl XLVII, which kicks off on Feb. 3. During Tuesday’s media day, Pollard — one of the NFL’s fiercest hitters, whose helmet-to-helmet strike on New England running back Stevan Ridley in the AFC title game both caused a crucial fumble and knocked Ridley out of the game — stood by his prediction that meddling with the core nature of football will lead to the NFL’s doom. “We can’t as fans and as players allow a group of men to change this game,” says Pollard. “That’s what’s going on right now.”

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Pollard insists rule tweaks aren’t going to reduce collisions and injury risk. “It’s a car crash on every play,” Pollard says. Technology is not the answer. “It doesn’t matter if you put a bigger helmet on me,” Pollard says, “it’s still going to be the same contact.” Pollard makes a strong point about some of the existing, and promising, technical advances that allow medical personnel to quantify the amount of force a player is taking to the head. “We can do all that,” Pollard says of such innovations. “But the collisions and everything else — it stays the same.” No helmet can prevent those car crashes in the first place.

The only way to really prevent injury, Pollard says, is to just make football a shell of its violent self. “There’s nothing you can do,” he says. “Nobody is exempt. You’re going to have your injuries. You’re going to have your concussions. You’re going to have your broken bones, everything else. But I think for the most part, we as football players know what we signed up for.”

While Obama said he’d have to think “long and hard” about permitting his son to play football, Pollard has already made up his mind. “I don’t want him playing football,” Pollard says. He’s not alone: according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, the number of kids ages 6 to 12 participating in tackle football was down 35% from 2007 to 2011.

Pollard’s son is about to turn 5. “He wants to throw the football around, he wants to be tackled, all that stuff — I see it in him,” Pollard says. And it’s wrenching for Pollard to watch his son take to the game. “My wife and I talk about it all the time,” he says. “It sucks. I know that concussions can happen anywhere. But just to see him going through the daily grind, and the aches and the pains of the body at a young age, I don’t want see my son go through that.”

Many players don’t agree with Pollard and won’t agonize over a parenting decision about football, like Obama says he would. “If I want to share any information with President Obama, that would be it — never shatter your kid’s dreams, if that’s what they want to do,” says Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who also spent media day trying to deflect a Sports Illustrated report that showed how Lewis may have used a spray, extracted from deer antlers and containing a banned substance, to help him recover from the triceps injury he suffered in October. Says San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman: “I think if you try to take it out of our kids’ lives, just because you don’t think it’s safe, you’re kind of living your life for them.”

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While the “Will your kids play football?” question draws a variety of answers, players aren’t seeing Pollard’s doomsday fate for the sport. They’re confident that the NFL won’t dissolve. But they fear it won’t look the same. “In 10 to 20 years, I think the rules will change a lot,” says San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis says. “It’s already no helmet to helmet. It might be flag football.”

Davis then says he’s just joking. But can you believe him? These days, football’s future is all about doubt.

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16 comments
david.chalk
david.chalk

There is a spectre haunting the NFL, the spectre of tackling skill.  American Football fans fear that after 100 years of players wrapping themselves up in protective equipment the players will instead have to learn how to tackle properly.

humtake
humtake

Does ANYONE actually WANT football players to earn their pay?  So many people get all mad about how much athletes make, but then they do everything they can to make sure those athletes are comfy cozy in their profession.  As far as I'm concerned, NFL players get hazard pay for playing in the NFL.  If they were forced to live paycheck to paycheck like most of us, I'd actually be worried about their health and that they get a fair deal.  However, even the minimum salary is more than almost all of us will ever make in a year.  There HAS to be some inherent risk involved.  Whiny Liberals love to complain and cry and discriminate against people with money, but then they do everything they can to make sure those people are not having to work for it...

drudown
drudown

What if there were no cell phones?

(sigh.)

Next asinine question.

MatthewA.Gilbert
MatthewA.Gilbert

No Super Bowl? I think you are confusing the talk of no Super Bowl with the talk of no Pro Bowl. PS: To feature Bernard Pollard in your article is a disgrace: he is one of the dirtiest cheap shot players in the NFL and is personally responsible for season ending injuries to Tom Brady, Wes Welker, Rob Gronkowski, and Stevan Ridley.

LelandSomers
LelandSomers

Maybe in 30 years Americans will play real football - you know the kind where you actually move the ball with your feet.

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

MEMO TO TIME MAGAZINE:  This is an incredibly misleading and contradiction-laden article.

The author begins the article by stating, "For probably the first time in NFL history, players are talking about the Super Bowl’s possible extinction, just a few days before the big game in New Orleans between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers."  

He then goes on to describe President Obama's hesitancy to let his hypothetical son play, and then describes Pollard's feelings 1) towards the game, and 2) towards his own 5-year old son playing in the future.

Surprisingly, the author concludes the article by directly contradicting the beginning of the article by stating that, "[NFL] players aren’t seeing Pollard’s doomsday fate for the sport. They’re confident that the NFL won’t dissolve."  That's completely different than saying that, "players are talking about the Super Bowl’s possible extinction."  

In fact, the author does not provide the name of one single NFL player - or any football player/expert for that matter - that espouses the Super Bowl's potential "extinction."  So, in effect, the author's entire "extinction"-based premise is based off nothing more than the author's unsubstantiated speculation.  Even worse, as described above, his concluding remarks directly contradict his unfounded premise.

As a sidenote to the TIME Magazine Editorial Staff, I am surprised you would publish such a puff piece on your site.  Your journalist clearly did not substantiate his position, and instead engaged in idle speculation.  He cited the President and a football player, but their comments (while interesting to consider) are wholly irrelevant to the author's argument.  

Is this what really passes for serious journalism in today's world?  Think about it.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

Sports have always been about mock combat.  The "puling masses" crave the violence, often because it's the best way to alleviate their own daily tedium without necessarily grabbing the Glock and blowing the family away.  It's cathartic to a lot of fans (in addition to inciting for many of them).  The thrill of blood and the possibility of disaster is why people watch these sporting events.  If someone says they love Nascar and hate the crashes, they're LYING.  Without the crashes, it's just a bunch of cars going around in a circle for two and a half hours.  Fans glory in the spills, chills, blood and violence of the exhibition put on by people paid to risk life and limb for the viewing pleasure of the audience.

The only difference between sports today and sporting events of 2000 years ago is that the weapons have morphed into balls, gloves, bats, bars and cars.  I've seen allegedly civilized people cheer when a player on the opposing team is injured.  How far apart is that from the crowds roaring with approval when a gladiator was gutted?  

Not far at all.

Whether civilization tames mankind or destroys us is yet to be seen.  But in the grand scheme of things, people will continue to watch sports whether there is violence or not, just in case there is.  We still have not come far enough from our evolutionary roots to be as civilized inside as we pretend to be outside.  It will take a very long time before people decide that violence in sports is not acceptable as a part of the sport itself, instead of it merely being a remote possibility.  

GuðmundurSteinarJónsson
GuðmundurSteinarJónsson

I play Rugby and virtually all contact between players in Football would be illegal in Rugby. Blocks are illegal and tackles must be performed with the hands. The hardest hits in football are the blocks and the momentum tackles where the tackler virtually spears the ball carrier with his body. 

It is a contact sport and in all contact sports (from basketball to water polo) there are injuries when something goes wrong. The fear I have with football is that long term injuries are happening when nothing goes wrong. 

Personally I'd advocate rule changes that get rid of blocks, force the tackler to wrestle the ball carrier to the ground and possibly even get rid of helmets to force good behavior by the players. 

Rugby is an open free flowing game where there are no blocks and on the ball carrier can be tackled, it has an off side rule that means that virtually every tackle is expected (the ball carrier is either being chased or he sees the tackler in front of him before contact) and no tackles are surprises and no armor is worn so all players are paranoid about avoided head to head contact. The head to head tackle in rugby is almost an agreed upon tackle between the players of the kind "I won't head butt you if you don't head butt me". 

When the two sports separated 120 years ago the american version used technological means like padding and helmets to prevent injuries while the british version used rule changes like scrums and offside rules to prevent injuries. Neither system is perfect, Rugby still has issues with neck injuries in scrums for example. 

If you want to save the game, however, you have to make sure that the game on TV is like the one kids play in the park and that both are safe when nothing goes wrong. 

Human bodies are not built to withstand crashes at twice maximum human running speed, no matter how much padding is used. 

JCG42
JCG42

Obama isn't trying to change the NFL or how American football is played, he was only speculating on his choice IF he had a son who wanted to play the game.  I have two young sons and have already decided they are not playing football.  The chances of life-long injuries are too great for a small bit of entertainment.

ArxFerrum
ArxFerrum

Obama seems to want to destroy all things traditional in America. Why not football? My guess is that he already has plans to replace the National Cathedral in Washington with a mosque. Why not then destroy American football and replace it with soccer? 

Next up, Thanksgiving. We'll celebrate with a day of hunger where instead of a turkey dinner, we have to eat... memories.

tzoooor
tzoooor

@MatthewA.Gilbert seems like someone (a pats fan) is butthurt by a REGULAR player. bernard pollard is not dirty by any means. just because a few pats have been injured by his play doesnt mean its his fault. did you even watch that play where ridley got injured and fumbled the ball? he led with his helmet. let me say that again. HE LED WITH HIS HELMET. what did you expect? defensive players are expected go get low and tackle. pollard did the right thing but ridley didn't. by your comment I can obviously tell that you're a moron and know nothing about football.

/not a ravens fan

apodofin
apodofin

@LelandSomers We do.  There are punts, kickoffs, and drop kicks.  Real football?  There are so many names for association football, I don't know what to call it.  I'll stick to soccer or footie.  Yea, I think footie is what I'll use.

JohnDoughe
JohnDoughe

The author is confusing the SB with the Pro Bowl. No one watches that anyway.

BlaiseCollura
BlaiseCollura

@DeweySayenoff

You are incorrect. I should've avoided your entire response after you ridiculously named enjoyment of sports as some kind of subconscious substitute for offing one's own family with a handgun, but I'll bite.

Sports, including football, are far more about COMPETITION than they are about violence. Favorite moments for football fans include deep passes, breakaway runs, interceptions, improbable comebacks - wrenching someone down by the face-mask or knocking them out cold with a headbutt to the neck are not among them. If anything, these moments elicit gasps and hand-wringing from onlookers. Your Nascar comparison doesn't hold up.

I can't even answer your final statement. You've extrapolated that hard hits and injuries in football are signs that humanity in general desires violence, bloodshed, and slaughter. Why am I even bothering to respond to this nonsense?

mrbomb13
mrbomb13

@JohnDoughe 

It's interesting that you noted the author's apparent confusion.  Furthermore, it's also curious how even if the author meant to say "Pro Bowl," his argument would still contain blatant contradictions and unsubstantiated speculation.

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