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The NFL, Concussions, and the Romanticism of Gladiator Culture

A society’s love for a game and all the violence and moral dilemmas that come with it

One of my favorite movies from my early teenage years was Ridley Scott’s ancient Roman masterpiece, Gladiator which featured Russell Crowe as a fallen general thrust into the bloodsport of the Roman Gladiator games. In modern culture, we look down upon this part of our history as a society. The idea of rooting for death as a sport feels barbaric.

But as with many things, we do not fully evolve from an old tendency. Instead, we modify. The most popular sport in the United States is American football. A sport with a regulated level of intentional violence. The sport has changed a lot since the days of Lawrence Taylor, Ronnie Lott, and Steve Atwater. But last week in Cincinnati, we were reminded of just how violent it is with Miami quarterback Tua Tagovailoa going down with a scary head injury that led to the player being carted off the field and taken to a local hospital.

Many reports are suggesting that he was medically cleared to play, which resulted in the firing of an independent doctor. But is there something deeper at play here? A cultural element that we have had inside of us as fans, as players, and as a society that is similar to the days of gladiator matches at the Roman Coliseum. There is a culture of violence that makes us love football, but it is also that same culture that continues to endanger our favorite athletes.

The Ever-Changing NFL Game

When I was a kid growing up in the 1990s, the sports highlight shows would always showcase big hits and react boisterously to them. There was a sort of praise heaped on the safety that delivered a knockout blow to a wide receiver running a route in the middle of the field or to the defensive end aiming high on a quarterback coming from the blind side. These types of hits defined the careers of many defenders of that era.

That all changed when a study found that Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (better known as CTE) was found in 99% of the brains of deceased NFL players that were donated for research. CTE is a neurodegenerative brain disease that can be found in people that have sustained repeated head trauma. The effects of this ailment can be memory loss, impaired judgment, confusion, aggression, depression, anxiety, and in some cases suicidal tendencies. One of the most iconic defensive players of the 1990s, Junior Seau, was found to have been suffering from CTE after he committed suicide in 2012. The NFL had a problem on its hands and since then it has attempted to fix it.

In the years that have followed, the NFL began to institute a variety of rules that have changed the way that the game is played. The helmet-to-helmet hit has been outlawed, receivers that are deemed defenseless (unable to brace for impact) are more protected, and hits in the head and neck region have been completely outlawed (read the full list of the NFL’s safety changes here). The result of this has led to a more offensive game, with more points scored allowing offensive talent to shine through without the fear of being decimated by a hit to the head.

The NFL continues its effort to portray its game as a mostly safe one, with less impact in practices and the use of the Guardian Cap in said practices to prevent head injuries. But it is also important to note that this sort of change only picked up momentum when the NFL was faced with a lawsuit. The league was perfectly content to associate the later-life effects of CTE on players as a part of the business of football until the evidence mounted against it and it had to settle with former players. Even today, the way older players are treated could still be refined and improved upon. The NFL operates a league where the game that is played is predicated on sustained violence and is now playing the tug-of-war of what is too violent to ensure player safety but also what is violent enough to ensure that fans still want to watch the games. The reality is that fans crave violence regardless of the cost to the athletes.

Are You Not Entertained?

I have always viewed myself as more of a compassionate fan than a bitter one, which is likely in the minority of many people that watch sports (especially the NBA and NFL). Many people feel that these players are paid millions of dollars, generational wealth to play a game. That any concerns they have about the way that their league handles player safety are just entitlement. This seems to be more the case with football than basketball in my experience.

There is a certain machismo associated with playing football, it is a tough guy sport. I have watched many football games, both college and professional, and have seen the reactions when a player goes down with an injury. There is an instant reaction by many for that player to get up and tough it out through the pain. This is especially the case for higher-importance positions in the modern game such as quarterback, left tackle, and wide receiver. There are often cries of hits not being “that bad” when they happen and that players make so much money that they should play through the pain.

This sort of reckless attitude has manifested even more profoundly when it comes to head injuries. The issue at play is that CTE isn’t evident like a shoulder separation or an ACL tear. It is a build-up of the actions that are deemed normal football plays. So if a player is concussed and stumbles to get up, many people suggest that it is a “shake the cobwebs out” moment when in fact it is much more serious than that.

And despite many fans claiming that head injuries are more serious, their tune will always change when it is the player on their team that has been concussed. Fans still love violence, they crave it. Big hits even though they are less commonplace are still applauded and revered by many. There is a thirst for it, and with that craving comes the nature of an athlete to put himself in harm's way.

Player Pressure

In the aftermath of the Tua Tagovailoa injury, there was an interesting comment made by Shannon Sharpe. The Hall of Fame tight end turned talking head suggested that in the case of Tua “sometimes players need protecting from themselves”. This statement highlights an often overlooked aspect of the concussion dilemma: the competitive nature of the athlete that makes him compelled to get back on the field as quickly as possible.

Professional athletes are not wired the same as me or you are. There are over 1 million people that play high school football every year. Less than 2,000 of them make the NFL. That is under 1%, only the best make it to the top level. To get there, there is a type of competitiveness and dedication needed that very few people possess. With this competitiveness there comes a lot of pressure. The pressure to perform, to be available, to not let your teammates down.

This pressure is especially true of the quarterback position. As the most important position on the field it is the most protected. But that also means that when a quarterback goes down the player might feel the need to play through the pain. We saw this recently when Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert played with a substantial rib injury. The leadership role of the quarterback only means that they will try to get on the field faster because they are the leader of the team and have the sense to prove their toughness.

The NFL continues to see instances of questionable concussion protocol, but none are as severe as Tagovailoa’s which will likely end in another revision to the league’s concussion protocol. Ultimately, the NFL is worried about an image problem. It does not want to be seen as the heartless and soulless corporation that only cares about profiting off of its talent, despite how true that may be. Culturally we have accepted this environment of controlled violence, much as the Romans accepted an environment of showcasing death. There is a thirst for violence, and a need by players to prove their worthiness to compete on the field. This desire will never go away, and the NFL will continue to profit off our collective need to be entertained by the violence of modern-day gladiators regardless of how much they say they care about safety.

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