In a world filled with sports announcements, possibly the most shocking of this year came from the National Football League: The league is making a change in the annual end-of-season Pro Bowl.
The NFL’s three marquee events are the draft, the Super Bowl, and the Pro Bowl. On September 26, the NFL announced that the Pro Bowl will be held in February 2023 and it will be a flag football game. What? The NFL dares to take the tackle out of the game?
The NFL is replacing the Pro Bowl with a week of competitions. The game itself will be a flag game without physical contact. The NFL, like other professional leagues, is trying to find ways to make the event more attractive for the audience and less dangerous for the players. All the professional leagues feature a single game composed of their best players, a kind of super game for the fans and a form of recognition for top athletes. Being chosen for the game enhances a player’s reputation and worth. It is always listed on a player’s resumé, along with individual statistics and championships. The first baseball All-Star Game was played in 1933; the Pro Bowl debuted in 1951.
While the games may have been popular in the pre-television era, the concept has not aged well. Fans are less than enthusiastic. They complain that players don’t give the game their best; they say it is a farce. On the player’s side, while they may enjoy the atmosphere, the recognition, and the compensation, they are not willing to risk injury in a meaningless game. The games are also not terribly popular with bettors, an increasingly important aspect of professional sports. Apparently, the NFL has been thinking about ways to change the game, protect the players, please the fans, and in the new era of sports betting give the bettors a little something besides. Flag football is unlikely to address all — or any — of those constituents.
In addition, an underlying issue might have contributed to the NFL’s introduction of a non-contact game: brain injuries. Football at all levels is a game of contact that produces many injuries. Brain injuries are not always recognized at the time of the injury and only become apparently later in the player’s life. Evidence is accumulating that contact sports like football produce undetected brain injuries that have long-lasting effects. In 2017, Science Magazine published an article stating that a study of former football players’ brains showed 87 percent had signs of chronic trauma. Among former NFL players, that percentage jumped to 99 percent. The article cautions against overinterpreting the results, because the brains all came from symptomatic former players and not from those who remained free of mental problems.
The NFL has not overinterpreted the study. At least publicly, it has ignored it. Flagging the Pro Bowl suggests, however, that the league is very aware of the issue. In time, the league may be forced to take further measures to protect players. The issue is not unique to football or the United States. Internationally, soccer has its own issues, because besides the body-to-body contact that occurs as part of a match, players use their heads to direct the ball. Some of the literature suggests that each of those hits is damaging. Rugby is very like American football in the amount of physical contact among competitors. Brain injuries are probably as common in rugby as in football.
In Australia, the Australian National Rugby League is a sponsor of the rugby equivalent of Pop Warner Football. Australia has youth rugby leagues with players segregated by age, just as we do with all youth sports. The Australian youth league has eliminated tackling and competition for younger players. The professional league is going to provide tackle training, so that young players learn how to tackle more safely. The underlying message is that professional rugby believes tackling can be made safe. Pop Warner Football is also under threat; there have been numerous lawsuits over brain injuries to young players. It is conceivable that either the courts or Congress may address the issue, declare youth football unsafe, and ban it.
Youth leagues have several purposes; they train young people to play a particular sport and they foster an interest in the sport. Building both a player and fan base is important in growing a sport and clearly, the NRL in Australia recognizes that and takes an active role in the process. The youth leagues, combined with other ways to increase the fan base, have been very successful. Professional and college football, basketball, and baseball are key components in our culture. Sports betting has strengthened the importance of those sports, especially football.
The current game of football as played by college and professional players is as close to a sacred cow as we have in this country. It is apolitical and areligious; the Super Bowl is watched by more than one-third of American households. And now we have an entirely new industry, sports betting, and its co-pilot sports media, making football more than the national pastime. It has become closer to the national religion. That is going to make addressing the risks inherent in the game very difficult.
The NFL can make the Pro Bowl a talent showcase with a game of flag football for amusement, but it dare not make NFL a game of flagging. At the same time, brain damage as an issue is not going away. It will be interesting to see how this challenge plays out.