“That’s a real concern, and I believe that safety has a lot to do with it,” said former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman, who suffered 10 concussions during his NFL career.
Aikman, now a football analyst for Fox Sports, doesn’t have a son, but if he did, he says he might not feel comfortable pushing him toward football. He is not alone among former players who have expressed that sentiment. Familiar with both the game’s risks and rewards, though, Aikman said he might also have a difficult time discouraging a son from playing the sport.
Aikman said new legislation and improved equipment has made the sport safer, but he warned that the NFL still struggles to dissociate itself from a culture of violence, which to a certain segment of fans remains the game’s biggest appeal.
Aikman closely followed the bounty scandal surrounding the New Orleans Saints last year, in which players were accused of receiving financial rewards for big hits and knocking opposing players out of games. While the league moved aggressively to punish those it believed were responsible, Aikman said the NFL did little to curb the story from dominating water-cooler discussion throughout the offseason.
“In fact,” he said, “in some ways I think they promoted a lot of the coverage that came with bountygate. . . . I don’t think that was good for the game.”
That culture seeps down to the game’s roots, and parents have no troubles connecting the dots to the sport’s highest level. In fact, last month in Southern California, a coach and youth league president were suspended amidst allegations that a peewee team paid players for big hits and injuring opposing standouts. In Massachusetts last month, five players suffered concussions in a single Pop Warner game, leading to the suspensions of both coaches.
Even before those reports surfaced, youth leagues have been taking unprecedented steps to improve the sport’s image. It’s at the youth level, observers say, upon which the future of the game hinges.
“If they don’t get this right, there’s a very real possibility that football could go the way of boxing, where the sport is only there for those who need a way out, who have no other choice,” said Von DuBose, one of the attorneys who is suing the NFL on behalf of former players who suffered concussions during their careers.
“I could see Friday nights across the country changing. Parents are going to be more tuned in with the long-term ramifications of playing football. If the NFL doesn’t get this right, those parents are going to make an informed decision to keep their kids out.”