A couple of weeks ago, I moderated a panel at the Philadelphia Sports Law Conference, organized by a former student of mine, Ed Wasielewski, who’s been working as an NFL agent for the past several years. I don’t know a great deal about sports law, or even about the specific focus of the panel I was moderating (last year’s Supreme Court case in American Needle v. NFL, holding that the NFL was not a “single entity” for purposes of antitrust claims), but I found the discussion on the panel immediately preceding mine to be fascinating (and a bit grisly). It focused on the recent spate of injuries in the NFL, and on the legal issues raised in regard to those — workman’s compensation, issues regarding disability payments under the current NFL-NFLPA collective bargaining agreement, and the like. The panelists were all pretty experienced folks — people who had been working as agents for decades, a representative from the NFL Players’ Association, and the like — and the stories they told were frightening; quite aside from the well-publicized brain injuries and concussions that have been widely discussed over the last year or so, the physical beating that these players take in the course of a season (let alone a career) in football is gruesome in the extreme — as one panelist put it, if the average NFL player walked into a doctor’s office at random for a checkup, he’d be rushed immediately to a hospital for treatment. It’s getting to the point, for me, where it’s becoming hard to watch the games themselves, knowing what the players are going through and the risks they’re taking.
So I raised my hand and asked the stupid question: instead of trying to design the perfect helmet and armor for the players to wear, is anyone seriously thinking about going in the opposite direction, i.e., taking away some of the padding that the players are wearing, as a way to reduce the frequency of severe injury? My model for that is rugby — it’s a damned violent sport, played at the highest professional level in dozens of countries around the world with world-class athletes, and yet the frequency of serious injury is much, much lower than in American football. A large part of the reason is that the players wear virtually no padding at all — you can’t run into someone a full tilt, head down, throwing the full weight of your body into the blow (the way you can in football) if you don’t have the full panoply of helmet and shoulder pads and all the rest. It seems, to me, like it’s at least worth considering (though the reaction was mostly nervous laughter at the conference when I raised the question – the general feeling being that the public would never stand for it).