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The NFL Can Save Football and Preserve Players’ Health With This One Simple Fix

The NFL has fumbled on preventing concussions and protecting players’ health. It’s time to transition to flag football.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is attended to by medical staff after being sacked during the second quarter of an NFL football game at Paycor Stadium on September 29, 2022, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The multibillion-dollar National Football League (NFL) is locked in an extremely divisive controversy that can only be solved with a simple, but controversial, sandlot solution — a flag stuck in the back of the quarterback’s pants… and then of all ball carriers and receivers.

Though the solution may seem silly to those with no interest in or tolerance for professional football, the problem cuts to the core of a significant health and labor issue facing NFL athletes.

Much of the progress toward understanding the seriousness of the concussion problem has come from the football players’ union, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), and from an organization of former players including retired running back Ken Jenkins.

“We’ve come a long way since I played,” says Jenkins, who retired in 1987. “You were supposed to be able to shake off a little stinger or dinger or a small concussion or a bell rung. That was expected back then. And, if you didn’t … it was almost like, ‘Well, he’s not tough.’ Now we know that a concussion can cause problems down the road and even lead to death. It has opened our eyes and created a cascade of safety measures to be put in place that have helped our game, especially for the youth coming up.”

Pioneered by former Colts player John Mackey in the 1970s, the NFLPA struggled long and hard against the billionaire owners who still view “their” players as dispensable employees. Over the decades, led later by former player Gene Upshaw and attorney Ed Garvey, the union faced almost impossible odds, fighting through brutal battles over pay, working conditions, free agency and collusion, and more. Gradually, the union built immense clout through organizing.

But perhaps the union’s biggest fight has centered on the discovery that many players have been suffering a previously undiagnosed form of brain damage called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). First identified by a Nigerian-born coroner in Pittsburgh, Bennett Omalu, MD, the problem surfaced with the death of former Pittsburgh Steelers and Kansas City Chiefs superstar center Mike Webster.

Webster played from 1974 to 1990, entering the Pro Football Hall of Fame with a reputation for violent outbursts. Eventually Webster came to live with depression and mental illness, struggling with drug addiction and exhibiting erratic behaviors. At age 50, he died suddenly. According to The Atlantic, while the hospital report said Webster had died at Allegheny General Hospital from a heart attack, he also “suffered from ‘depression secondary to post-concussion syndrome,’ suggesting the syndrome was a contributory factor to his death, thus making it accidental.”

When Omalu used his personal funds to examine Webster’s brain tissue, he discovered a previously unknown syndrome of cell damage caused by the repeated trauma that is at the core of tackle football. Soon, with NFLPA support, the syndrome was confirmed in other dead and dying retired players.

Like the tobacco industry denying a connection between cigarettes and lung cancer, or the nuclear power industry whitewashing the dangers of atomic radiation, the NFL and its super-rich owners went into deep denial. They viciously attacked Omalu and his supporters, vehemently denying their immensely profitable sport could cause any lasting harm.

But the NFLPA took Omalu’s findings into the public mainstream. The union gradually organized retired players and their families — many of who continue to struggle with players’ high rates of depression, domestic violence and suicide. Ultimately, the union sued the NFL on behalf of its stricken veterans and their too-often abused spouses and children. A preliminary 2013 court settlement of $765 million opened the door to a long series of legal battles.

The union has also battled the league over funding for medical studies. Meanwhile, the 2015 film, Concussion, starring Will Smith and focused on Omalu and his research brought a new level of public attention to the situation. After Junior Seau, another beloved Hall of Famer, committed suicide at 43, medical researchers found that his brain exhibited cellular changes consistent with CTE.” The findings deeply impacted public opinion.

The NFL and other major sports leagues have long been criticized by legendary consumer advocate Ralph Nader, among others. Much of his critique has focused on the ability of professional teams’ wealthy owners to gouge the public for huge sums of money to build enormous stadiums that only benefit the rich. But Nader has also skewered contact sports like hockey and football for promoting and marketing the brutal physical contact that results in CTE and other serious injuries.

In recent years, controversies have erupted over “race-based adjustments in dementia testing that critics said made it difficult for Black retirees to qualify for awards in the $1 billion settlement of concussion claims,” the Associated Press reported. The testing procedures, which the NFL agreed to end in 2021, had caused complex conflicts within the players’ union.

But the union and the league are continuing to battle over the brain damage issue. It’s been generally assumed that football is the United States’ most popular sport, in large part because its most loyal viewers love the violence itself. Promoted in part by the macho rantings of Donald Trump, who once owned a non-NFL professional football team (and the contract of running back Herschel Walker, the GOP’s far right candidate for Senate from Georgia), harm done to players has been considered “part of the game.”

The current uproar stems from two seemingly opposite situations — the disturbing concussive damage done to a young Miami Dolphins’ quarterback, and an overly protective penalty called in favor of an aging veteran QB.

The more serious side of the controversy surrounds Tua Tagovailoa, Miami’s 24-year-old star passer. In successive games Tagovailoa suffered head injuries that may have permanently threatened his health.

Under intense pressure from the players’ union and public advocates like Nader, the NFL has instituted some protocols to protect its most valuable assets: its star quarterbacks. Rules now in place, about how badly QBs can be hit by defensive players, and when quarterbacks must be substituted out after suffering obvious trauma, have somewhat mitigated risks. But the protocols are deeply flawed and seriously contradictory.

Tagovailoa was slammed to the ground on September 25, 2022, and experienced a concussion. But the Dolphins claimed he’d suffered a “back injury” and put him back in. Then, on September 29, 2022, he suffered yet another serious hit. According to People: “While lying on the field, Tagovailoa’s raised his hands and arms above him and appeared to be unable to control their movement, and medical assistance was called. Tagovailoa remained motionless on the field for around 10 minutes before being carried out in a stretcher.”

Despite the obvious trauma, Tagovailoa was allowed to play the next week and was hit yet again in ways too devastating to ignore. Commentators have voiced outrage that the life and future health of a player in his twenties could be so cavalierly risked for a mere ball game.

Ironically, when Tagovailoa was made to sit out the next game, his replacement — Teddy Bridgewater — was himself on the very first play hit too hard to continue. Miami’s third-string passer then led the team — which had been streaking — to an abysmal defeat.

The futures of Tagovailoa, Bridgewater and the Dolphins themselves are now all up in the air. The angry, divisive and often confusing debate about when concussed QBs should play and when they should be pulled has no clear resolution.

But the flip side of the debate reared its ugly hammered head in a marquee game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Atlanta Falcons when legendary Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady was sacked. The hit was routine and showed no signs of excess within the league’s protocols. Brady appeared uninjured.

But as one of the NFL’s all-time leading passers, Brady had license to jump up and down with theatrical complaints. The referees granted him a very dubious penalty, which probably decided the game in the Bucs’ favor.

In response, one of U.S. sports’ most popular commentators, Stephen A. Smith, made what could be a definitive suggestion. While expressing his outrage at Brady’s antics, he argued that a flag should be stuck in the back of the quarterback’s pants. Instead of letting these key players get smashed and thrown to the ground by massive pass rushers, the flag could merely be pulled, ending the play. The extreme violence and tangible damage suffered in this pivotal part of any football game would thus be avoided.

The suggestion to use flags in professional football may have been first discussed in public as a “serious cultural issue” 10 days prior by four former players on this writer’s weekly Green Grassroots Emergency Protection Zoom call and Progressive Radio Network’s “Solartopia” radio show.

“He [Tagovailoa] had a concussion from four days earlier and they let him play,” said former player Dan Sheehan. “It was just bizarre.”

The suggestion to use a cloth strip to be pulled and thrown to the ground is a throwback to “flag football,” the sandlot version of the sport played by millions of amateurs in parks throughout the country. In this more pacific version of the game, there’s no tackling. Each play ends with the ball carrier’s flag — rather than the players themselves — being thrown to the ground.

Such a version of the game is of course viewed as “wimpy” by Trumpian fans, most of whom have never played the sport themselves, but who pay the big bucks to see hired gladiators (most of them Black) smashing each other’s brains to oblivion on the field.

For all the focus on rules surrounding quarterbacks, the essence of the game at all positions remains embedded in its violence, with the expectation of injury being virtually universal.

In the long run, going to flags — and not just for quarterbacks — may be the game’s only hope.

While European “football” — what people in the U.S. know as soccer — has grown exponentially, tackle football in the U.S. is tanking among young people. A new study suggests that half of adults in the U.S. disagree with the idea that tackle football is an “appropriate sport for kids to play.” Fearing injuries, lawsuits and a spreading revulsion against violence, high schools and colleges around the country are dropping the sport altogether.

As early as 2003, a major orthopedic study showed as many as 350,000 high school football players were being injured every year. And while the NFL gorges on high ratings and gargantuan profits, it cannot continue without a constant flow of young players.

For the league, a good quarterback is vital to the game’s allure. Tagovailoa has a multimillion-dollar four-year contract. The Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback Patrick Mahomes recently signed a long-term deal for a half-billion dollars.

As we have seen in Miami, a team led by a mediocre quarterback is barely worth watching, even for the game’s most devoted fans. The quality of the NFL’s “product” is degraded every time a star QB is forced to sit out a game.

In the short term, protecting the quarterback, runners and pass catchers with a flag protocol rather than murky, hard-to-define concussive protocols should be — forgive the pun — a no-brainer.

The violence lovers will whine that the sport is going “wimpy.” But in the long term, the whole game must be overhauled and made less brutal. The grotesque parade of seriously harmed young stars being carted off the field is not sustainable. For the NFL, there can be no greater threat than the wise decision of young athletes to choose other sports.

Will making professional football less violent affect American culture? Realistically, it’s hard to think otherwise.

Football is the nation’s premier spectator sport, watched weekly by tens of millions. The Super Bowl is the most watched annual sporting event in the world.

A packed weekend of often horrifying blood sport can do the American psyche no good. Taming it down to the beautiful nonviolent ballet it really should be could constitute a great leap forward for the nation’s cultural mindset, and for the health of its athletes.

We won’t know for sure until we try. But common sense should tell us that when it comes to tackle football, flags are the better option.

Please write me directly via [email protected] to help make it happen.

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