The N.F.L. Still Has a Concussion Problem. Are There Lessons From Boxing?

By Matthew Spolar
An image from RetroReport

The 20th-century Philadelphia pugilist Joe Frazier famously warned that in boxing, “you could get your brains shook, your money took and your name in the undertaker's book.” This month, Americans have been forced to reckon once again with the brutal reality of the sport that dominates the country's 21st-century consciousness: football.

Two Sundays ago, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa wobbled into the arms of his teammates after a tackle slammed the back of his head into the ground. He was then put right back in the game, having supposedly cleared protocols intended by the N.F.L. to protect the brains of its players.

The N.F.L. players union immediately questioned the team's assertion that Tagovailoa had merely suffered a back injury. Things soon got worse: The Dolphins, scheduled that week to play again on Thursday, decided to double down, declaring Tagovailoa ready for action just four days after most viewers reasonably concluded he’d suffered a concussion.

The result was a macabre scene. Late in the first half, the diminutive Tagovailoa was slung to the ground for a sack and his body went limp. Footage showed his fingers awkwardly locked in front of his face, known as a “fencing response” triggered by a brain injury, before he was strapped to a stretcher and taken to a nearby hospital.

The sports commentariat recoiled in disgust, and the players union fired the neurotrauma specialist who had initially cleared Tagovailoa. But just days later another player with apparent concussion symptoms was allowed to continue playing in a game on national television. After Tampa Bay tight end Cameron Brate collided with a teammate on Sunday night, Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, now a NBC analyst, declared the N.F.L.’s concussion protocols a “broken system.”

Seven years ago, in partnership with The New York Times, Retro Report examined the N.F.L.’s concussion problem as one tragedy after another highlighted a growing body of research documenting widespread diagnoses of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) among former players, and the N.F.L.’s efforts to make the issue go away. Any time Will Smith is involved, it’s a big deal.

Our piece looked back at the decline of boxing in the 1980s, from a titanic battle of wills celebrated in the American imagination to a sport relegated to the fringes of society. But in comparing boxing to football, we cited a key difference: As former CBS boxing producer Rick Gentile succinctly put it, “There is an entity called the National Football League.” Boxing was overseen by a diffuse amalgam of promoters and TV producers. Football has “the shield,” a monolithic commercial enterprise with an interest in presenting itself as a professional governing body in order to preserve the sport’s financial outlook.

In response to that pressure in the mid-2010s, the N.F.L. made safety a public point of emphasis. Some changes include penalizing a player for leading with the crown of his helmet when making a tackle, and altering the rules on kickoffs to disincentivize teams from returning the ball, a uniquely dangerous situation when both teams run full speed toward each other. The league also appointed certified athletic trainers to act as concussion “spotters,” capable of stopping the game if they suspected a player had suffered a brain injury.

But almost as soon as these safety measures were implemented, questions were raised about their sincerity and practicality in protecting players’ health. And this is how football has dug a hole different from the one boxing found itself in decades ago. In general, the sport’s prospects remain far brighter. In an age of declining television revenue, football is a live TV goldmine. The teams’ connections to America’s cities are hardwired, something akin to Sunday religion. And as boxing analyst Kieran Mulvaney presciently wondered way back in 2015, if an N.F.L. player were to die on the field the way boxers once died in the ring (or the way several high school players are killed each year), would American culture only experience “the cycle of grief and outrage in a couple of days until Kim Kardashian did something else?”

Today, a decade into the N.F.L.’s acknowledgment of its concussion crisis, “the shield” has played its hand. Rules have been changed. Commercials no longer glorify the bone-crushing hits that were the sport’s calling card. And yet the problem persists. Amid the N.F.L.’s public relations nightmare this past week, college football (an enormously lucrative entity unto itself) saw repeated incidents of young men sprawled unmoving on the grass as TV cameras rolled. At the collegiate level, a more drastic measure is already in place: If a player is flagged for “targeting” his opponent’s head or neck area, an automatic ejection from the game is enforced.

So what’s left for football, and the millions of parents deciding whether to let their kids play? Even as the NFL scrambles to fix the issue again, the sport’s self-appointed governing bodies have already taken their supposed best shots, and they have the episodes of the past week to show for it. In the heat of competition, convincing athletes – let alone league executives and diehard fans – to adhere to further safety guidelines is a tall task.

That leads back to Frazier’s frank quip about the reality of boxing: Along with the inherent physical danger, he said, you could also get “your money took.” For a game as wildly American as football, perhaps the only relief will be found in cold, hard cash. Just as with boxing, poorer families are more willing to let their children continue to play football.

For those open to taking that risk, the N.C.A.A. and N.F.L. might find it’s worth digging slightly deeper into their pockets today in order to secure their business tomorrow. Though the Supreme Court recently forced college sports to allow athletes to profit from being themselves, the N.C.A.A.’s healthcare model for those athletes, especially ones who suffer long-term injuries, is spotty at best. And in the N.F.L., the contracts available to most players lag behind those in the ascendant N.B.A., a discrepancy that talented young athletes and their parents could begin to consider in an era of early sport specialization.

Maybe the N.F.L. will determine there’s no further use in trying to bandage a blood sport, and instead pay up for anybody willing to risk the ultimate price.

MATTHEW SPOLAR is a producer at Retro Report. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.