The NFL's (Lack of) Response to an Injury Crisis May Provide the Reason For Its Declining Cultural Relevancy

Have you ever been in a car crash before? I sure hope you haven’t. If you were somehow unaware, they’re very dangerous. Nearly 1.3 million people die from car crashes every year- to put that in more digestible terms, that means there are approximately 3,287 car accident-related deaths each day. Even accidents that don’t result in deaths can be traumatizing- I recently heard the story of a friend who got in an accident, and the airbag was deployed with such force that it broke her wrist. Even the most minor car accident injuries can have major repercussions.

So, when Denver Broncos linebacker Todd Davis recently told the MMQB’s Robert Klemko that playing on Thursday Night Football “…kind of feels like getting in a car accident, trying to recover, and then all of a sudden you get in another one,” there was understandable outrage over the NFL’s stubbornness to keep TNF as a prominent part of its schedule for the foreseeable future.

This has been the darkest NFL campaign in recent memory for many reasons, and even with that ominous background, few topics have stolen the headlines like player safety and the seemingly endless parade of injuries. Obviously, injuries are a part of any sport, especially a contact-based one like football, but this year has been especially bad for an assortment of reasons. There have been multiple instances of over-the-top violent and vicious hits, from Bears linebacker Danny Trevathan laying into Packers wide receiver Davante Adams to Pro Bowl Steelers linebacker Ryan Shazier lunging head first into a tackle and dropping to the ground, motionless. The injury protocol has almost devolved into a farce, reaching perhaps its lowest point when Texans quarterback Tom Savage took a sack and appeared to have a seizure while lying on the ground, yet somehow continued to play after sitting out one snap. However, the majority of press dedicated to injuries is because of one issue only, that of almost every marketable NFL star getting hurt for a significant stretch of time this season. Odell Beckham, Eric Berry, Kam Chancellor, Dalvin Cook, Julian Edelman, David Johnson, Andrew Luck, Jason Peters, Aaron Rodgers, Shazier, Richard Sherman, Joe Thomas, Deshaun Watson, JJ Watt, Carson Wentz, and Marshal Yanda all sustained significant injuries this season, with one seemingly occurring every week. Of course, the fact that many All-Pro level talents all got hurt during the same season is probably nothing more than very bad luck (read: karma), but it is representative of just how common injuries in the NFL have become.

Almost two years ago, I wrote about Deflategate at its conclusion, and how it was the latest example of Roger Goodell and his cronies proving that they have no idea what they’re doing. At the end of the article, I pointed to NBA commissioner Adam Silver as a model of consistency and good leadership that Goodell could follow, if he was truly invested in making the NFL a better all-around sport. Well, 18 months later, and this article is making the same argument as that one.

There are indeed ways Goodell can improve player health and safety, many of which have been written about. The most obvious and clear-cut way to eliminate a surefire cause of injuries is to scrap Thursday Night Football. In the past, the league has refused to consider this outcome, as it is a significant source of revenue, but with ratings of the primetime matchups plummeting anyway, Goodell could get out in front of the program’s inevitable demise. Additionally, there are other solutions, like giving teams multiple bye weeks or just shortening the season. Again, these are both alternatives that involve losing a decent amount of money, likely the reason the league hasn’t taken either seriously, but at some point, Goodell (and the owners, who are also part of the problem) needs to realize that his players are not numbers on a spreadsheet, and their lives are on the line every time they strap on their helmets.

Again, like 18 months ago, Adam Silver provides an example for Goodell to follow in this regard. While the NBA’s injury issues are far less significant than those of the NFL, that’s both because the sport is inherently less contact-based and because the league saw early signs of the issue and its potential to metastasize- teams resting marquee players on nationally televised games, for instance-, and figured out a solution that would benefit all sides. This season, for the first time, opening night was pushed up two weeks, and Silver eliminated the vaunted “three games in four nights” stretch that has the most potential to cause injuries resulting from wear and tear. We’ll see how this tweak affects playoff contenders in April and May, but for now, everyone seems to be pleased.

It’s unclear when exactly the switch happened, but sometime in the last five or so years, the NBA usurped the NFL as the chief American sports cultural touchstone. This is for many reasons, from NBA players’ visibility (both on-court and off) to the league’s long list of compelling personalities, but one that underlies all else is the NBA’s progressive nature. Yes, that means political progressiveness- LeBron James and Stephen Curry have both taken on Donald Trump and both have “won”- but it also refers to intra-organizational progressiveness- the willingness to listen to criticism, notice trends, anticipate potential problems, and respond to them with creative and practical solutions that benefit the league, the players, and the fans to create the highest quality product possible. Roger Goodell just signed a contract extension, and there are not many possible explanations for that. He’s been the commissioner of the NFL for over 11 years now, and has not improved much from when he took the job. The league may claim that there’s not a ready replacement for Goodell, but given his past, present, and likely future performance, that cannot possibly be true.