Player safety has become a perplexing puzzle for the NFL as of late.
Call it the concussion conundrum.
Football is the most popular sport in America today – the most popular sport our country has ever seen, as evidenced by Super Bowls being 21 of the 44 most-watched television programs.
Why do we watch?
We watch because NFL football isn't a contact sport, it's a collision one.
We watch because of the brutal physicality of the game and warriors that go to battle each week.
We watch because as Americans, we're obsessed with violence, and football is in many ways similar to war.
As explained eloquently by Mental Floss' Greg Volk, “The most infamous example was Harvard’s “Flying Wedge,” inspired by Napoleonic war tactics: Offensive players assumed a V-shaped formation behind the line of scrimmage, then converged en masse on a single defensive lineman.
“'Think of it—half a ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds,' wrote The New York Times in 1892.”
Of course, many more examples are out there, but the overriding theme of strategizing to take the opponents' land seems to best relate itself to the principles of war.
And in that brutal game, we as fans, understand the players' health is put at risk every time they take the field.
Why we watch football sometimes is to see which player will physically dominate another.
Will Baltimore's Ray Lewis stuff San Francisco's Frank Gore this weekend, or will Gore run him over on the way to the end zone?
Still, no one understands those very risks to the players' health than the players themselves.
"Sometimes I wake up and I think, where did my memory go? But at the same time, I signed up for it," 11-year veteran and eight time All-Pro safety Ed Reed of the Ravens said Tuesday during Super Bowl Media Day.
"Football has been like that for a long time, for ages,” the physical safety continued. “Football has always been a contact sport, and it's always going to be a violent sport, and there are going to be repercussions from that. But every player that ever played this game and will play this game, they're signing up for it."
He's right; every player that's assigned a helmet can read the warning label stuck on the back that plainly warns of serious injury and even death if used improperly.
Improper use means spearing another player with the crown of the helmet – which has been known to cause not only concussions but spinal cord injuries and has been expressly banned from the game – and it also can relate to wearing the helmet too loosely, as many players are at fault of doing today.
Ever wonder why Peyton Manning's forehead is so read after he takes off his helmet? It's because that puppy is strapped on tighter than a saddle on a buckin' bronco!
Ever wonder why you see players helmets popping off so much in recent years? Much of it has to do with them not wearing tight enough pads inside the helmet, nor tightening the straps down enough due to it feeling uncomfortable.
What some of the players don't realize is that tightness could save them from a serious brain injury.
Still, even when worn correctly, helmets can only do so much to protect massive men from colliding at, dare I say, break-neck speeds.
In reality, the men that play the game are a different breed of human.
They're hell-bent on destruction, the most competitive people you've ever met, jacked up on creatine, protein and more testosterone than a tiger – these guys love the game of football and the risk that comes along with its very physical nature.
It's why they play past their primes – Lewis is 37 and in his 17th season playing a position that demands he hits opposing players – and wish to keep playing when it's all said and done, no matter how hobbled they are or how much memory is lost.
They're the glorified gladiators of the gridiron; they're showered with adoration, fame, millions of dollars and the lifestyle that comes along with it.
At the end of the day, though, the game will change – it will evolve – just as it has throughout time.
That very evolution of the game has brought it to the spectacle we enjoy today, and with any luck, the game will only improve.
After all, the people in charge have a vested interest in football remaining the dominant sport on the American landscape, popularity-wise, and they're the same men that grew up with the game when it was in some ways more violent than the one we all watch today.
Yes, in 1905, 18 college football players actually lost their lives and 137 more were seriously injured, leading to President Teddy Roosevelt stepping in and changing the rules. Players could now wear leather helmets, though they were optional, first downs were now 10 yards instead of five, unsportsmanlike penalties would be called and most importantly, the forward pass was legalized.
Ironically, that same forward pass has become arguably the single most dangerous play, with defenseless receivers being hit in the head at startling speeds and alarming rates. And others have given themselves concussions after diving through the air, laying out to catch the football, only to have their helmet and head bounce off the turf.
With Junior Seau the biggest name among many former football players to commit suicide – more than 15 of them diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy which is caused by concussions – something has to be done, and something will be.
Just let them remember these men are a different breed; they sign up for this violent game and love the risk versus reward relationship it has with their lives.