Last weekend, 1,500 super-sized men smashed, sacked, and stuffed other competitors. The final seconds determined winners in Pats-Bills, Jets-Bucs, 49ers-Packers, and Rams-Cardinals.
Everybody had fun. Nobody died.
Week 1 played like the thousand or so that preceded it in the long history of the NFL. Solid hits led to cheers, not deaths.
Earlier this year, ESPN reported, and Roger Goodell denied, that the NFL commissioner agonizes over the prospect of an on-field fatality.
The New Yorker’s Ben McGrath similarly worries that “one of these days, millions of us are going to watch a man die on the turf.”
Retired defensive end Pete Koch asked, “What happens when someday, somebody dies playing the most popular sport in American history?”
He asks the wrong question. Why, after more than nine decades of play, has an NFL hit never killed a player?
Collisions have killed athletes in Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League, and the Winter X Games. And last year, collisions killed two of the four million competitors in various tackle football leagues. So, it’s not as though the possibility doesn’t exist. It’s just that, for the NFL at least, the reality doesn’t.
And with football growing demonstrably safer—23 collision deaths a year during the 1960s; less than four annually during the last decade—the likelihood of such an NFL tragedy shrinks even if our collective belief in its imminence grows.
If NFL players survived when they didn’t wear helmets or when they could legally drive their helmets into opponents’ helmets, why would Roger Goodell lose sleep over a hit killing a player in today’s NFL?
Football is safer than its roughness leads us to believe. Many of those 1.1 million fans in the stadiums work in far less safe, if far more unheralded, occupations than the men they applaud.
Earlier this year, an NFL stadium witnessed a fatal brain injury.
Donald White’s 43-year career in elevator construction and maintenance ended in June when a falling counterweight struck him on the head and off a ladder.
White’s fellow workers passed around buckets to collect donations for his four kids and three grandchildren. The owners of Levi’s Stadium promised to remember him with a plaque.
Had he worn a Riddell helmet instead of a hard hat, the mechanic would now be a household name. But like the fallen workers who helped build Ford Field, Cowboys Stadium, and the Georgia Dome, White will be remembered by his family but forgotten by football fans.
We don’t think much on the dangers of Donald White’s profession, even though 800 fellow construction workers die from the hazards of their work every year in the U.S. Instead, we cringe at Clay Matthews putting a lick on Colin Kaepernick. The men building Levi’s Stadium work deadly trades; the quarterback who will soon play there surely doesn’t.
Mesmerized by incessant coverage, we increasingly view football as the American version of Roman gladiatorial contests.
In fact, these modern coliseums, as demonstrated by this week’s death by a falling fan who came to Candlestick Park to watch Kaepernick, prove more deadly for spectators than for players.
Reality shows that the firemen, electricians, and loggers watching the action from the stands take greater risks in their professions than the competitors on the field do in theirs.
But because the networks televise workers in one profession, and those in the other fields labor outside of the camera’s eye, we glean a skewed impression.
Hundreds of thousands of parents have pulled their children off fields.
A smaller number of spectators have begun to avert their eyes from the Sunday spectacle.
A few school board members even propose banning the game in high schools. Our response to football hits lacks a sense of proportion.
Football fans and foes need to recognize that the truth about football doesn’t hurt. The known facts, not unfounded fears, should govern our decisions to play, watch, and cheer.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of "The War on Football: Saving America's Game" (Regnery 2013).