Justin Tuck of NY Giants at Madison Square Garden Garden of Dreams charity event. Photo credits: James Braswell, Sports Biz USA
The 2012 NFL season is over but questions continue around the future of the $9.5 billion league. Could mounting concerns over concussions and brain trauma drive the NFL from its perch as the country’s most popular, powerful sports league? Could tackle football go the way of boxing, a niche sport that most American parents refuse to let their kids participate in?
Look, concussions are not a problem just for the NFL. New York Knicks legend Walt Frazier, now an analyst for MSG Network, notes Pau Gasol of the the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers suffered a concussion from an elbow in the face in January. And Jason Bay of MLB’s New York Mets missed parts of two seasons from concussions suffered by running into outfield walls.
But the NFL is still No. 1 on everybody’s concern list. Mike McCarthy of Sports Biz USA interviewed Justin Tuck of the New York Giants, CBS Sports’ lead NFL analyst Phil Simms, former New York Rangers star Adam Graves, Yahoo! Sports columnist Dan Wetzel and Frazier for their take on the future of contact sports such as tackle football and hockey.
We interviewed Tuck, Frazier and Graves at an MSG Garden of Dreams charity event. We caught up with Simms, the former Super Bowl-winning QB for the New York Giants, at a CBS presser previewing the network’s coverage of Super Bowl XLVII.
We talked to Wetzel, author of Death to the BCS, by phone on a variety of topics including whether or not college football has passed baseball as America’s No. 2 sport. The Yahoo! Sports columnist thinks it’s a “reach” that concussions could hurt the popularity of the NFL, given the league’s ticket sales, enormous TV ratings and the legions of fantasy football fanatics and gamblers who live and die by the sport. But concussions could stop some parents from letting little Johnny play tackle football, diluting the high school and college football talent pools the NFL draws from.
Justin Tuck, Giants: We all know football is a dangerous sport. We all know the things that come with it. The NFL is doing what it can to make the game a ‘safer’ game. But it’s never going going to be a ‘safe’ game. It’s a violent game. That’s what draws fans all over the world to watch it. Society is drawn to violence. The bigger the hits, the louder the crowd cheers. The NFL is doing everything it can to take some of the emphasis away from the big hits. Making sure that guys form tackle. That guys not only think about their safety, but the safety of other players as well. It’s a work in progress. We’re all trying to figure out the best way to make this game as a safe game but also keep this sport No. 1 in the U.S … You have to do both. We haven’t figured out the way to do both. But we will.
Phil Simms, CBS: It’s a big concern. But I really, truly believe as time goes on it will be less of an issue. For so many reasons. They’re changing the game a little bit. Which is amazing. What sport can change the game — and it still doesn’t hurt what the people think? They still watch it. But they’re changing practices and everything, from the youth level all the way through the pros. In my town, they’re allowed to put their pads on and hit for like 15 minutes a week. That’s all they’re allowed to do — 15 minutes! It’s just a new way of playing the sport. We’re seeing less and less contact with professional football players.
Adam Graves, MSG Ambassador: Pretty much every sport has some element of risk. You have to balance that … You have to protect the kids. But at the same time you have to allow them to have fun playing sports. To me it’s less about the end game. Its more about the journey. It has to be a safe journey … We have to make the sporting environment, regardless of what sport, as safe as you can for all participants, regardless of age.
Walt Frazier, MSG Network: A severe blow to the head can happen in any sport. I’m just astounded that we can go to the moon but we can’t invent a helmet that can deny guys from having concussions. It’s baffling to me … You talk to the hockey players like (ex-NY Rangers star) Rod Gilbert, they say, ‘What they used to call a headache we call a concussion today. … The ironic thing to me? Whenever you see a guy score a touchdown, where do they hit him? All over the head. Same in baseball. Guy hits a home run. They’re waiting. They hit him on the head.
Dan Wetzel, Yahoo! Sports: There’s no question that (concern over concussions could) make the talent pool in the U.S. smaller. Now can you expand the talent pool by making the game more global? I think the NFL is certainly working very hard to do that. Can American football be exported to other countries beyond the U.S. and some parts of Canada? Will we ever see it played in high school in Mexico or England or other places? We don’t know. That’s a real challenge, I think, for the NFL … Participation in football could definitely drop. But I don’t know if that impacts the popularity of the sport in terms of TV audiences or ticket interest at the NFL level.