Changing the game may be essential to the CFL's survival

It's good to hear that Doug Brown and other CFL players aren't just talking about the shocking information they recently received on the long-term impact of concussions and the extremely low life expectancy of football players , but also proposing ways to try and address the situation. Allan Maki has a great piece in today's Globe and Mail on the CFLPA's response to that data, which wasn't extensively discussed in the original piece Brown (pictured above trying to bring down Darian Durant last year) wrote Tuesday. Here's the key part of Maki's story:

The data was so compelling that the CFLPA's board spent hours discussing player safety and expressed an interest in adopting an NFL proposal for dealing with dangerous hits. The membership needs to agree to stiffer fines and suspensions for dangerous high-impact hits before its player safety and welfare committee can make a recommendation to the league. CFL commissioner Mark Cohon and chief operating officer Michael Copeland were in Las Vegas and stressed their concern for player safety as well.

"We want to align ourselves with what the NFL is doing," said Mr. Brown, once voted the CFL's top Canadian player. "The NFL has identified eight key points in a football game where players are in a helpless position - when a quarterback throws the ball and is unprotected, when a receiver is catching a pass, when a kicker [is following through]. The NFL wants to bring in stronger punitive measures to stop hits on players in those situations."

Those moves sound promising, but changing the game isn't going to be easy, though. Just look at the reactions to those NFL rule changes, which have seen people trying to defend hits like these as "part of the game" and complaining about how the sport's turning into "the Sissy Football League." Any changes to try and make the CFL game safer are going to produce similar reactions from some fans, players, executives and media types regardless of how well-intentioned they are, so the question is if the league is willing to take some short-term flak in the interests of long-term sustainability.

It's not a problem that's limited to football. Hockey's facing a similar debate at the moment, also centred around concussions, and it's got the same legions of those who complain that any safety-driven changes are ruining the game. (That goes beyond just concussions, too; would we see as many brutal eye injuries today if Don Cherry and others hadn't gone out of their way to condemn visors?) These kinds of issues arise in every sport, and they've arisen plenty of times over the years; even things we take for granted now, such as helmets in football and hockey, created their own controversies when they were first brought in.

TrueHoop's Henry Abbott perhaps got at the root of the issue at the MIT Sloan Sports Conference this year, where he delivered a presentation on the subject of how bad decisions in sports often skew "macho". Players, coaches and executives often make decisions not based solely on the probabilities involved, but rather on how they think their actions will be perceived. In basketball, that might be seen in awful free-throw shooters like Shaquille O'Neal refusing to try different techniques like the "granny shot" based on their appearance. In hockey, that's translated into plenty of players targeting opponents' heads and refusing to wear protective equipment like visors. In football, that principle of reaction-based rather than outcome-based analysis has been shown everywhere from singles to third downs. Neither of those necessarily involve specifically macho decisions, but other elements such as tackling helmet-first and trying to hurt opponents certainly do. Much of football's appeal and mythology appears to come from that element of machismo, and that's critically involved in the resistance to safety-driven rule changes.

It's worth pointing out that football, like all sports, is a changing game, though. Today's CFL has most of the same teams as the initial league in 1958, but the style of play's notably different. In turn, the play in the early CFL was quite different from the first Grey Cup in 1909, and it in turn differed from the rugby football first played in Canada. Every change met some opposition along the way, but that resistance was overcome, and those changes didn't destroy Canadian football. Similarly, changing some of the rules to make the game safer may draw some protest for a limited time, but it's not going to ruin the league.

In the long term, trying to change rules, equipment and habits to improve player safety may be essential to the CFL's survival. Sure, fans love the current game, but will they continue to love it if their heroes are dead by 55 (the average life expectancy of a professional football player, according to a study presented to the CFLPA)? Is it possible to watch and enjoy a sport that you know may be shortening players' lives by 25 years? Will players stay involved in football under those conditions? Brown wrote he's not sure he'd choose a football career again if he knew what he does now, and he's not sure if he'd encourage kids to take up the game. It seems unlikely he's the only player thinking that way. There aren't any easy answers to the challenges posed by concussions, but there are several measures that can be taken, including changing the rules to protect players in vulnerable situations as proposed above, encouraging kids to tackle differently, continuing medical research on how to prevent and treat concussions and further exploring new helmet technology. The status quo doesn't appear to be sustainable, so it's crucial that the league and the players work together to find a way forward that works for everyone. Rule changes alone won't solve the problem, but they might be a good start.

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