The NFL, like most major professional sports leagues, finds identity in its acronym -- three letters, one unmistakable brand.
It just so happens that the NFL's biggest problem -- an unmistakable concern -- shares that characteristic. Now, when the sight of those three letters on that internationally recognized shield call to mind everyone's favorite football giant, they might also call to mind three more: CTE.
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy. It's the degenerative brain disease found in former athletes who have suffered repeated head trauma. The polarizing discovery of Dr. Bennet Omalu of "Concussion" fame is the common factor inand the single greatest threat to American football as we know it.
Contrary to what certain factions of the 2017 political picture may have suggested, the NFL still. Neither an inability to clearly define what constitutes a catch on the football field in today's game, nor a string of public disputes regarding league-wide protests put any substantial dent, let alone a fatal one, in the NFL's 2017 audience, comparatively speaking.
And that's why, beyond merely the real-life medical troubles of CTE, head injuries are absolutely issue No. 1 for the league moving forward. As Sharyn Alfonsi prepares to report on combat veterans who suffer from the very same disease during Sunday's 7 p.m. ET edition of "60 Minutes," the NFL is lurching toward a crossroads, even if, for the time being, its roaring economy smothers some of the surface-level urgency.
On one hand, the league employs players who, to little fault of their own, thanks to the very nature of an age-old game, suggest in frustration that they'd be better off pursuing flag football if the NFL wants to get strict with eliminating "dangerous" contact. On another, there are countless players, either active or prematurely retired out of fear for their health, who do, in fact, want the NFL to crack down on head shots, albeit without the inconsistent standards that overshadowed player suspensions in 2017. And then, of course, there are all the concerns that go way beyond the field -- like families of some retired players alleging that the league simply to save money.
Maybe the NFL truly can survive the inevitable but most daunting byproduct of its physical sport. But unlike a season of peaceful pregame protests or an incomprehensible game-day rule book, CTE doesn't necessarily prompt a few months of political debate or incite weekly bewilderment from fans as much as it distorts -- or claims -- the lives of its victims. That's a hurdle far more easily avoided -- plastered over with ticket-sales reports or ignored in daily sports talk shows -- than it is conquered. At some point, the NFL is bound to do something about it.
What, exactly, can the NFL do about it?
If certain players had their way along with a president that's suggested the game is getting "soft," the NFL might loosen its grip on efforts to control on-field contact altogether, morphing into something of a more polished XFL, which . This strategy, although all but a spit in the face of any progress already made toward enforcing safer play, would be an outright endorsement of the notion that anyone who signs up to play football simply signs up at the risk of their own long-term health.
In some sense, it'd be an admission that football will only truly be football if it carries the weight of potentially debilitating injury, something most sports do but something that fully padded, repeated contact always invites.
And yet even that can't sound marketable for today's NFL, in which the league almost definitely would've preferred having new-age stars like Carson Wentz and Deshaun Watson actually stay healthy enough to guide their respective teams into the playoffs. (Instead, Wentz and Watson are watching from afar as their clubs eitheror sit at home thinking about how they put on a clinic for .)
Taking it to the other extreme, a complete devotion to a game without severe contact would all but rewrite the roots of the game itself, turning the NFL into something like the NFL teams, would have a hard time digesting. As sad as it may be, that's actually something that most fans, players and league executives might never digest until or unless they experience the firsthand effects of the CTE that's rocked the NFL landscape, at least behind the scenes., a venture of Michael Vick and other former pros. And that's something that plenty of people, from the average Joes watching from home to the billionaires running the
As is often the case, perhaps the best answer lies somewhere in the middle. For all its flaws, both in regards to CTE and in regards to everything else, the NFL has also generated wave after wave of positive influence, whether through its most socially conscious players or its wide-reaching partnerships, not to mention its hundreds of thousands of jobs. The trouble in finding the middle ground to rescue the very game that equated the NFL shield with an unmistakable brand, however, is pinpointing exactly where the middle even is. Because, at some level, if the NFL remains, well, the NFL that we all know, the risk of damaged health is always going to exist, and no amount of consistency in disciplinary enforcement is going to perfectly correct that.
Moving forward, the best play to satisfy both sides has to be continued -- and fervent -- investment in anything that helps. It sounds obvious, but until the money really stops flowing into the pockets of NFL executives, it also probably sounds like more work than it's worth to those with the power to create change. (Again, unfortunate or not, how many people are going to do something -- anything -- about CTE unless it personally affects them?) Whether that means experimenting with products like Luke Kuechly's 2017 neck collar or devising and explaining a completely new system for officiating and disciplining unnecessary contact, it simply has to happen.
Otherwise, like it or not, the NFL is headed down a path it most certainly wants to avoid -- a path that ties those fateful three letters, C-T-E, to a game and a business held dearly by plenty. Whether it wants to avoid that for purely financial reasons or out of genuine concern for those impacted by the brunt of its game isn't the concern as much as finding the right solution is. If it's money that drives the league to right this wayward ship, so be it. If it's compassion, even better.
Either way, there is a ship, it does need to be righted, and the waters ahead are as uncharted as ever.