The football season is about to begin, a familiar signal that summer is over. The game is a huge money-maker on one level and a powerful societal binding agent at another — think Friday Night Lights. But increasing revelations about brain damage and disease resulting from concussive blows to the head — incurred from Pop Warner through the NFL — have rocked the sport. (One telling statistic: NFL veterans can expect much shorter lives than the male population at large.) Many other contact sports — boxing, ice hockey, soccer, lacrosse, rugby, to name a few — feature frequent blows to the head either from the run of play or impact with the playing surface. Improvements in equipment and rule changes can make things better but probably not eliminate the longer-term danger of life-shortening injury or impairment.

Is it possible that social attitudes toward such sports — driven by broader and deeper medical research — could change as much as attitudes about smoking? Guesstimates as to the value of the sports business range into the hundreds of billions of dollars — could that juggernaut be affected simply by parents refusing to let future generations play such sports, or by anti-sports legislation intended to protect the health of minors?

The Bulletin first looked at the business of sports in 1998 with a cover story titled “Running Up the Score.” That article featured Stephen A. Greyser, Richard P. Chapman Professor (Marketing/Communications), Emeritus, and recipient of the 2010 Sports Marketing Lifetime Award from the American Marketing Association. I recently asked Greyser what he thinks of the concussion issue.

“I believe current concerns are less likely to lead to a massive refusal to play and are more likely to escalate pressure for better safety equipment,” said Greyser. “The pressure for more safety via better equipment is a continuing phenomenon: at one time ice hockey goalies didn’t wear masks, and baseball and hockey players didn’t wear helmets. Although injuries are widely accepted as part of sports, preventable ones — especially by better equipment — obviously can be addressed.”

Let’s hope so, because the players inside the equipment keep getting bigger, faster, and stronger and so do the collisions, and the repercussions, they create.


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