In one of the first football games I can remember watching, a player nearly died. I was four at the time, too young to grasp the significance of the lengthy injury delay, but the internet tells me that the following took place: Reggie Brown, who was a 23-year-old Detroit Lions linebacker, lost consciousness after a teammate’s leg hit him in the head during a tackle. It wasn’t one of those crashing hits that the crowd responds to with a collective grunt, as though they themselves were on the receiving end of it; it was the sort of accidental collision that could happen on any play. At one point, Brown stopped breathing and had to be resuscitated. He nearly choked to death on his mouthpiece. Trainers cut off his shoulder pads and medics inserted a breathing tube down his throat. Brown lay motionless on the field for 17 minutes before an ambulance took him to a hospital and the game was resumed. At the hospital, he underwent surgery and regained consciousness. Less than a month after suffering an injury that could have paralyzed him for life, he was walking again.
The Super Bowl is this week. This may seem morbid, but given the nature of the sport, allow me to pose the following questions. What if there’s a 17-minute injury delay during the NFL’s four-hour celebration of football? What if the people watching for the commercials were confronted with a young player’s career coming to a sudden end on the biggest stage? What if, after the sea of flash bulbs and the opening kickoff, one player doesn’t get up?
What if someone dies?
First, they would finish the game. That much is certain. There is simply too much riding on the Super Bowl for it to be paused until a reasonable time. The player’s death will be hidden as much as possible from the viewing audience; commentators will note that the player was taken to the hospital, but the grave news will have to wait until after the game. By then, enterprising reporters on Twitter will have broken the news. When the game is done and the death is made public, then the hand-wringing and controversy about whether it should have gone on will start. People on ESPN will yell about it for days, if not weeks, and outlets not dedicated to sports will certainly have their say.
Obama would make a statement. When twenty deaths were attributed (correctly or otherwise) to football in 1905, Teddy Roosevelt stepped in. He threatened to ban college football unless changes were made. Changes (such as the forward pass) were made, but whether these actually caused a decline in the body count is uncertain. Six high-school football players died in 2013 as a result of head or neck injuries, but a death on national TV would have to draw hue and cry from politicians. Whether the outcry would cause the NFL to change its rules, and whether those changes would have any effect on brain safety, is anyone’s guess. My guess is no.
But, and here’s the part the NFL cares most about: would people stop watching football if someone died on the most-watched television event of the year? Would I?
I can’t know the answer to the first question, and I don’t know the answer to the second. It’s easy to say now, before a tragedy happens, how it would affect me. I think I’d mostly stop watching the sport, but that’s little more than a guess. I, and (I like to think) most football fans in 2014, already know that people die as a result of football, just generally after their careers are done and their lives are out of the spotlight. But the television ratings are as high as ever. I still watch football, though I feel less and less comfortable doing so. Would an on-field death really be all that different?