Too Big to Fail

Football developed rapidly in the early 20th century. Rules were changed as coaches devised new ways to win. The flying wedge was one of those strategies. In effect, players on kickoff plays would form a wedge. Heavier players would link arms and become a battering ram. The ball carrier would be behind the wedge.

The wedge would single out a specific player on the other team and knock him senseless. The wedge was a tremendous success. The wedge then began to be used in regular plays. The only problem was the impact the wedge had on players who were targeted by the wedge.

In 1905 the wedge caused 22 deaths and 150 serious injuries. Newspapers began to list deaths and injuries from the wedge. President Theodore Roosevelt felt that something needed to be done, perhaps because his son was a football player at Harvard. The wedge was banned and rules changed to prevent it from being brought back in another form.

In the history of professional football, there has only been one undefeated team: the 1972 Miami Dolphins. When the members of that team saw their perfect season being threatened by another team, they would reconnect to relive their season. The memories of that perfect season began to fade as the players became diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). To date, 21 members of the 1972 Dolphins perfect season are confronted with behavioral problems which begin as confusion and progress to dementia and neurological breakdowns.

In 1905, 22 players died from the wedge and actions were taken. When a 2017 study was done on deceased football players, 99% of the NFL players whose brains were tested were found to have CTE. That percentage is 91% for college players and 21% of high school players.

Reactions to the CTE discoveries have largely been band-aids. Equipment has been modified and some rules have changed. But can CTE be prevented when its cause is from repetitive head impacts which are inherent to the game of football? Don’t expect any President to act as Theodore Roosevelt did.

Just imagine when any activity becomes too big to fail. Shutting down football to prevent the damage it causes to players is unlikely due to the popularity of the game and its financial impact on the economy. Football has become too big to fail, just as banking actions were not that long ago.

What might be done to have the vision to anticipate the future of too-big-to-fail problems? Think about the emerging too-big-to-fail challenges we are now confronting. They are present but hidden from our thoughts.

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“We talk about institutions that are too big to fail – I think the story is as much about people who think they are too big to fail.” – Andrew Ross Sorkin (journalist)

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