Guest Column: Why the NFL is like the cigarette industry

Paul Schied

David Zweig of The Atlantic lays out an interesting argument as to why the NFL won’t release its coveted All-22 video footage. All-22, for the non-football fanatics among us, is a zoomed-out video angle that captures the whole field, showing all 22 players at once. Mostly, as NFL fans, we’re treated to close shots of the players near the ball.

Zweig thinks the reason the NFL insists on withholding the footage is because they want to keep fans dependent on NFL experts for the types of strategic insight that can be gleaned from All-22. He also suggests they don’t want to make watching the game too cerebral; they’d prefer to keep it dramatic by showing us the up close athleticism of the players and the emotion and focus on their faces.

I have a different hypothesis as to why the NFL won’t release the footage: They don’t want us to realize how truly violent the game is.

Anyone who has played competitive football will tell you that the most violent collisions occur off of the ball on things like kickoffs, punts, and plays in the open field. When a running back runs up the middle, everyone in the immediate vicinity is flying at the ball. That running back takes some vicious hits, to be sure, but for the most part he sees them coming. He’s prepared to absorb those blows, and his primary objective is avoiding getting his head knocked off.

The type of off-the-ball hits, especially on special teams, that are visible on All-22 are much less controlled. Players are running full speed in open space, and when they collide, they often do so at awkward angles when one of the players isn’t prepared to take a hit. Necks snap back, heads hit the turf. When the camera is trained on the ball, nobody sees these hits. When the camera is watching the whole field, the brutality of the game is on full display.

Football is wildly popular, and the NFL is the most profitable professional sports league in America. Youth football is booming, and while most of these kids will never play for money, the ones that do make the big time fill NFL rosters, and the ones that don’t still watch the games and buy the tickets and jerseys. To a certain degree, getting these kids hooked on football is hugely important to the NFL’s bottom line.

The analogy is perhaps strained, but the NFL is not unlike the cigarette industry: an enormously profitable industry peddling a product that is harmful. Now, watching the NFL isn’t harmful, and while playing football might give you joint damage, a bad back and dementia, it won’t give you cancer. But there is no question that the risk of concussions is a huge problem for the sport, and letting high school kids slam their brains together inevitably does something more than just “build character.”

The NFL isn’t stupid. It realizes that the No. 1 threat to its long-term profitability is people realizing the risks of playing football — and caring about them enough to stop letting their kids play. Releasing the All-22 footage would make the brutality of the sport that much more apparent.

Cigarette companies want kids to think their product looks dangerous and cool. But they wouldn’t play up the true danger of their product if they could help it. The NFL is no different.

Harvard Political Review, Harvard U. via UWIRE