Big Hits to the NFL’s Contracts

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes

My last blog, War and Hobbes, was about the military and my thoughts on desertion, or leaving one’s post without the intent of returning. One of the last points that I made was that desertion is a cowardly action because soldiers are in the military voluntarily meaning that they understood the implications and consequences of their decision. So once death became a possibility and they decided to bail out they were breaking the rules of their contract. A similar situation is happening in American football today concerning whether or not players understand what they’re getting into when the strap on the helmet.  I am going to prove that a similar anomaly of contract breaking is occurring in the NFL currently as it does in the military.

In order to understand the similarities, one must understand contracts. In my Political Science 101 class, we read Hobbes’ Leviathan. In his book, Hobbes defines contracts and specifically how there must be motivations in place that make it beneficial for both parties to follow through on their end of the deal.  In other words the punishment for not holding up your end has to be pretty bad.

Why the Changes?

Concussions from big hits are becoming an increasing prevalent issue in the NFL (via wikimedia)

Marc Tracy, in his 2013 article, discusses the recent rule changes in the NFL toward a safer style of play. Ball carriers are no longer allowed to lower their helmets into oncoming tacklers, kick offs now take place five yards further downfield to create more touchbacks, and there are more strict rules on how defenders can hit “defenseless” receivers. The reason for the change in rules is not discussed in the article but it is main reason I believe is public opinion and ultimately money.

The NFL settled a lawsuit by former NFL players by agreeing to pay close to $800 million to former players and on concussion diagnose and awareness. The former players claimed that the NFL purposely didn’t inform them about concussion research and the long term impacts which include memory loss, headaches, and possibly dementia.

The point that I am making is that now in professional football the players are educated about the effects of brain injuries yet we still have changes to the rules. We are seeing a shift from traditional, hard nose, black and blue football to a softer more offensively minded league, the purpose of which is to prevent future lawsuits. The players signed up to play a violent game knowingly, but now that game has become less violent.  Like soldiers, they are willingly a giving themselves up to injury or at least they were. And when a soldier leaves and decides he does not want to risk the possibility of death the consequences are severe. But In football today there are no consequences of not risking injury (of course football has not yet gotten to the point of zero injury, yet progress is continually being made towards that point).

In the military when you walk off to avoid death, there is no doubt that you are explicitly breaking your contract.  But a football player has no control over the rules, so can he break his contract if he doesn’t have control?  I believe what we are seeing is an anomaly of the Hobbesian contract.  In a Hobbesian contract whenever one side of a deal isn’t held up for whatever reason there has to be some downside for each side.  But players are now safer and the NFL is making more money than ever.  This gap in Hobbesian philosophy is because of public opinion- the public is rewarding the NFL for forcing its players to be safer because that is what it wants to see.

Injuries are still a very real possibility

Injuries are still a very real possibility

My thoughts then wandered to how Hobbes would feel about this? Would the NFL’s contract truly be a Hobbesian contract or would it still be considered something else? I feel that Hobbes would agree that the NFL player’s contracts fit under the realm of Hobbesian because they still have motivations in place that force them to play.  First of all, injury is still a very real possibility and the only way of mitigating injury, even with today’s rules, is to simply not play.  But if a player chooses to sit out he will not only lose his salary for that game but he will most likely be fined.  He will then probably lose his job.  So yes, although injuries are less frequent, players still must put themselves at risk similar to soldiers in the military.  And like soldiers, if they decide not to participate then the punishment is swift and harsh.