The Death of Football

Predicting the death of American football is fool’s errand. With $9.5 billion in revenue in 2012, the NFL is far and away the most profitable professional sports league in the United States. But its status at the pinnacle of the American sporting scene is not preordained. It may be top of the heap today, but will it last? There is a scenario, not entirely implausible, in which football is toppled from its perch. And there is a parallel that shows us how the process of decline may take place: boxing.

Though boxing today may be a niche sport at best, able to attract hardcore fans willing to pay pay-per-view rates for big fights, it was once a sporting juggernaut. The early twentieth century saw the “sweet science” grow, aided significantly by the rise of newspapers and radio. Fights attracted huge audiences and the sport was one of the most popular in the U.S. in the early twentieth century. The decline of the sport from the days of Jack Dempsey to today’s struggle to achieve widespread recognition is decade’s long. The decline has been brought about by two main factors:

  1. A leadership more inclined to sweep problems under the rug than to deal with them head-on (in boxing’s case, the allegations of corruption and general seaminess that have long dogged the sport).
  2. Changing attitudes about violence that led fans away from pugilistic combat and to sports with more controlled violence.

Sound familiar? It should, because these are two of the main issues facing football today.

Writing last year in Grantland, economists Kevin Grier and Tyler Cowen laid out the economic scenario in which lawsuits by former players against the NFL led to the league’s decline and ultimate death. The article came out before the recent $765 million settlement of the class-action lawsuit brought by former players against the NFL ( the settlement that hangs in the balance after a federal judge determined that the money would not be sufficient to cover everyone). A few more lawsuits among college or pre-college players could lead insurance companies and the sponsors who support big-time sports to grow wary and flee. Fans flee, deciding they’d rather not watch players ruin themselves for our entertainment, parents stop signing their kids up for football, and before you know it, football is just a niche sport.

Grier and Cowen may have been even more prescient than they realized (the article is written with a “we know this is very unlikely but …” tone). Former college players are filing lawsuits against the NCAA. There is no sign of advertisers fleeing yet, but fans are becoming ever more aware of the moral quandary that watching football poses. ESPN’s Rick Reilly has described watching the NFL as becoming more and more of a “guilty pleasure.”

The NFL is asking viewers to write in and tell it, “Why do YOU love football?”

This is my answer:

I used to.

I used to love football the way German shepherds love sirloin. I’d sit in the press box and insist the window stay open — even on down-coat days — just so I could hear the sound of two men colliding at full speed. It thrilled me. And I’d wonder: Who does that?

Now I hear that sound and wonder how soon it will be before they can’t remember where they parked, their sons’ middle names, or where their families went last summer on vacation.

I see too much sorrow and ugliness to love football like I used to.

If even writers at ESPN, a network that boosts and financially backs the NFL like no other, are troubled by football, what of us mere civilians? The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart recently wrote of the “questionable ethics of teaching my son to love pro football.”

The question of parents passing on football to their kids is an issue of real concern for the NFL, especially with polls showing many parents now less likely to allow their children to play the sport. The league’s Play 60 campaign is an attempt to encourage physical fitness in children. Though successful in improving the league’s image (or, more cynically, diverting fans’ attention), the campaign notably lacks one thing: any images of tackle football.

If even the NFL recognizes that parents’ attitudes about the sport it profitably peddles are changing, and quickly, is there any hope to stem the tide? The league’s previous strategy — steadfast denial that concussions were a serious issue for its players  — has failed and the NFL appears to want to change course (perhaps less out of the goodness of its corporate heart and more as a preventive strategy against popular backlash for its years of denial).

Is it too late? As attitudes about violence shift, have we reached a tipping point beyond which fans will see football as too much of a moral quandary to continue to be supported. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has written that “the dominant meaning, that is, the social meaning attached to a sporting practice by its dominant social users (numerically or socially), can change” (158).

Eminent sports writer Frank Deford recently compared football to the gladiators of the Colosseum — both participate in extremely dangerous sports for the entertainment of others. Changing attitudes about violence (sparked by the spread of Christianity) brought the end of the gladiators. Will what we are now learning about the dangers of playing football cause us, fans of American football, to give up on the sport that we today love above all others? Yes. The only question is when.

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