I was thinking of posting a comment to danps's currently Rec Listed (and thoughtful) diary about the impending decline of football. However, the comment became incredibly long, so I decided to spin it off into a separate diary. So here, I will address danps's thoughts about the decline of football, the state of football in the zeitgeist, and offer my own take on the next 20 years of this most popular and controversial of American sports. I will be talking "football speak" to some extent-- nothing too technical, but just a warning for those who care to read further. Follow me below the rococo squiggle for more
Football is a sport I really enjoy watching-- I am a lifelong fan of the San Francisco 49ers, and the Illinois Fighting Illini (although the vagaries of 'fandom' is something this diary won't touch on). I love the way that new offensive philosophies have infiltrated a game whose traditional motto has been "Defense Wins Championships" -- we are at a crucial moment in college football where an incredibly complex and entertaining brand of spread offense is taking over the sport, where the unfathomably fast and creative Oregon Ducks' offensive strategies are completely bewildering traditional defensive sets. As an aside, if you are even a mild fan of football, do yourself a favor and watch a quarter of an Oregon game.It's incredible. Scoring is at an all-time high, and speed, skill and intelligence are increasingly being favored over brute force.
It is a good time to be a football fan, at least regarding the product on the field. The NFL is beginning to adopt some of these creative college strategies-- there are 4 young, exciting quarterbacks (Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin III, Colin Kaepernick, and Andrew Luck) who are able to blend incredible athleticism with traditional quarterback metrics like arm strength and pocket presence. These quarterbacks also conveniently represent a new, racially mixed generation of football players and fans. Griffin III is black, Wilson and Kaepernick are of mixed heritage, and Luck is white-- this at a position which has traditionally been dominated by white players.
It is also a good time to be on the NFL supply side. The sport has never been more popular as a spectator sport, leeching some of the popularity that traditionally has been devoted to baseball. College football programs have exploded, to a ludicrous degree, and I'm sure many of you have seen this chart, indicating that in 39 of our 50 states, the highest paid state employee is a college football coach. The NFL keeps hitting ratings highs, and it recently won a devastatingly comprehensive victory in the first concussion-related lawsuit which could have made a dent in the NFL's troubling pattern of behavior regarding concussions and former players. Many NFL owners are on the list of America's richest people, and the NFL recently signed incredibly lucrative TV deals for the next decade. The money, to put it mildly, is rolling in.
Ah, the concussions. I won't delve too deeply into that issue here-- it deserves its own series of diaries which I am probably unqualified to write-- but essentially, thousands of former NFL players who had developed some degree of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy), due to the repeated minor head traumas inherent to every game of football, joined a class-action lawsuit against the NFL. The lawsuit alleged that the NFL systematically hid the dangers of football and/or lied about them to players, frequently misdiagnosing or under-representing concussions, and sending players back into games after serious on-field incidents. The players had a great case-- one that many thought might spell the beginning of the end of the NFL as we know it-- but recently settled for far less than predicted (just over $780,000,000 compared to a predicted $2,000,000,000+), in part because many of the former players in the suit needed immediate medical care, and the NFL was prepared to drag the lawsuit out for another 5-10 years, effectively sentencing several players to a decade of devastating symptoms (or death) without treatment.
So now, finally, regarding danps's diary: danps posits two main theories which will lead to the eventual decline of football as the dominant American sport. The first is that the "concussion issue" will turn off casual fans, casting football as a brutal but increasingly niche sport. He argues that boxing followed the same script-- after seeing the degeneration of Muhammad Ali and other prominent heavyweight fighters, the viewing public was increasingly uninterested in such a vicious bloodsport. The second theory is that "kids these days" are interested in having entertainment on demand, as opposed to having to wait for a live broadcast, thus turning off a new crucial demographic. I disagree with both of these arguments, but I do ultimately agree that football will be marginalized. Here is why:
With regard to danps's first argument, I do think that concussions have entered the public forum in a way that makes football, especially the NFL, very uncomfortable. The NFL, frankly, has been an embarrassment during this whole developing fiasco, in many ways mirroring the obfuscation and general dickery of the tobacco lobby in the 60s and 70s. Many fans ARE ambivalent about the NFL these days-- but even as the press has intensified around the concussion issue, football's popularity has continued to increase. Unless a player, god forbid, dies on the field, or a major star's career is ended prematurely due to a concussion sustained in a game, I don't think that concussions are going to make people turn off their televisions. Athletically, football is bigger faster and stronger than ever, and while that makes for dangerous conditions on the field, it also makes football much more fun to watch. I fear that CTE can too easily be dismissed as "the cost of doing business." Even many current NFL players say they know full well what could happen to them in twenty years, and accept those risks in return for the incredible salary and the chance to play the game they love. And frankly, I can't blame them for that decision.
Now for the second argument-- I think the fact that sports are one of the few things left that HAVE to be shown live, that cannot be taped beforehand and "binge-watched," is actually a great boon for sports in general in the coming decades. Having a live broadcast makes sports an event. Sure, you could set the DVR and watch the game later, but nobody wants to because sports are one of the few shared cultural moments left. Sports bars have exploded in popularity over the last 20 years precisely because people want to BE THERE when something happens, and experience the emotions associated with sporting events in real time. The game isn't going to wait around for you-- it's happening at 1:00, and you have to be there or miss it. That is a very powerful asset in the digital age.
All that said, the main reason football is so popular right now is due to something I touched on earlier-- the talent is better now than it has ever been in the past. Michael Vick, regardless of his deeds off the field, is a great example. Just look at this. Or this. Quarterbacks shouldn't be able to do that. Vick is a rare talent, and since he burst onto the scene in 2001, there have been more incredible athletes like him. Running backs like Marshawn Lynch or Adrian Peterson. Wide receivers like Terrell Owens or Randy Moss. The new quarterbacks like Colin Kaepernick, RGIII, and Johnny Manziel. Defensive monsters like Aldon Smith, or JaDeveon Clowney. These guys are electrifying to watch, and as long as such gifted players are choosing the football, football will continue to dominate.
And here's the rub: athletes THIS GOOD won't choose football in the future. At least, not as many. Parents will keep them out of Pop Warner as children, because they have read all the negative press about CTE. Dad may love the Cowboys, but he might not let his son play such a violent game. Once the kids who have been kept out of youth football start picking up other sports, they are less likely to gravitate back to football during their high school careers. It will start slowly at first, but the talent base of football is going to dry up starting at the smallest tributaries. Once youth football and high school football have less talent, it will ripple upwards to college and the NFL. College football will become slower, maybe sloppier, a little less exciting. Meanwhile, track and field, and non-contact sports like soccer and basketball will benefit greatly. Eventually, in 30 years or so, the NFL is not going to have the premier athletic talent in America-- that is what will finally cripple the sport. All of those talented, strong, fast wide receivers and cornerbacks will, in 20 years, become strikers, shooting guards, and decathletes. The concussions aren't going to make us turn off the television-- not enough of us anyway. But I know for a fact that I will not let my future children play football, a sentiment which is shared by many my age (25-30). That is going to have an incredible impact in 20 years.
3:04 PM PT: Hey! Apparently this diary was 'rescued' and put on the Community Spotlight. I'll be hanging around to comment, so come talk sports if you are so inclined. Thank you, rescue people!