When I recently wrote this post, it was because I was thinking I wanted to say more on the subject of football and brain injuries. Just prior to that, I had seen this opinion piece that someone had posted to Facebook – I shared it there as well.
When I read the SB Nation post, I was reminded of something I had written awhile back, when the NFL settlement with retired players was first announced. I had posited at the time that the settlement announcement – essentially a sort of confirmation by the NFL that playing football can/does in fact cause brain damage – was potentially the beginning of the end, or at least marginalization, of the game.
I drew a parallel with boxing and how, at least as I see it, the loss of general public interest in the sport of boxing closely tied to our witnessing of the physical and mental demise of the most popular and charismatic athlete to ever partake in the “sweet science” – Muhammad Ali. Boxing still continues as a sport today – but it is far less popular than it was through the 1960’s and 1970’s. No doubt mismanagement of the sport has had a lot to do with it. But as much as anything, I can’t help thinking that most people just don’t have the stomach for it anymore after seeing what life after boxing has become for it’s most beloved star.
It would not surprise me if the same fate befalls the most popular sport in the United States today – football. The announcement nearly two years ago about the settlement hasn’t done anything to reduce the issue from the public eye. In fact, since the settlement has been tossed out as “inadequate” at least two times by a Federal judge, if anything, the settlement just escalated the discussion on the long-term effects of playing football to a more central and ongoing issue.
I’m not saying the settlement was a mistake or created a bigger problem for the NFL. The problem is real and it wasn’t going away, with or without the settlement. But it was, as I said above, if nothing else an acknowledgement by what may be viewed as the highest authority on football that playing the game has serious long-term consequences for your health.
German is a language that I don’t find pleasing to the ear. But there is one word in German that I’ve always thought was especially descriptive:
Schadenfreude – satisfaction or pleasure felt at someone else’s misfortune
Given my own personal experience with the NFL, not as as player but as an executive, I often need to check myself, to make sure that any feelings I have about the current state of football and the NFL is not my own case of schadenfreude. And in fact – it couldn’t be further from the truth.
Just to be clear – if it were not for the game of football (both playing it and working at the NFL), my life would be entirely different from what it is. My closest friends from college are almost all guys I played football with – if not, they’re someone I met through one of the guys I played football with. Same thing with many of the guys I stay in contact with from high school.
In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that in the absence of a father figure in my life growing up, football in some ways acted as a pseudo-surrogate father. As the only male in the house, I would spend every Monday night in my grandmother’s small bedroom, watching Monday Night Football on an 13 inch black and white TV. It was, in part, my bridge to manhood.
I could probably wax poetically about the game for hours – the strategy, the athleticism, the ferocity, the way it binds teammates together in an unbreakable bond. But I won’t go there in this post. Suffice it to say that I LOVE the game of football.
And it pains me, greatly, to think that this game that I love has past it’s pinnacle and will eventually decline to the point of becoming a fringe spectacle – outside the mainstream of civil society.
Football will not disappear completely – there is too much money to be made catering to the bloodlust element among us. But just as the fight game has transformed – with much less interest in traditional, “safety-first” boxing and the rise of the much more extreme MMA fighting machine – I could see a day where
- with parents no longer allowing/encouraging their boys to play football
- with players, at a pretty young age, deciding to walk away from the game, leaving millions of dollars on the table, rather than taking the risk of ending up like the beat up, worn out ex-players we see and hear about weekly
- with football leagues, from Pop Warner all the way up to the NFL, under attack due to the long-term health effects of playing the game
- and, as a result of those attacks and the potential liability, every level of the sport being forced to significantly modify the rules to reduce the risk
That the game as we know it today, and as I played it 30 years ago, will no longer exist. In its place, I foresee two alternatives, neither of which will enjoy anything like the mainstream popularity of the current game. On the one hand, I think will be a much lighter, “limited contact” version of the game – with an emphasis on scoring and athleticism. On the other hand – along the lines of MMA – an extreme version of the game that appeals its elements of strength, ferocity, and brutality. And just as there seems to be no shortage of fighters willing to put themselves at risk in the MMA ring, there will be plenty of poor young men willing to destroy their minds and bodies for short-term riches and notoriety.
The first version – where I think the NFL will try to take the sport – will decline in interest over time, as the key elements of what drives its popularity today, whether the NFL wants to admit it or not, are removed from the game.
And the second version – as has been envisioned in some fantastical sci-fi movies over the years – will find a niche, fulfilling the “bread and circuses” bloodlust that, no matter what efforts, we’ve never been able to breed or train out of the human dna.
I don’t know how long it may take for this transformation to occur. But I have no doubt that the countdown has already begun.
If an NFL owner called me today and asked me for advice, my answer would be short and simple. SELL!!