On the future of football

Thanksgiving seems like a good time for a brief football post.  Of course, with the news that Frank Gifford suffered from CTE, and the upcoming release of the film Concussion, there has been some amplified commentary lately on the present and future of football, which we may add to the commentary from the past several years observing that football is on borrowed time.  I am among those who love the game but who also believe that it is endangered.  Moms will chiefly be the ones to kill football, but a growing number of dads, like me, will be complicit.

It is not just that the game is dangerous; it is, but other sports bring dangers, too (let’s not get started on ice hockey, or even gymnastics).  It is not just that the game of football is violent; it is, and that is hard to deny – any game in which one of the objects is to hit and then throw a man to the ground is violent.  Rather, it is also that for many years, the game had become increasingly gladiatorial.  The violence of it was not merely accepted as a cost of the sport – it seemed to have become a central focus of play and of some fans’ enjoyment of the game.  Nothing was more likely to make the highlight reel than a big hit.  Players, even today, celebrate with bizarre gyrations and strutting and chest-thumping when they deliver unmitigated violence to an opponent.  Of course, this is not true of every player or every fan, but increasingly, consumers of the game, and in turn its players, seemed oblivious (or willfully blind) to the long-term physical damage that it could be producing among wide swaths of participants – not just quarterbacks, receivers, and defensive backs.

Another, related, point is that even with modern rules changes, the violence of football is only barely mitigated.  The focus has chiefly been on helmet-to-helmet hitting.  While important, that focus is under-inclusive.  Many of the game’s most violent moments do not involve helmet-to-helmet contact.  Even a “clean hit” (as it is often described) can be unambiguously violent and can cause serious injury to one or more players, to say nothing of the injury that can be sustained from a fall to the ground.  A prohibition on “targeting” a receiver for example, is not a prohibition on any physical harm.

George Will used to say that football combines two undesirable aspects of American life: violence, compounded by committee meetings.  Some will respond to the modern commentary on football by saying that it is supposed to be rough and the critics should get over it, and that the new rules are watering down the things that make the game different and interesting.  It is that attitude that will only accelerate football’s demise.  Those, like me, who love the game must come to grips with the reality that to sustain football, the rules must continue to move in the direction of mitigating its gladiatorial nature, not reinforcing it.  That will not satisfy football purists, but they will have to decide between approving of change or witnessing the game’s extinction.

Football will not go away today, or tomorrow, or even five years from now.  Rather, its decline will be deliberate, and generational, as concerned parents of the game’s future say “no” or “enough” at a child’s very young age.  As others like Colin Cowherd have observed, the NFL’s recent advertising has clearly been targeting women of prime child-bearing age, to fend off this very problem.  But all of the ad dollars in the world will not change the physical elements of football that parents will find objectionable.  Yes, sports – like life generally – come with risks.  Safety maximization is sometimes a fool’s errand.  And, in order to ensure that young people continue to experience the joys and important life lessons that organized sports can bring, those young people must learn to accept the dangers that come with those sports.  But it is becoming increasingly apparent that football’s risks are sui generis.  And if the violence of the game is not addressed more broadly – and in ways that reassure parents, and moms in particular – then its slow demise will continue unabated.



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