Possibly the most visible indication that fall has arrived in the United States, maybe just as distinguishing as changing colors and falling temperatures, is the kickoff of football season. For Americans (from the most avid sports fans to most other segments of the general population), weekend days between September and December of each year take on a significantly different demeanor than their counterparts throughout the entire rest of the year. It’s hard to imagine any other cause for which otherwise responsible grown men risk healthy relationships with their commitment to occupying the couch from sunup to late into the night to ensure they won’t be uninformed during Monday morning water-cooler rehashes.
America’s current fascination and obsession with football has been this way for years, decades. The annual alignment around favorite teams and the sport in general is more predictable than a Stephen Gostkowski extra-point attempt.
The first Harris poll measuring sports popularity, conducted in 1985, ranked NFL football as the most popular sport in America. Major League Baseball was a close second. Since that time, football has dominated American sports culture, with professional and college football named as the favorite sports of nearly half of American adults. Football has become America’s game.
With such a titanic influence on American society, one might presume that football is as much a bedrock element of the social structure of the United States as hamburgers and fries.
For the time being, football appears to be invincible. But just how long can it continue to dominate the sports landscape?
Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, predicted in March of 2014 that the NFL would implode in ten years. While he listed many different reasons, including bad business decisions and changes in the television industry, his number one reason, posted by Cuban on his Facebook page to explain his prediction, regarded safety:
“I wouldn’t want my son playing football, would you? I’m sure helmet technology will improve over the next 10 years, but why riskit ? There are plenty of sports to play. “
“I don’t think I’m alone. If we start to see a decline of popularity at the high school and then college level because kids choose other sports, it will hurt the interest in watching the NFL.”
If those who hold sway on the future of football can’t figure out a solution soon, Cuban’s forecast will likely gain merit and potentially be realized. While manufacturers of football equipment, including football helmets and other protective products my own company provides to youth and adult players, are working hard to make the game safer through innovation and engineering, the responsibility of protecting players’ heads and necks in situations where bigger, faster athletes are colliding head-on is a tall order. The warning accompanying football helmets we sell doesn’t portend that a solution is in reach: “Contact in football may result in Concussion/ Brain Injury which no helmet can prevent.”
The NFL and college football rule makers have been hard at work updating their respective rules to protect “defenseless” players and to reduce the number of helmet-first hits. This approach, however, seems to hit a catch-22 dead end when you consider that some portion of football’s popularity comes from the violence associated with the game. Removing that physicality itself from the game entirely would certainly reduce its appeal to a significant portion of its fan base.
Increasingly prevalent in the news over the past decade has been research that associates playing football with a disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition initially discovered by neuropathologist Bennet Omalu in 2005 while investigating the death of former Pittsburg Steelers football player Mike Webster. After years of disputing the credibility of Dr. Omalu and of the existence of CTE and its link to playing football, the NFL finally acknowledged that such a connection exists.
In 2013, a documentary book and film by ESPN reporters entitled League of Denial exposed “The NFL’s Concussion Crisis”. In the documentary, Doctor Bennett Omalu explained the harrowing reality of his CTE research while recalling a discussion he had with an NFL team doctor, “Bennett, do you know the implications of what you’re doing? If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that is the end of football.”
Although the NFL has been reluctant to admit fault for the problems faced by its players, hundreds of whom now feel like they have been victimized by an industry that profited at their expense, it has been legally held responsible for being the venue where hundreds of retired athletes. A settlement in 2015 gave at least $900 million to thousands of retired football players who experience neurological conditions associated with their time spent in the NFL. The judge who approved the settlement referred to it as a “fair, reasonable, and adequate” mediation between the NFL and its affected retirees. Sports law professor Robert Boland, commenting on the settlement, described the difficult balance that must be pursued between health risks and costs to players and the financial system of the NFL in order for the game of football to survive. “This resolved this very much in what I would describe as a manner that will be cognizant and good to the needs of the plaintiffs and also in a way that it’s not overly expensive to the sport’s present tense, economically.”
And it’s not only concussions that threatens the future of football. A recent article published by the Deseret News profiles the ongoing health struggles of Luke Staley, a former BYU running back who threatened to sue the school whose colors he proudly represented in the early 2000’s. Staley, whose NFL career never became reality due to repeat injuries, believes that the long-term interests of football players, especially at major colleges, where athletes’ talents are used to profit the school while the athletes themselves are not even allowed to share much of the financial benefit, are ignored in favor of short-term benefits to the respective teams and the programs to which they contribute. Cases like Staley’s are somewhat common.
The next five years will be critical for the football world, where proponents of the game seem to be caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s likely that we will see continued efforts to improve equipment and training as well as increased enforcement of new and updated rules that reduce violent collisions and make the game safer. For fans who salivate for world-rocking de-cleaters, this new version of the game will be less appealing and even hard to stomach, but if the essence of football is to be preserved, major changes certainly have to be made.