Football reigns as king of sports. For now. How injuries are changing the game’s popularity.
Football is still the most watched sport in America, but is it on the way out? Players continue to leave the game over concussions and brain injuries.
As the National Football League begins its 99th season, it would be understandable for the league’s owners to feel a sense of relief, even optimism, about the year ahead. After all, many of the sport’s most pressing problems appear to have been patched over. But in pursuing short-term fixes that ignore long-term warning signs, the league might be setting itself up for a dramatic fall from grace.
To be sure, the state of today’s NFL appears strong. The league found a solution of sorts for player protests over the national anthem, and the class action settlement over concussions remains intact, limiting teams’ financial exposure for decades of brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) — the “industrial disease” that ultimately will afflict most longtime players. And for all the talk of declining television viewership, pro football remains America’s most-watched sport.
More broadly, the sport continues its outsized grip on the American imagination. At $14 billion in 2017 income, the NFL is about as big as the markets for soybean exports and craft beer. Yet pro football retains a cultural significance far out of proportion to its revenue. Suburban grandmothers do not don jerseys advertising the names of local microbrews, and there is no fantasy draft for soybean varieties.
Football is still king, but the throne is unsteady
In short, pro football remains king in America. But there are good reasons to wonder whether the king is seated on an unsteady throne.
In 2006, after I successfully sued the NFL’s pension plan on behalf of ex-Steelers great Mike Webster, it opened up a series of questions about “America’s game” that continue to reverberate today. American tastes in popular entertainment are not set in stone, after all. Just ask the owners of newspapers, magazines and broadcast TV franchises. Worrisome signs on the horizon suggest that the NFL’s hold on the U.S. market — and its national psyche — is diminishing as a direct result of the demonstrated links between pro football and brain injuries. Like any early warning, these indicators are weak and their significance is ambiguous. But what do they say about the future?
One example is the handful of pro players who have chosen to walk away from the game while still in their primes. For decades, the list of players who retired early — and willingly — was short. True, Jim Brown left football after nine seasons, having set every major rushing record. Barry Sanders retired after 10 years in frustration at the Lions’ losing ways. And a handful of other players quit for idiosyncratic reasons.
The short list is no surprise. From my own work representing NFL retirees, I know that even ex-players who can trace their crippling injuries to the game would still play again if given the chance. Even so, in just the past two years players have chosen to retire for a brand new reason: the future risks from repeated concussions, including CTE.
The most recent is Joshua Perry, who announced his retirement from the Seahawks weeks ago after his sixth (documented) concussion. He followed Chris Borland and A.J. Tarpley, who both left after one season apiece, each because of concussions.
It would be easy to shrug off these retirements — what are three players against the 1,500-plus players on the rosters of 32 NFL teams? The Seahawks replaced Perry within a day. But another development puts pro football’s challenges in sharper relief.
From 2016-17, the number of high school students playing 11-man football fell by more than 25,000, or over 2 percent, and the decline in high school football participation over five years was even greater, at 3.5 percent.
Fourteen states saw drops of 10 percent or more in high school football. By many accounts, this drop in participation is related to the known dangers from concussions and CTE. Simply put, many parents are unwilling to let their children play a sport that risks their long-term well-being.
Boxing was king, until deposed with a punch
Again, it is possible to dismiss this decline as short-term and not terribly large. Although anecdotes abound of high schools dropping football, the total number of schools playing football has held steady due to modest growth in the South and West. But what if these trends are the first signs of a shift in the culture?
In 1926, when boxing — not football — was king (the NFL was not formed under that name until 1922), Gene Tunney’s heavyweight victory over Jack Dempsey was banner headline news in The New York Times, which covered it with a half-dozen stories on the front page. Even the Super Bowl does not receive that coverage today: Boxing was one of the top two spectator sports in the 1920s. Today, boxing has dropped far out of the Big Four sports and is at risk of being eclipsed by mixed martial arts and pro wrestling.
What happened? The fall of boxing has many causes, but the dawning public appreciation of it as a blood sport is clearly one of them. The death of South Korean boxer Kim Duk Koo at the hands of Ray Mancini in 1982 served to crystallize the problem and led to calls for the sport’s abolition. That didn’t happen, but boxing’s popularity has fallen and will never find its way back to the top.
Ever since the Webster case cemented the link between pro football and brain injuries more than a decade ago, the NFL has had a concussion problem. Changes to the rules (and helmets), grudging recognition of the links between football and CTE, and the class action settlement have limited the hit to football’s popular appeal and the NFL’s brand.
Pro football’s reign may continue — it takes a lot to dislodge the king, after all. But two decades from now, when we look back on the heyday of NFL football, we are likely to see these events as the beginning of the end.