Game change

In 20 years, football may look very different from the sport we know today. Will the fans, and the media, care?

Two thousand thirteen was an annus horribilis for the National
Football League. Its signature event, the Super Bowl, was subjected to an unscheduled 34-minute delay when the lights went out at the Superdome in New Orleans. In the offseason, the usual spree of player arrests for drunk driving or bringing handguns to airports was dwarfed by New England Patriot tight end Aaron Hernandez’ arrest on murder charges.

The issue of player safety, meanwhile, loomed ominously, suggesting the kind of existential threat that the sport hasn’t seen since Teddy Roosevelt championed the reforms that led to the creation of the precursor to the NCAA in 1906. The NFL is widely thought to have pressured a television partner, ESPN, to pull out of a documentary it co-produced with Frontline on the subject of head trauma. That film (and the accompanying book), League of Denial, spelled out in excruciating detail how the sport had soft-pedaled the risks of repeated blows to the head over the years. The headlines were so bad that the NFL’s $765 million settlement in August with a group of former players who sued over concussion negligence was seen as a break for the league. It could have been, should have been, much worse, went the thinking.

There was no relief when the season began. The Miami Dolphins’ locker-room imbroglio, in which a white veteran lineman, Richie Incognito, was accused of bullying a black rookie, Jonathan Martin, provided myriad avenues for “national discussion”—the euphemism for sports talk radio filling endless hours with the topic and ESPN trotting out every former player and coach on its enormous payroll for an opinion or 12 on the matter.

It all fed into the undercurrent of unease around football in recent years. The conversation, in the media and at the kitchen table, has devolved into whether we should support a game that, once you remove the dramatic endings to the games and the occasional moment of sublime athletic performance, is so ugly at its core.

So far, the NFL battle tank has managed to overwhelm the doubters. For all the PR disasters, pro football has rolled on as America’s favorite sport and television attraction.

But is football’s position in American culture truly unassailable? We hear a great deal about how the game has already changed irrevocably, how the focus in the last couple of seasons on penalizing helmet-to-helmet hits and other ultra-dangerous blows has legislated the snarl from the game, rendering football far less enjoyable than it was in the “good old days,” circa 2008. There is no question that the emphasis on protecting players, at least the highly paid skill players, has led to not only penalties for what most current fans would regard as “just regular football,” but also to inconsistent officiating from game to game. One referee’s “hit on a defenseless player” is another ref’s happenstance. That dichotomy is frustrating to players and fans alike.

The truth is, the manner in which the average Joe or JoAnn consumes the NFL has changed drastically over the past few years, independent of the rule changes. For instance, fans are more inclined (and able) than ever to consume the league in full, rather than through the narrow lens of his or her favorite team. This perspective is enhanced by fantasy football but also Sunday Ticket, the Red Zone Channel, video games, and the explosion of cable sports outlets, all of which rely on (endless) NFL discussion to fill airtime.

Indeed, watching the league each week is so compelling as a made-for-TV drama that actually attending games seems more and more like a sucker move. Why get stuck sitting through a game in uncomfortable, crappy seats, in bad weather, with all those boring timeouts, fighting awful traffic, and paying outrageous prices, when the full cornucopia of the sport is presented so beautifully to those watching from the couch? This reality must keep NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell awake at night as much as the concussion issue does. In-game attendance numbers are trending downward, with no solution apparent.

The fact that the league’s TV product is so awesome must soften these concerns. The value of live sports to embattled television networks ensures that the stratospheric fees they pay for the right to broadcast the games will continue to flow into the NFL’s coffers—the most recent contract was worth about $3 billion a year. There is simply too much money at stake for the league to go the way of boxing, for example, another violent sport that once dominated the national sports consciousness before dropping into near-irrelevance.

But if the NFL is insulated from such a knockout blow, that is not to say that the league’s troubles are nothing that better PR and a lot of cash can’t solve. One indication of the fundamental problems the sport faces is the dwindling participation in football at the youth level, and what that foretells.

My mother wouldn’t let me play football as a kid because she didn’t want her skinny, sensitive eldest boy maimed. But I was a rarity, even in a neighborhood replete with overprotective Jewish and Italian mothers. Most kids I knew played football, including my younger, stouter brother.

I now have a skinny, sensitive little boy of my own, and there hasn’t even been a discussion in our household of his playing football—and I live in Georgia, where football is a religion. Unlike when I was his age, we are the rule rather than the exception. I’ve talked to a multitude of parents with young boys, and football isn’t even an option. If mentioned at all it is snorted away with a sarcastic, “Yeah, right,” as though asking if a child would play football is akin to asking whether he will be allowed to join a gang.

High schools in several states have recently reported steep declines in participation, including hotbeds like Michigan, Maryland, and California. A severe drop in youth football participation in Virginia was cause enough for Goodell to stop counting revenues for a moment and venture to the sidelines of a Loudon County youth practice last season.

So if we stipulate that the NFL isn’t going anywhere, and that fewer and fewer kids are going to take up the game, that leaves a smaller circle of potential players. Who then will accept the risks of a football life for the potential rewards? Kids without means, for whom future health problems like dementia or mangled joints are meaningless in the face of immediate poverty and the hope of future riches that can provide for an entire family tree. In this sense, football, which already relies disproportionately on the underclass for its athletes, will become even more isolated by socioeconomics.

For the moment, football retains an image of universality among its players. The corn-fed farm boy and the beach-bred golden boy are as archetypal as the boy escaping poverty to “play on Sunday,” as they say. But that is likely to change, and football may well come to resemble basketball in its outsize place in the fantasies of (primarily) African-American kids who see the sport as the only way out of a life of despair. The difference is that in basketball the only thing left crushed for the majority of kids who don’t make it to the promised land are dreams, not vertebrae.

Despite the wince-inducing sensation that the NFL is drifting into dystopian, Rollerball territory, there is some reason for optimism, odd as that may seem. For one thing, it’s possible that as I write some pigskin-loving Steve Jobs is in a Canton, OH, basement developing a helmet that drastically reduces impact trauma.

But even without a technological fix, the NFL may be able to safeguard players with more changes to tackling and other contact rules, and spreading the message to lower levels of organized football that avoiding injury is a priority. This would essentially continue football on its current path, rendering it not merely different but unrecognizable to older fans.

The key to this future is acceptance. After all, little of the sport from the 1950s remained in place by the 1980s, from strategy to equipment to rules to the players themselves. And watching highlights of games from the Lawrence Taylor era scarcely resembles today’s NFL. The media role will be key. Reporting on concussions and the struggles of former players has been excellent, but at the same time there has been pushback against how the game is changing—often, ironically, from former players who opine on the nation’s airwaves. If these household names get on board, it would help grease the skids for acknowledgement of the “new normal.”

The question is how comfortable will the next generation of fans be with an NFL that is more like a seven-on-seven passing drill than the blood-and-guts spectacle of the last 93 years? My guess is that a nation weaned on fantasy and video-game football, with less and less direct connection to the sport from having played, will be far more willing to accept such a declawed product.

Sure, the refracted glory of seeing one of “your guys” render one of “their guys” insensate, thanks to a massive collision at high speed, has always been a part of football’s appeal, as has the vicarious toughness conveyed, through the alchemy of fandom, from player to spectator. But that is just a sliver of what makes football a great game. The balletic grace of the players, the holding of one’s breath while a long pass arcs through the sky, the endless ability to strategize along with the coaches and second-guess them afterward—all of this will remain, even in an NFL that has been leeched of most of its dangerous physicality.

The NFL has always evolved with the times. Its fans will adapt as well. 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Robert Weintraub is the author of The House That Ruth Built. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and Slate, and a television writer/producer based in Atlanta.