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.