Back in 2009, fellow NPIer Josh asked, “What Common Human Behavior Will be Viewed as Mistaken in 100 Years?” He used that question to talk about vegetarianism, but the question popped into my head recently regarding football. It is starting to seem inevitable to me that football—a sport everyone here at NPI loves—will be seen as barbaric and immoral in a generation or two. The more science exposes about the long-term effects of concussions and subconcussive impacts, the more it seems that there is simply no safe way to play football.
Right now, however, football’s popularity seems invulnerable. The highest rated show on TV last year was Sunday Night Football; it was so highly rated that it, combined with the Super Bowl, kept NBC—NBC!—from finishing last among the four major networks this season. This year’s BCS National Championship was watched by 24.2 million viewers, and that was the lowest rated championship of the BCS era. In a recent piece on football’s popularity for Grantland, Chuck Klosterman pointed out that 25 million people watched the NFL Draft, “a statistic that grows crazier the longer you dwell upon its magnitude.” And, if anything, the football’s popularity seems poised to grow as an influx of popular young stars like Cam Newton, Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, and Tim Tebow enters the league.
In other words, football’s decline seems both inevitable and impossible. What would need to happen to convince people that something as popular as football is immoral? Some have suggested that it would take an on-field death, or some kind of “conclusive medical proof,” but I think both of these suggestions misunderstand how morals change. People can always find ways to dismiss “proof” when they don’t like the conclusions being proved. And an on-field death, while obviously tragic, could likely be written off as a fluke.
Instead, I think a gradual attrition in kids playing football will be what dooms the sport. Already parents are debating whether or not to let their children play; even an NFL veteran like Bart Scott won’t let his kids play football. I personally can’t imagine letting my kids do it. As parents become more familiar with the health risks, it’s only going to be more common for parents to ban kids from playing football.
Of course, this likely won’t happen on a universal scale, or even a scale big enough to significantly weaken the quality of play at the professional level. But it will fundamentally change the relationship between fans and the game. For one, people who played football growing up tend to be the most loyal fans of the game. Fewer youth players will ultimately mean fewer die-hard fans.
More importantly, though, is the type of people who will continue to play football. Invariably, those who give up on playing the game will tend to be from affluent, educated families with attentive, health-conscious parents. When Andrew Sweat, the Ohio State linebacker, turned down the chance to try out for the Cleveland Browns recently, it was because he had secured a spot at law school. While some still criticized his choice, it’s hard to imagine him making it without a potential law career to fall back on.
Those who will continue to play football despite the health risks will be those with fewer options—people from poor backgrounds, with limited educational opportunities and limited knowledge of the game’s dangerous consequences. There will be, in other words, an underclass of people who play football, and a kind of gentry of those who watch it.
This, I think, will doom football. Personal relationships alter ethical decisions far more than disconnected data or abstract moral reasoning.* If the only people who play football are playing it out of necessity or out of ignorance, it will inevitably change how the sport is viewed. Already, I’m starting to feel a sense of guilt when I hear players react to bounty programs by saying things like “It’s football,” or about yet another suicide of an ex-player. It’s as if players have been brainwashed into agreeing to something they don’t fully know the consequences of.
*Think of the profound roles Jackie Robinson and the integration of the military played in diminishing racism.
People, of course, do dangerous things all the time, and they should be allowed to make their own choices. But there is a difference between someone freely choosing to do something he knows is dangerous, and someone who is driven by adverse social conditions, or ignorance of medical fact, or a football culture that glorifies ignoring health concerns. It is essentially the difference between watching Siegfried and Roy play with lions and watching the Christians get thrown to them. The former are entertainers and the latter are victims. It’s only a matter of time before we stop considering football players entertainers and start seeing them as victims.