Are We Still Discussing the Future of Football?

Posted on December 30, 2015 by Marian Salzman

Daniel X. O'Neil

[Originally posted on the Huffington Post.]

More than four years ago, I wrote an opinion piece for the Huffington Post arguing that the future of football is limited. “Am I the only one forecasting that the game will be outlawed sooner or later, because of the traumas that come from playing?” I asked back then.

By the time last year’s Super Bowl rolled around, it was clear enough that I wasn’t the only one predicting an end to the glory days of what is increasingly (and rightly) coming to be seen as a barbaric, violent and dangerous sport. And so I revisited the question here last January in a sort of trendspotter’s take on the standard pregame show. If the 2011 piece felt like I was going out on a limb, maybe being provocative (or overly aware of my own history as a brain tumor survivor, advocate for wounded warriors and guardian of risk-taking teenagers), writing the 2015 piece showed me how prescient my prediction had been.

Shortly before last year’s op-ed, news broke of the apparent suicide of an Ohio State football player who was reportedly “confused due to concussions.” At the time, the NFL was working out a settlement with almost 5,000 former players who filed a class action suit against the league for denying or downplaying the long-term neurological harm associated with head injuries sustained while playing.

Meanwhile, football was starting to suffer from other blights: the domestic violence and general bad behavior of so many players. Commentators like NBC News posited that brain injuries could be to blame, quoting an expert who said traumatic brain injuries can lead to aggression—and quoting others who said chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, hadn’t typically been associated with domestic violence and homicide. (It’s unclear whether brain injury had anything to do with the fireworks accidents that cost two NFL players their fingers last Fourth of July.)

In the year between Super Bowls 49 and 50, the violent trends have continued and more observers have joined the chorus singing about the demise of “America’s Game.” A few months ago, U.S. News & World Report published a startling opinion piece by Dartmouth College policy fellow Charles Wheelan unambiguously titled “Football Has No Future.” In it, he argued that he couldn’t see the sport lasting more than another decade.

Part of his argument hinges on the fact that he’d recently received a press release from what he calls the Plaintiffs’ Committee for NFL Concussion Litigation, the group representing former players in that lawsuit against the NFL, and from his reflection on the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s posthumous induction of Junior Seau, who killed himself not long after retiring. “[A]n autopsy revealed that he had suffered from … CTE, the form of brain damage that shows up disproportionately in boxers, football players and others who have received repeated blows to the head,” noted Wheelan.

But more tellingly was Wheelan’s other main piece of evidence: His own seventh-grade son had reported for the first day of football practice and only three other boys showed up. With football getting the kind of bad press that it has, is it any wonder that parents—the same ones who obsess about buying the absolute safest car seats and strollers—are having second thoughts about letting their kids go out for the team? And that’s why Wheelan believes that “[w]ith the sport being hammered legally from the top, while withering from the bottom,” youth programs will shrink, liability will spread to the college level (where students are already suing like mad over non-football microaggressions), university presidents will examine whether they should have teams, and soon there’s no talent for the pro teams.

Scrutiny at the college level is already increasing. A November article in The Atlantic didn’t mince words when it argued that college football is becoming “an enterprise where underprivileged young men risk their health for the financial benefit of the wealthy.” Writer Michael Baumann cited a 2010 piece in the Awl that now seems as prescient as my first HuffPost piece. Cord Jefferson wrote, “Where some see the Super Bowl, I see young black men risking their bodies, minds and futures for the joy and wealth of old white men.” Baumann went on to say, “This vision sounds dystopian but is quickly becoming an undeniable reality, given new statistics about how education affects awareness about brain-injury risk, as well as the racial makeup of Division I rosters and coaching staffs. The future of college football indeed looks a lot like what Jefferson called ‘glorified servitude….’”

Baumann also invoked the sensible-parenting scenario when he cited an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released right around the time of Super Bowl 49 that found that nearly 40 percent of Americans would rather see their child play any sport other than football because of worry about concussions. The numbers change when run for socioeconomic status, with more than 50 percent of respondents holding postgrad degrees saying they’d prefer their children not play football and 31 percent with a high school education or less saying the same. But expect the backlash to grow, as more of the educated class starts questioning the social dynamics in play here—wondering if it’s conscionable for them to enjoy watching at any level.

Meanwhile, the much-talked-about “Concussion” starring Will Smith has finally hit theaters. The movie depicts the tipping point when Dr. Bennet Omalu inadvertently declared war on the American dream sport—but the tipping point to question the future of the game might be the popularity of this movie. In its opening weekend, Dec. 25-27, the film ranked seventh in gross, at $10.5 million, just behind “The Big Short” and not bad considering that the “Star Wars” juggernaut was only a week old.

The consensus on the real-life NFL is not looking as good. CBS’s “60 Minutes” aired a scathing report in November on a sport that is trying—quite possibly too late—“to reengineer [itself] to fit the medical science.” But revised rules and reinvented equipment might not be enough.

Ed Reed, who retired in 2015 after 12 seasons as one of the NFL’s best safeties, told interviewer Steve Kroft that he’d suffered three or four concussions that he remembered. When he was asked whether it was possible to take the violence out of football, he simply said no. And although Reed admitted to being worried about his future health, he was adamantly not worried about the future of the game: “No way! Football is not going anywhere.”

I don’t agree and wonder how much longer we’ll be discussing football as having a future rather than a past.

[photo: creativecommons.org/Daniel X. O’Neil]

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