Skip navigation
Sign up to follow your favorites on all your devices.
Sign up

ESPN speculates about the “death of football”


While making the rounds on a slow, late Sunday afternoon, the NFL page at greeted me with this click-grabbing headline: “Football Apocalypse?” Given the massive withdrawal symptoms that many of us are feeling on this first weekend without pro football since Labor Day coupled with the return of The Walking Dead, I thought the article would have something to do with the short-term disappearance of the game and its impact on the millions who wandered aimlessly around their houses today with nothing to do.

Instead, the item speculates openly on the possible permanent disappearance of the game.

To get there, Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier (yep, I’d never heard of them, either) have cobbled together for the “Grantland” microsite an exercise in dot connection that begins with lawsuits arising from concussions and ends with football no longer existing.

I’ve got a fairly obvious bias on this one, but I still need to point it out. I now make my living from football. And I have a strong interest in seeing the sport become even more popular. I also have spent nearly 40 years following the sport, and I hope to spend the next 40 (or more) doing the same. Thus, I naturally am inclined to downplay anything that could prevent me from covering and following football.

That said, there are many flaws in the logic put forth by Cowen and Grier, starting with their efforts to set the mood for the potential extinction of football. Here are a few of them.

“If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist,” they write. And the NFL has continuously grown in popularity from the 30 years before and the 30 years after 1983, so what’s your point?

“The original version of Napster no longer exists, largely because of lawsuits,” they write. Given that the original version of Napster was fundamentally premised on the illegal dissemination of copyrighted musical content, the lawsuits, and the death of the original version of Napster, were inevitable. The original version of football (you know, the one where they didn’t wear helmets at all and grew their hair long because they thought it would protect the skull) also no longer exists.

“In the first half of the 20th century, the three big sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, and today only one of those is still a marquee attraction,” they write. If any of those sports translated as well on TV as football does, they’d all still be marquee attractions. Even before most people lost interest in boxing, whether due to an absence of compelling personalities in the sport, a chronic perception/reality of corruption, or the inherently barbaric nature of two men repeatedly punching each other in the head, the mainstream audience didn’t appreciate or enjoy the nuances of the so-called sweet science. Instead, watching boxing was all about waiting for a knockdown and otherwise pretending to know what was happening through the flurry of activity that occurred when someone wasn’t in danger of getting knocked down.

Likewise, horse racing is an antiquated activity that can be fully appreciated only by being there, and baseball became America’s pastime in an era when there weren’t many ways to pass the time.

With the advent of television, football gradually became the most popular sport in the country, with more than 166 million tuning in for some portion of last Sunday night’s Super Bowl. Today, as the national audience has shattered from three channels into a thousand options, only one event simultaneously pulls together a large chunk of the populace: NFL football.

As to their contention that football is in peril, the biggest hole in Cowen and Grier’s theory comes from the presumption that the rash of lawsuits filed in recent months against the NFL automatically will spread to lower levels of the sport, and then strangle it. Though a proliferation of civil complaints could happen, there are several important differences between lawsuits being filed against the NFL and lawsuits that would be filed against college, high school, and pee-wee programs.

First, as a matter of basic physics, the collisions are far less intense at the lower levels of the sport. At the NFL level, the size and the speed and the intensity of the contact make brain injuries far more common. Also, with more practices and more (and longer) games come more opportunities for impact.

Second, many of the former NFL players suing the league are motivated by resentment over the perception, legitimate or otherwise, that the men who made the game what it is aren’t receiving their fair share of the current financial windfall. And so with no legal ability to try to strike a better deal for themselves after the fact, some players are looking for other ways to get that to which they believe they are morally entitled.

Third, while insurance policies would provide much of the compensation for any judgments or settlements at the non-NFL level, there’s not the same multi-billion-dollar pot of money to be raided. With football more popular and successful than ever, lawyers who are in the business of staying in business target the biggest fish. And the fish don’t get much bigger right now than in the NFL.

As to the potential death of football via the courtroom, Cowen and Grier also presume, prematurely if not incorrectly, that the lawsuits will be deemed to have actual merit. Regardless of the maneuverings that occur before a trial begins, liability ultimately will be determined by a group of average Americans who will be at some level influenced by the reality that anyone with half a brain should know that banging the brain into other brains could cause injuries to said brains. Though, as it relates to the NFL, there very well could be compelling evidence of secret studies that were hidden and/or twisted in order to conceal the true impact of chronic head trauma, it’s highly unlikely that any similar proof of shenanigans exists at the college, high school, and pee-wee levels.

Though concerns over head injuries could cause some helicopter parents to prevent their kids from doing anything that entails wearing a helmet of any kind (including flying a helicopter), the sport continues to thrive even after the fairly obvious link between chronic head trauma and an increased risk of long-term cognitive problems has officially become completely obvious. Football has become a fundamental part of our shared experience, and boys, young men, and adult males will continue to be willing to assume the risk of playing.

As we’ve said before, our nation was founded by risk takers. Millions risk their health and well-being every day in a wide variety of potentially dangerous jobs. Others freely accept the possibility of injury and/or death arising from non-paying endeavors like riding a motorcycle, jumping out of a plane, climbing a wall of rock, and/or trying to kill with a gun a wide assortment of creatures that can kill humans without one.

But the biggest factor that Cowen and Grier ignore is that the NFL is trying to make the sport safer, from the top down. The head is receiving more protection than ever, with perhaps the bigger risk to the NFL not the evaporation of the supply of future players but the alienation of fans who continue to want to see big hits and who complain loudly about efforts to make an inherently violent sport less violent.

Until there’s a way to identify the presence of Chronic Traumatic Encephelopathy without carving into the brain and unless there’s evidence that even mild blows to the head that cause no concussion-like symptoms nevertheless create CTE, football will continue to thrive. Even if the parade of presumptions and possibilities put forth by Cowen and Grier ultimate come to fruition, football will make whatever changes it has to make in order to endure.

Unlike other sports that have enjoyed their moments in the sun, football has become too big to not make whatever adjustments need to be made to ensure that the game is as safe as it possibly can be. Though the game will never be completely safe, many jobs and hobbies aren’t completely safe. Unless we’re all destined to walk around in plastic bubbles and pay money to watch people play chess, football isn’t going away.

And the folks at ESPN who place an article speculating on that possible demise of the sport that has made ESPN what it now is know that football is here to stay, or they wouldn’t have dropped Cowen and Grier’s article in the top center of the NFL page.