All the pat talk about the declining ratings of the National Football League glides past one fact: Football is one product with a stratospherically high floor. Even when sales dips for the NFL, business remains great. More than 9 million households watched the Pittsburgh Steelers eke out a win over the Cincinnati Bengals last Monday night, and if a 7.8 rating is relatively tepid for late-season Monday Night Football, in absolute terms it demonstrates that plenty of Americans still love the sport. President Trump can goad a league he once longed to join, but he can’t imperil the league’s status as a money-making machine — or loosen the grip the sport has on the American id. Millions will still watch their local high-school teams on Fridays, their alma maters on Saturdays, and the pro league on Sundays.
The important question to ask is not whether the fans who watched Steelers–Bengals were appeased by the lack of sideline anthem protests. It’s whether they could stomach what they saw on the field. Were parents more likely to let their boys try out for Pop Warner next year after watching Juju Smith-Schuster inflict a brain injury on Vontaze Burfict? Ten years ago, Smith-Schuster’s crackback block would have been featured on ESPN’s “Jacked Up” segment, but not anymore. Did viewers feel morally compromised when Ryan Shazier was carted off the field, motionless and hospital-bound, with a spinal-cord injury? Usually, fans wait in earnest for the player to deliver a thumbs-up, but not this time. The problem the NFL — the sport — faces has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with that which inheres in the game. The problem football faces is whether it is too violent to survive.
This is not the first time football has faced existential threat from within. Early in the 20th century, formations such as the flying wedge resulted in injuries and on-field deaths. These were days when the college game reigned supreme, yet cries to abolish football reached the White House. At the behest of Theodore Roosevelt, the game reformed itself. Over the years, a slew of innovations, from passing to helmets, improved the sport and reduced the carnage. But not entirely.
Never entirely. Part of football’s appeal will always be the visceral punch of controlled violence. Helmets have improved to the point where their original purpose (prevention of skull fractures) gave way to a new one (use of the head as a weapon). In other words, as the game evolves, the violence morphs — but does not vanish. And as neurologists learn the hard facts of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the dementia scourge resulting from repeated blows to the head, it’s becoming clear that there are limits to what changes in the rules can accomplish when the central issue is the abrupt movement of the brain.
The relevant parallel here is with boxing. From colonial days until the mid 20th century, the so-called sweet science occupied the lofty status football now enjoys in the American imagination. The prizefighting game attracted devoted legions, from gamblers to intellectuals, immigrants to bluebloods. The heavyweight champion was considered to be the peak of world masculinity. When Galveston-born Jack Johnson won the title in 1908, the fact that he was black provoked race riots around the country. Censorious authorities tried to control the phenomenon, but the fights went on. Artist George Bellows captured the appeal his 1909 painting “Stag at Sharkey’s,” which romanticized the courage on display in an underground fight club. Later, bouts were must-see family TV. Generations of kids grew up idolizing Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali. But as the years went by, boxing’s violence became harder to ignore. Greedy authorities refused to countenance changes to the sport, but cultural sensibilities had shifted. In 1982, Howard Cosell, whose interviews with Ali rose to the level of civic poetry, stopped announcing midway through a title bout between champ Larry Holmes and challenger Tex Cobb, denouncing the sport as irredeemable. In 1983, the American Medical Association said boxing “could not be sanctioned by any civilized society.” It took years, but gradually, the sport’s grip on the American psyche loosened, to the point where it now occupies a mere niche. The record is clear: Avarice plus undeniable brutality equals trouble for a sport.
Football won’t vanish overnight. But it might be facing a similar fate: a long, slow decline as violence, damage to brave and fit participants, strewn human wreckage as veterans sink into dementia and decline, and desperate denials of the obvious by a short-sighted, profit-motivated sporting establishment, attain critical mass.
Shazier’s spinal surgery might restore movement to his limbs, and players have been paralyzed before without the game suffering one bit. The world saw Rutgers player Eric LeGrand paralyzed in 2010; Patriots player Darryl Stingley broke his neck in a 1978 preseason game. Spinal-cord injuries are dramatic, but arguably isolated. But brain injuries are not. Three minutes of game action shows any observer that blows to the head are baked into the game. For now, the only way to detect CTE is from a cadaver’s brain, although science may be near a breakthrough in that regard. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that 110 of 111 brains examined of former NFL players displayed CTE. Selection bias might partially explain the high incidence, but head injuries are an ineluctable part of football, and neurologists are continuing to learn more about the relationship between football and CTE.
Three minutes of game action shows any observer that blows to the head are baked into the game.
The sport has tried to cut down on some of the more viscerally stomach-turning hits. Wide receivers coming over the middle are safer today; marquee quarterbacks are protected by concerned officials. Still, on every play, 300-pound linemen maul each other; every rushing play sees a running back targeted; receivers have it out with defensive backs every time the ball is in the air. Deaths in the ring helped turn Americans away from boxing. It may be that enough cases like Junior Seau — the All-Pro linebacker who couldn’t sleep, had chronic headaches, and eventually shot himself in the chest at 43 so that doctors could examine his CTE-afflicted brain — will lead to the demise of football. The NFL has tried to sublimate the problem of head trauma, first by lying about the risks inherent in the sport, then by paying a settlement to buy off former players, and now by insisting it takes the problem seriously while making rule changes only at the margin. But these are just delaying tactics, punts to maintain field position.
Like any sport, football needs a robust talent pool to stay afloat. A growing awareness of the danger that inheres in playing football could dry up the pool. How many school-age kids try boxing nowadays? The number of participants in high-school football has fallen by 2.5 percent since 2008, a discouraging datum if not a precipitous drop. Meanwhile, parents are growing more concerned about concussions, and it is hard to envision any serious medical finding that exonerates the game.
As advocates of football run out of plausible deniability, they may resort to arguments about personal choice. That could invite unfavorable comparisons to the tobacco industry. No doubt some parents will make the trade-off and allow their kids to play what remains, it cannot be denied, a thrilling sport. But the game will be even harder to defend on ethical grounds if it relies on cash-strapped families’ taking the gamble with their kids’ brains, as boxing does today. And from a pragmatic perspective, the sport’s authorities wants its appeal to be as broad as possible.
The moral and financial duties of the NFL, and the NCAA and the high-school teams that constitute its feeder league, are therefore in alignment. Acting to change football is both the right thing to do and a way to preserve the sport. Radical changes such as abolishing the three-point stance or eliminating helmets should be studied alongside simpler tweaks such as teaching different tackling techniques at the youth level. Top leagues should issue directives to lower-level organizations and seek advice from outside counsel, as they once did with Roosevelt. The sport’s guardians should be honest about its consequences; they ought to divert some of their plentiful revenue towards a commission whose task would be to examine and implement changes to the sport that can save it — and its players.
But it has to be conceded that the prospect of change is dim. The NFL Players Association has long been the most toothless of the big-league unions, while the NCAA has a vested interest in denying that its main money-maker presents any contradictions for the solons of higher education. Regular Americans, too, have a moral duty to rethink their relationship to the sport. This goes far deeper than a seasonal reaction against politically motivated players kneeling during the anthem. The entire football enterprise needs to be studied afresh, with honest awareness of the threats, an informed understanding of the historical parallels, and tough-minded realism about what the game of tomorrow might entail. But last Sunday night, with Ryan Shazier still immobilized in the hospital, I watched his team take on my beloved Ravens. The only question on my mind was whether the Ravens defense could stave off another late Ben Roethlisberger drive. And sitting there, rapt, concerns about nothing besides the pass rush racing through my head, I was joined by more than 13 million Americans, all wondering the same thing.