Sports are the closest thing to watching real-life superheroes. People pay their hard-earned money to marvel at incredible feats of strength and agility by athletes who won the genetic lottery and have dedicated their lives to honing their craft. The National Football League, more so than almost any other sports league on earth, bases its entire economic philosophy on a shock and awe value system of brutal head-to-head impacts. In a league that has historically sold itself on violent collisions and pushing the human anatomy to its absolute limits, is there any cause for concern regarding player safety? Will the inherent risk in playing the sport ever take a toll on league profits? Should American Football executives, owners and enthusiasts be worried?
The reality is that the risk involved in playing football is negligible to most people when it involves the return of an NFL salary, not to mention endorsements and other perks available to league stars. However, the NFL should be more concerned with how the decisions of NFL stars affect the perspective of younger athletes in college, high school and even Pop Warner football. High school football participation has dropped ten times in the last eleven years and hit its lowest point since 1999. Even Pop Warner and other youth football leagues have seen a 6.5% decrease due to state legislators pushing to ban kids playing full-contact below the age of 12 and parents instituting their own personal restrictions on their kids playing the sport due to the serious risk of injury.
The NFL is hoping that its status as an American cultural phenomenon and its potential to be a gateway out of poverty is enough to entice kids to keep enrolling in high school and collegiate football programs. In 2015, NFL running back Jerome Bettis, who played 13 seasons in the league, stated his case on why he is still a strong proponent of kids playing football. While he supports his kids playing football, he claimed that he would not let his son play the game before the age of ten and that he played football so that his son would not be forced into the game to pay the bills. His reasoning for playing was that football teaches a lot of team building and life skills, but are those not achieved through less violent means in other sports and activities? He also mentions that the NFL’s player safety initiative in recent years has made the game safer and is starting to have a trickle-down effect on youth programs. While it is true that the NFL has made great strides in making the game safer, it is not possible to mitigate levels of serious injury to acceptable levels, especially when the head is the most vulnerable part of the body in football. Players have been taught to hit lower by trainers and coaches, but several tackles still result in players’ heads being hit violently against the ground or put under a lot of pressure during mid-game pileups. With players getting stronger and faster, the hits just become more and more devastating. The last ten seasons have seen well over 200 concussions every year between preseason and regular season which amounts to 0.64 concussions per game, a greatly increased likelihood for players to sustain a recurring head injury and an over 40% chance to have long-term mental defects as a result of their football career.
Dr. Ann McKee, a highly acclaimed neuropathologist, examined the brains of 111 NFL players and found that 110 were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is caused by repeated blows to the head. While CTE can only be identified postmortem, hundreds of current and retired NFL players suffer from various degrees of symptoms of the degenerative neurological condition which include memory loss, confusion, sudden mood swings, depression and dementia. The disease can also severely impair decision-making and critical thinking ability, which has led to the suicides of star NFL players Junior Seau at age 43 and Aaron Hernandez, who was convicted of two homicides before being found dead in his jail cell at age 27.
The threat of long-term physical and mental impairment has actually begun to dissuade players from staying in the NFL long term. The sport has become a type of gladiator game where people who are forced to participate due to poverty are being put at risk and then get out as soon as they become financially stable. Stars who were considered generational talents such as quarterback Andrew Luck, receiver Calvin Johnson, defensive back Patrick Willis and running back Tiki Barber are just a few examples of a growing trend of early NFL retirements. Even NBA great LeBron James, who was actually once considered a transcendent young talent at the wide receiver position himself, has openly stated that he has banned his sons from participating in football, a byproduct of a growing trend of financially stable families who don’t support the participation of their own kids in the sport.
If people like watching football more than playing it themselves, what does it mean for the NFL? Will the talent pool become diluted if much of the premiere athletic talent is attracted by other sports? Is there an alternative talent pool for a sport that is cared for in just two countries worldwide?
The first issue to address is that economically speaking, the NFL is undergoing and will soon feel the effects of a labor shortage due to injury risks. It is doubtful that the NFL will ever run out of players to field the current 32 teams, but the product on the field will start to diminish if the top athletic talent isn’t interested in the sport, directly affecting the NFL bottom line. With the pandemic worsening the injury situation because of a lack of normal team conditioning routines, the number of players opting out of play due to no protected bubble-like set up akin to the NBA and NHL, and interest already declining in terms of television viewership, the NFL has a serious problem.
With Tom Brady, Drew Brees and other icons of the game set to retire in the next couple of years, young stars going out with injuries seemingly every game and kids choosing other sports over football, what does the future hold for the current king of American sports? The countless headlines of yet another promising young player getting hurt, in combination with its already declining popularity due to the NFL’s flawed marketing priority of the league over individual players and their highlights, could signify that the league will soon be passing the torch as America’s premier game.