Two Futures for Football

January 30, 2013
By | 1 Comment

Star NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide in May 2012. It was later concluded that he suffered from chronic brain damage.

Each year, it becomes a little harder to be a football fan. I have loved the game since I was 11, and I always intellectualized it, an attitude that is now rewarded with the renaissance in football analysis online.  But while I could somehow always look past the politics of the game, the new findings on concussions seem to be a whole other level of destruction visited upon the bodies of players.

It may be Super Bowl week, but concussions are in the news.  The Atlantic ran a short piece on scans showing brain damage in living former players.  Scans of Junior Seau’s brain show that he had a degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head trauma at the time of his death even though, according to the NFL, he “never” had a concussion.  The news is only going to get worse, not better, for the NFL.  Helmet technology is not going to save players, especially when there’s resistance to even marginally better helmets.  Players who have come up in the system won’t report concussions when they should (they’re the same with other injuries) and the league head office seems mostly interested in head injuries as a PR problem, a problem that continues to get worse as public figures–including the US president now–say they would not let their sons play the sport competitively.  I can imagine two possible futures for football in this situation.

1.  The first is that the game will continue to change to the point that it is substantially different from what it is even today.  Obama isn’t the first president to weigh in on football violence.  If we go back to the 19th century, people were getting killed because of the rules.  In 1906 Teddy Roosevelt threatened to ban organized football, because college students were getting killed off–the 1905 season saw 19 player deaths and countless major injuries (Roosevelt’s own son played for Harvard and suffered a malicious broken nose).  In response, the NCAA legalized the forward pass and changed several other rules, such as banning mass formations and the creation of a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage.  This was after rules changes in 1894 banning the flying wedge and other exceedingly violent tactics.

From the standpoint of concussions, we are at some point before 1894.  If someone like Seau can go through his career “without” a concussion (note the scarequotes) and probably die as a result of brain injuries, then massive reforms are needed.  I don’t have a clear program, but in essence what we’re looking at is either a transformation of player equipment to make it less possible for them to hit each other as violently as they do, or a transformation of the rules to further favor offensive players, perhaps making it more like arena football or flag football.

2.  The other future for football is visible in the state of boxing today.  Boxing was a major American sport for a large chunk of the 20th century.  Boxers were cultural icons and the sport, like football, developed a following among intellectuals.  But today, it’s fan base is heavily diminished.  It has lost a good deal of its cultural respectability, its cache with fans, reporters and writers, and most importantly, with parents whose children might go into the sport.  Part of this is a business question, having to do with boxing’s relationship with television, and the challenges it now faces from competitors like the Ultimate Fighting Championship.  But boxing also declined because its violence went from being aestheticized by sportswriters and other intellectuals–as “the sweet science”–to being deplored by those same people.  The NFL and NCAA clearly have good media sense, and it is possible that their PR machine can hold back the attacks that will come as more information about the extent and effect of player concussions is revealed.  Perhaps football will become more of a lower class sport, as parents who have intellectual or knowledge-economy ambitions for their kids move away from it.  It’s one thing to think your kid might break a bone or tear a muscle from playing a sport.  The prospect of brain damage resonates quite differently with parents.

Today, boxing suffers from an association with its athletes as members of a disposable class of society.  If football’s rules don’t change, it risks joining boxing as a sport whose athletes will be imagined as disposable people–even more than they are now.

However much I like the sport, and however much money is behind it, I don’t think we’ll see the same game in a generation’s time.


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One Response to “ Two Futures for Football ”

  1. Christopher Cwynar on February 2, 2013 at 10:38 AM

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I agree with most of what you suggest about the potential futures for football. To my mind, it will be the combination of the two scenarios you envision that will lead to diminished interest in professional football. Rule changes designed to protect the players will provoke the ire of dedicated, traditionalist fans while less committed onlookers will turn away as we learn more about brain injuries in football. I already see evidence of the former in the discourses that circulate among the players and the comment threads on sites like (along with much distaste for the ever-increasing cost of attending games). As you note, the latter seems likely to unfold gradually as more and more parents place their children in other activities and the public loses its taste for a violent spectacle that has increasingly unavoidable and permanent effects on its participants. As participation diminishes, so might the investment in football as the basis for so many rituals here in the US. Of course, having said that, I am continually astonished by the extent to which public life here in Wisconsin revolves around the Badgers and the Packers during football season. That doesn’t seem likely to be change any time soon.

    There is also a third possibility I see. That is a much colder scenario wherein we continue to learn about head injuries and make changes to the game at lower levels, but the NFL pushes on with only limited modifications to its product. In this era in which neoliberal discourses of personal freedom and responsibility have so much purchase and the concept of the public seems to less and less central, I can envision a scenario in which people simply conclude that the players are well compensated and knew the risks and so these terrible outcomes are not such a problem. At least, not a problem to be addressed as a broader social collective, many of whose members derive great pleasure from the spectacle. This seems to me to be the least likely scenario, but I do see these discourses swirling around in the arenas of public debate where these issues are raised.