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.