The NFL Is Dying a Slow Death, Much Like Its Players
February 10, 2016
I am an avid football fan. I make sure to finish my weekend to-do list before 1 p.m. on Sundays, I own four separate fantasy football teams and my dorm room is decorated with football paraphernalia. But sometime soon, fans like me will stop watching the NFL. There will come a time when NFL fans tire of making serious moral sacrifices just to enjoy a brand of sports entertainment which they can get elsewhere.
Most engaged sports fans have heard the horror stories of football players living with the consequences of head trauma that they suffered during their playing careers. Hall of Famer Junior Seau committed suicide, as did 21-year-old University of Pennsylvania football player Owen Thomas. Former Steelers wideout Antwaan Randle-El, at just 36-year-old, struggles with memory impairment. They were all diagnosed with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a progressive degenerative disease caused by repeated head trauma. Symptoms include dementia, depression, and vertigo. Yet the sport of football doesn’t just debilitate adults. An average of 12 high school and college football players die every year, and around one-third of those deaths are due to head trauma. So kids aren’t just dying because of exhaustion or cardiovascular issues, they are dying because of big hits. Death isn’t incidental to the sport of football; it has become a natural part of it. Kids die in the run of play, because of repeated trauma from collisions that are encouraged.
The NFL spent decades covering up evidence of the link between football and CTE, and suppressed litigation revolving around concussion-related injuries until a landmark class-action case in 2013. Between 1990-2010, 62 high school and college-aged football players died of brain injuries. It took years for the NFL to admit that their sport might have something to do with this loss of life. But their hesitation is understandable — telling their fans to cheer at big hits was a cash cow. To admit fault would lay bare the existential crisis of being a football fan. But the cat is out of the bag now, and it’s growing progressively harder for NFL fans to justify their fandom. As more tales of CTE-related deaths emerge, and as more kids die on the field, fans will turn away.
And the NBA is waiting for them. Unlike NFL players, NBA players have inspiring stories that aren’t overshadowed by grim injuries, allowing for positive news and safe competition to drive interest in the sport. Basketball doesn’t kill kids or leave adults with lifelong brain trauma.
If the NFL doesn’t manage to make the sport safer without drastically altering its character, we might have seen its peak. Ratings may not drop precipitously anytime soon — 112 million people watched Sunday’s Super Bowl — but 20 years from now, we might be looking back at this decade as a turning point in football’s history.
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