Is This Super Game Living on Borrowed Time?

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It’s only a matter of time before head injuries in football fuels public outrage and the public demands change. 


Millions will watch tonight’s game, but America’s biorhythms about football can no longer be described with the words “unbridled enthusiasm.” There is increasing caution these days. There is considerable concern. And there’s more disinterest, too.

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal published the results of a national survey about pro football that it co-sponsored with NBC News.

The most telling survey finding was this: there was a nearly 25% drop in intense interest in pro football (from 2014) among those in the sport’s core demographic, that is, among men aged 18-49.

We already know (from Business Insider and other sources) that NFL viewership has declined in each of the last two seasons (down 10% in 2017 from 2016).

“If I’m the NFL, I’m freaking out about that a little bit,” Micah Roberts, one of the WSJ-NBC survey designers, told WSJ. “They are the very core of the football-viewing audience. If they’re retreating, then who’s left?” Roberts and his colleagues found that the drop in intense interest spanned political lines–almost equally among those who said they were core Republicans vis-a-vis those who said they were core Democrats.

That same day the WSJ story was published The New York Times columnist, Joe Drape, wrote an article entitled, “The American Dilemma’: Why Do We Still Watch Football?” Drape, who writes about issues occupying the intersection of sports, society, and money, quoted a friend who told him: “I’m embarrassed how much I love football.” Embarrassing is an interesting word choice because Drape also cited findings that show that stories about football and head trauma don’t influence viewership decisions for nearly 80% of Americans.

There’s no public outrage, at least not yet. Will that change when more stories come out about former players struggling in later life, dying prematurely, and speaking out against the game they once played? That’s anybody’s guess.

I do think there’s a lesson to be learned from the recent Nassar case about what might come next for football. It’s a lesson about what fires up public outrage.

The Nassar story had been in the public domain for a long time, beginning in August 2016, to be specific, when The Indianapolis Star broke the story. But public outrage wasn’t expressed until last month when Americans saw victims gave their impact statements at Nassar’s sentencing hearings.

That tells us that embers can burn slowly. There’s a predisposing situation (knowing what Nassar did) and there’s a precipitating event (watching victims’ impact statements). The predisposing situation for football is well known (implications of head trauma). The precipitating event is unknown.

I have no idea what that event will be for football, but I believe its coming. And, when it comes, it will hit like a wave, just as it did for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University in conjunction with the Nassar case. In this case, on the receiving end will be the NFL, the NCAA, high school athletic associations, and youth football organizations.

That day will set in motion entirely new biorhythms in this country, not only for football but for the entire landscape of sports in America.

In the meantime, we’ll enjoy the game as we always have, tonight’s game included. I’ll be watching, too.

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About Frank Fear

I’m a Columnist at The Sports Column. My specialty is sports commentary with emphasis on sports reform. I also serve as TSC’s Chief Operating Officer and Managing Editor. In that role I coordinate the daily flow of submissions from across the country and around the world, including overseeing editing and posting articles. I’m especially interested in enabling the development of young, aspiring writers. I can relate to them. I began covering sports in high school for my local newspaper. In college I served as sports editor of the campus newspaper and worked in the Sports Information Director’s Office at St. John Fisher College. After finishing grad degrees at West Virginia and Iowa State I had a 35-year academic career at Michigan State. Now retired, it’s time to write again about sports. I strongly support TSC’s philosophy–democratizing voice by giving everybody a chance to write.



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