The Twilight of the National Football League

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The Twilight of the National Football League
(Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

Watching Friday’s Pardon the Interruption last night, as Tony and Mike interviewed bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell (whose books I haven’t read but am very interested in nonetheless) about his New Yorker piece on the brains of NFL players, I was struck by a sudden realization.

The NFL—the undisputed king of the American sports landscape—could be in the waning days of its popularity, if not existence.

For decades now, especially as boxing faded away with the decline of Ali and Tyson, the NFL has been the dominant sport on the landscape by appealing to our bloodlust. People tune in to the NFL each week, in part, because they want to see violence, brutality, and pain. Even if that may not be strictly true, it is true that for non-fans (especially for baseball fans), football is identified with that sort of violence and brutality, which fans are willing to take a blind eye to.

American culture, as well as other developments, may be turning against that tolerance to the NFL’s brutality. There has been a confluence of events that has started to show that people are starting to care more about the NFL’s brutality than in the past.

Most of them are in the background for now—like the ongoing pension fight between retired players and the Player’s Association and pieces like Gladwell’s that actually quantify the effects (even in college and high school) and have led to an increased emphasis on concussions—but we’ve also seen the NFL itself make rule changes that have been seen by some as appealing to pollyannas, especially when it comes to protecting the quarterback.

The NFL is becoming a more conscientious place when it comes to the well-being of its players—with “safety” becoming the watchword of the day. But nothing it can do could protect the players as well as taking them out of harm's way altogether.

I can’t link to a video of the PTI interview because ESPN hides almost all video from PTI and Around the Horn behind its “Insider” subscription wall, but I can tell you that the interview did touch on this very possibility.

Gladwell suggested that to completely make the NFL safe might require massive rule changes that would turn the game into something else, and the prospect was raised of Congress potentially deciding if the NFL needed to be banned and driven underground.

Perhaps the most likely doomsday scenario, though, may involve parents deciding they cannot in good conscience, allow their kids to play such a violent sport—or even kids making that decision themselves.

There’s another cultural development that doesn’t bode well for the NFL: our bloodlust is starting to move back to combat sports, specifically MMA. If young people decide they would rather get their bloodlust filled by MMA, leaving the remaining new potential NFL fans no longer considering violence as a criterion in its favor (and maybe as a criterion against), there might be less direct connection to the league and the NFL may start suffering in comparison to less violent sports. Maybe this means baseball and basketball, maybe it means something new like soccer.

And this might affect the popularity of football on all levels, not just the NFL. Which would be one way to end college football’s playoff debate…

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