Football will be just fine
Surfing around mainstream news and sports channels might lead us to believe that American football (not that sport the rest of the world actually plays with its feet) is in existential trouble. I’ll take the other side of that argument: there’s nothing here that can’t and won’t be solved, and football will survive. The first obvious issue is the conflict arising from NFL players sitting/kneeling for the anthem. This is a labor vs. management issue where both sides have grossly overplayed their cards. Some players have brought their politics into the workplace—something that’s taboo in many corporations. But the owners have also over-reacted: instead of ignoring their teenagers’ new green-and-purple hair, they’ve chosen to ground them- for life.
This controversy will pass, eventually. The Olympics found themselves under threat from mishandled political issues, yet they’ve only gotten more ubiquitous and profitable. The Olympics weathered a dictator who tried to exploit them for political gain in 1936 and the famous podium protests in 1968. If that wasn’t enough, the Olympics survived a boycott by most of the developed nations in 1980, and a tit-for-tat Soviet Union boycott in 1984.
Come 2018, not only are the Olympics still here, but it was Kum-Ba-Yah as the two Koreas combined to form a unified women’s hockey team. The NFL anthem stuff will pass, eventually, as cooler heads and cash prevail.
On the college side, the big labor-management issue is that the NCAA has no desire to pay their players. Unless or until the players strike, this is not a pressing concern. The Olympics’ solution might be the model for this problem too if it bubbles to the surface: that competition eventually discarded amateurism as more and more countries grew tired of Communist states flouting the rules.
Alternatively, the public interest in what’s essentially Under-Age-21 football might entice the NFL or someone else to create an age-restricted league where players get paid. Salaries post-signing-bonus might be low, but that’s Minor League Baseball in a nutshell, as well as soccer worldwide and Junior Hockey outside the USA. The NBA’s G-League is headed that way too.
Moving along, there are the serious safety concerns related to injuries, specifically concussions. But football has solved a similar problem before, even if we’re not old enough to remember it. In 1905, 18 people died playing football, and at least 45 were dead since the turn of that century. Life at the bottom of the pile could be tragically short, according to a Washington Post item on that safety crisis.
Safety measures were improved dramatically then—and we can improve them further now re: concussions. The NFL has already started taking steps to de-weaponize the helmet. Better helmets and padding will be built, and rules will be adjusted from Tiny-Mite leagues on up. Pop Warner has already eliminated kickoffs in some divisions and limited contact in practices, CNN reports.
Other sports have improved safety—does anybody remember Guy Lafleur and other hockey players wearing no helmets at all until the 1980s? Football can too.
Last, some people point to the supposed-existential threat of declining TV ratings. It’s worth remembering that ratings are declining across-the-board, not just in sports, as our viewing tastes become more fragmented. I argued that in my piece here.
As it sits, TV deals outside the NFL’s own NFL Network are worth about $6 billion a season. Even cut up among 32 teams, who still each get to sell tickets (and parking and beer and merchandise), that number can get an awful lot lower before it becomes insignificant. And there’s always an opportunity to replace some lost over-the-air revenue with online dollars.
Does football have problems? Absolutely. Is football an endangered species? Absolutely not.