by Chris Foss
2018 has begun with promise for the beleaguered sport of football. Super Bowl LII was one of the most thrilling games in NFL history, and that was nearly topped by Alabama’s come-from-behind victory in the College Football Playoff championship game. These big moments can’t erase the fact, however, that no American sport endured more tumult during 2017. A host of controversies cast a shadow over football last year. Pregame kneeling polarized football’s audience and negatively impacted its viewership. Continued negative findings about the effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) also likely played a role in the decline in ratings and attendance. Injuries took a toll on the sport, as a number of its biggest stars saw their seasons end prematurely. Football was also rocked by #metoo: several TV personalities were suspended or fired for sexual misconduct, and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is selling the team after sexual misconduct allegations. A few years ago, football was the golden goose of American sports. Now TV ratings have plunged by double digits for college and pro football, and half-empty stadiums are commonplace. Is the end in sight for football?
Short answer: no, we should not get out the dirt and shovels just yet with which to bury football. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, when it seems like this time the crew of the Enterprise is finally toast, a fatalistic Scotty throws up his hands and exclaims, “We’re dead!” Mr. Spock then looks into the camera and essentially breaks the third wall, reminding the audience, “I’ve been dead before.” In essence: we may be old and down on our luck, but we’re going to be fine. Hard to argue with that logic. History likewise tells us that football has endured seemingly insurmountable trouble before and come back strong.
At the turn of the twentieth century, a rash of football-related on-field deaths led to the intervention of none other than President Theodore Roosevelt. Although he had a hunting trophy case as big as a mansion and a reputation as the manliest of U.S. presidents, TR insisted that the sport be cleaned up so that it could be preserved. By 1906, many colleges adopted new safety rules that curbed football’s grisly fatality rate. The popularity of a cleaned-up college football gradually rose, and the NFL was born in the 1920s. It took decades in a baseball-crazed country, but football ascended to challenge baseball’s hegemony over American sports by the 1960s.
Basketball was also left for dead a few times during the twentieth century. Point-shaving and gambling scandals rocked college basketball in the 1950s, but by the 1970s, thanks to the innovation of March Madness, it was stronger than ever. Professional basketball overcame the premature demise of several early leagues and the slow nature of the game through the shot clock innovation in the mid-1950s. The NBA later got through worries about drugs, fighting, and its “blackness” amid swooning TV ratings in the late 1970s. Many NBA franchises were unprofitable to the verge of contraction and most teams played in front of half-empty arenas. Imagine that today in this era where sports franchises in general are valued in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars.
Could the NFL duplicate basketball’s recovery from near-death? With a half-angry, half-adrift fanbase, and the very real dilemma of what to do about traumatic brain injuries suffered by its players on a seemingly daily basis, football faces an existential crisis in 2018, no doubt about it. What must football do in the years ahead?
#1: Make the game safer, yet keep it entertaining
One of the big dilemmas of the modern game is how to make it safer without sacrificing what fans and players want to see—in short, hard tackling and hitting associated with death-defying plays. Looking at what’s happening to retired players and the new studies into CTE, we’ve just about reached the tipping point where the hard tackling and hitting has to go. All hits in the shoulder-head-neck area, whether intentional or not, should be an automatic ejection and suspension for repeat offenders. The NFL needs to adopt the targeting rule that college football has already put into place. Teams who flout the concussion protocol need to be punished with stiff fines and lost draft picks. A recent incident when Seattle QB Russell Wilson reentered a game after not clearing the protocol cost the Seahawks $100,000, but should have resulted in a stiffer punishment.
Yes, football is brutal on the lower extremities, as well, but with advancing sports medicine and health technology, we can accept that. Those advances aren’t yet preventing players’ brains from getting blown up. Until and unless that happens, football at all levels needs to take a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to all upper-body hits. If that means less tackling and more scoring, so be it.
#2: Reconnect with the fans
The last couple of years have seen a dramatic rise in fan disenchantment. Whether it’s because of the sport’s brutality, “take a knee”, or the outrageous price it costs to watch games at home or on satellite TV or even at the local bar, fans are increasingly adopting the approach of Peter Finch in the 1976 film Network and yelling “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The media have reacted by hyping fan discontent, but rarely do they suggest options to reverse the tide. The NFL players’ initiative to devote more time and money to social justice issues is a step in the right direction, but we need to see more college and pro football players out in the community doing events with ordinary fans, be they police officers, military personnel, kids in schools, or kids in hospitals. The NCAA and NFL also need to work with their schools and teams to reduce ticket and concession charges that price out average fans, or they’re going to have to get used to the embarrassing sight of papered-over upper decks. The Atlanta Falcons recently reported record concessions profits after slashing prices in the new Mercedes Benz Stadium; more teams need to adopt that approach.
#3: Promote more women and people of color to positions of authority
Not only is it the right thing to do, but it’s good business, too. Women and people of color are major demographics for the league, starting at the bottom in terms of viewership. Most NFL players are of color, and are too slowly trickling up through the coaching ranks, to say nothing of management and ownership, although Jerry Richardson’s imminent departure from Carolina is rumored to leave an opening for African American ownership of the Panthers. Women are scattered in team offices, meanwhile, and there are even some female referees. If women have a career path in this testosterone-packed environment, a degree of both social justice and economic benefit will result. It was disappointing, however, to see only one new African American coach hired out of seven NFL openings this offseason, including the Raiders’ flagrant flouting of the Rooney Rule to hire back Jon Gruden.
#4: Fix unforeseen problems associated with prior rule changes (especially instant replay)
Rule changes and reforms to prior rule changes will always be a contentious issue, but there are some common-sense fixes football can make. The debacle involving Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Jesse James in a Dec. 18 game against New England demonstrates that there needs to be a consensus that makes sense on what constitutes a catch in football. Two catch controversies during the Super Bowl arguably ended in the correct outcomes, but nonetheless put this problem on display for the world: along with Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth, I don’t know what a catch is anymore. At the same time, replay needs to be curtailed. The system was only meant to fix egregious errors, but in many cases has degraded to a level of nitpicking that leaves the common fan baffled at interpretations such as the one that denied James his potential game-winner. Kudos to Roger Goodell for his recent “concern” that the catch issue needs to be looked at, but concern needs to translate to action soon.
#5: Do right by retired players, even if it costs some money
All of these changes, particularly safety-related ones, won’t do any good, of course, for players whose careers are already over. The NFL and college football owe all players—especially older players—afflicted with CTE and other chronic football-related injuries financial compensation, including health insurance, if they are having difficulty making ends meet. Younger players need to be better educated on how to take care of their health and their money while they are still playing, so that they don’t need support from the NFL or their alma mater after retirement.