Tuesday, October 19, 2010
The Beginning of the End of the NFL
Actually, this is probably not the beginning. Although the NFL is commanding higher and higher TV ratings, dominating an ever-increasing share of the pop culture mind, and raking in record breaking revenues, I think the beginning of the end happened a couple of years ago when Chris Henry died in an auto-related accident.
For those imaginary readers not familiar with Chris Henry, he was a young and talented NFL receiver who struggled mightily to curb his penchant for making horrible social decisions. I won't besmirch his name other than to point out that, with so much to lose by his constant brushes with the law, more than one person speculated that he was not completely, cognitively intact. After he died, an autopsy showed that he had chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), a brain disorder caused by repeated blows to the head.
Earlier this year, we read the story of Owen Thomas, an outgoing honor student who was captain of the football team at an Ivy League school. He surprised everyone he knew by going home one afternoon and hanging himself. As with Henry, an autopsy showed C.T.E.
The scariest aspect of the Owen Thomas story is that he had never had a concussion or even a head ache from his years of little league, high school, and college football. Still, the constant, low-grade trauma seemed to be taking its toll. It manifest in sudden, intense depression and probably, a tragically impulsive decision to kill himself. That is consistent with the pattern of poor and impulsive decisions that had followed Chris Henry through his brief adult life.
As these stories multiply and awareness rises about the long term health effects of head trauma, little league football will go away. This will steer the nation's youth to other sports and the quantity and quality of high school football players, after many years, will also recede. As participation and celebration of high school football dwindles, it will decimate the youngest slice of the NFL's fan base and begin to erode the financial prospects for the league. Eventually, college programs will opt for more affordable, lower-risk programs and the NCAA system will feel the effects of less interest in football. As the feeder system collapses on itself, the NFL will face an increasingly educated public that sees it as a senselessly violent undertaking. Like boxing today, the NFL will eventually assume a stripped down form on the outskirts of mainstream pop culture.
I wrote earlier about my fear that an NFL player will be killed on the field of play and fans across the land, like me, will blame ourselves. When I saw the hit on DeSean Jackson last Sunday, I was sure it had happened. He eventually got up but the impact revived my old fears and I felt sick for more than a day.
Escalating violence and a better understanding of brain injuries are conspiring against the future of the NFL. I can't say the end is near, but it is on its way.