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.


  1. Nothing lasts forever. If/when the demise of the NFL occurs I could see brain injuries as the antecedent and the events playing out the way you describe. I think it would take several generations for that to happen though. But what is behind your enduring fear that we might see an on-field fatality someday? Is it because you would feel some sense of responsibility as a fan and supporter of the NFL? It would be an absolute tragedy but no more tragic than the millions of other on-the-job fatalities that have occurred and will continue to occur. (We all have an indirect relationship to many of these also). Almost every profession (with the possible exception of accounting) has that risk. I don’t know the statistics e.g. in terms of deaths/1000 hrs or anything like that, but construction related accidents occur daily; people in the transportation field (e.g. trucking) have a high number of fatalities; other sports like NASCAR and Boxing have had recent deaths; then there are industrial and factory workers (accidents and long-term health issues), traveling sales people, flight attendants, bike couriers, taxi drivers, fisherman, farmers, coal miners etc. etc. I’m not questioning your moral compass which is pointing in the right direction and I wish others shared, I’m just pointing out the reality that on-the-job deaths are a fact of life

  2. Jeff Ryer10/21/2010

    Your reasoning is right on, but it will never happen. I continue to preach that there are many things people do that they know are bad for them, and often fatal, but they keep doing them anyway.
    Smoking, drugs, drunk driving, etc.. So i fail to see how football injuries are ever going to deter people from the game.

  3. Response to Rick: Yes, my fear is driven by the underlying knowledge that I am part of the fan base that supports violence in the NFL.

    Response to Ryer: I agree that people, in general, show an remarkable tendency to participate in dangerous activities. However, my thesis is based on the equally strong trend for parents to prevent their children from participating in dangerous activities. That's why I pegged little league football as the first step in this long and inevitable cascade.

  4. Jeff Ryer10/21/2010

    There are those parents, they are called Helicopter parents. But there are also the rather insane parents who encourage their kids to play football and hockey. Hockey I know and the popularity of the sport seems to be exploding. Girls hockey is now a big collegiate sport, and high schools are adding teams.

    The insane part is the parents that scream out during the game for kids to (hit em) and they are not referring to the concept of what checking is supposed to accomplish - separating the player from the puck.

    The overall acceptance to violence in this country is astounding and is a direct result of things like you tube and video games that have just desensitized people to the effects of violence and bullying. With sports it goes to the best hits videos in football and hockey - kids think it is funny.

  5. Ryer has a point here. What will win out, the increasing lack of cultural sensitivity toward violence, or the growing understanding about the long term effects of physical contact in the name of sport?

  6. Is there any research on soccer regarding long-term repeated low-impact hits to the head? Or maybe a soccer ball is too soft or head shots too infrequent to be a concern(?) Just wondering.

  7. Jeff Ryer10/22/2010

    I am not sure about the research, but have seen various articles over the years in regard to soccer ball heading, and as you would think, it ain't good. I tell my son all the time, do not head the ball.