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Ask a sports reporter about the future of the NFL (such as the way Peter Robinson asked Andrew Beaton of The Wall Street Journal on this week’s Ricochet Podcast) and one usually gets a recitation of the latest Nielsen ratings. Yes, football dominates today’s airwaves. But that is like complimenting a paint job on an old home where the timbers in the basement are a rotting mess of leaking water and a banquet for termites. The old place has charm – but for how long?
If you don’t like the building metaphor and wish to stick with sports, the National Football League is a thoroughbred racehorse, beautiful, sleek, and very powerful and yet dependent on very fragile legs that are sometimes asked to bear up to ten times the pressure of the horse’s weight. A slight bump, an entanglement with another animal, a sharper than anticipated turn and it collapses into a fall that is over 80% fatal.
As Peter noted in the podcast, more and more parents are saying “no” to the sport. Participation in youth leagues has been steadily declining, losing almost 40% of its participants since 2008. This has led to a decline in the high school game as well, but with the reductive nature of sports (most kids bail on organized sports by the time they turn 15) it’s off a more modest 3%.
But those numbers could worsen and quickly. So far, the courts have been reluctant to side with parents over injuries. But that has been limited to immediate, traumatic injuries. Most school boards demand a waiver to play football and parents and participants have to acknowledge the risks when players don the pads and helmet. And then comes CTE.
Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a long-term degenerative brain disease. It can lead to debilitating headaches, cognitive problems, and depression. No one knows how widespread it is because it cannot be diagnosed with certainty in the living and can only be confirmed by autopsy. But young men who have played the game and taken their own lives as young as ages 18 and 21 have shown to be suffering from it.
In 2018 the family of former University of Texas defensive lineman Greg Ploetz decided to test the limits of past participation in the sport by suing the NCAA for negligence. (Ploetz, who was a member of the 1969 Longhorns squad that won the National Championship, passed away in a long term care facility in 2015.) After three days of testimony, the NCAA pursued a settlement and set up a $70M fund to address further claims. There is another class-action suit working its way through the courts now.
Should that trickle down to the high school level – and should insurance companies decide that the game can no longer be underwritten, the fragile legs that support the game at the pro and college level will collapse. There will be rehabilitation attempts, but the window for recovery will be as small as any thoroughbred’s.
In the year that the Ploetzes settled their suit with the NCAA only 839,000 kids, ages 6-12, were playing youth tackle football. Compare that to baseball and basketball which were both north of the 4 million mark. And unlike those sports, there is no backup talent pool playing elsewhere. Major League Baseball can continue to recruit from the poor streets of places like San Pedro de Macorís (D.R.) and Caracas, Venezuela. The NBA can always rely on coaches from smaller colleges hanging out in the inner cities to scout for talented ballers. There is nowhere else where the NFL can turn.Published in