A day after the debate over the safety of football made it all the way to the White House, Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard delivered a dire prediction about the future of the NFL to CBSSports.com:
“Thirty years from now,” he said, “I don’t think it will be in existence. I could be wrong. It’s just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going — where they [NFL rules makers] want to lighten up, and they’re throwing flags and everything else — there’s going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it.
“Guys are getting fined, and they’re talking about, ‘Let’s take away the strike zone’ and ‘Take the pads off’ or ‘Take the helmets off.’ It’s going to be a thing where fans aren’t going to want to watch it anymore.”
Last week, after researchers published a study further linking chronic traumatic encephalopathy to football, the Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates called it a death knell for football, though unlike Pollard, he predicted that death would come from the supply side:
There’s something more; presumably, if they really learn how to diagnose this, they will be able to say exactly how common it is for football players–and maybe athletes at large–to develop CTE. This is when you start thinking about football and an existential crisis. I don’t know what the adults will do. But you tell a parent that their kid has a five percent chance of developing crippling brain damage through playing a sport, and you will see the end of Pop Warner and probably the end of high school football. Colleges would likely follow. (How common are college boxing teams these days?)
After that, I don’t know how pro football can stand for long.
The irony about these two views — whether football’s death will be brought about by supply- or demand-side problems — is that if more research proves stronger links between CTE and the sport, football will likely have to choose the method of its death. The game can probably be made safe enough, by eliminating much of the padding and tackling, to keep kids playing at the youth levels. And as long as football remains a big business for colleges and the NFL, they’ll make an effort to protect players while presenting a product people will watch. The question, I think, is whether enough people will watch a game that actually protects the players.
Americans love the inherent violence of football. We love that it offers a chance to see two men larger, faster, and stronger than we’ll ever be crashing together in a moment of bone-crushing, brain-mushing gladiatorial glory. We love that “football at its finest” is a safety crushing a running back, that football’s “truest nature” is a defensive end leveling a running back so majestically that the poor sap’s helmet ends up 10 yards down the field. We hate that the NFL is trying to take that away from us, which is why every time a flag flies for a helmet-to-helmet hit, we yell that the league is “taking football out of football.”
It is becoming more and more evident that we can’t make football safer without radically changing the game itself. But the flip-side to that is that what Americans love most about football is exactly what makes it dangerous. So the NFL and the NCAA have a choice: stay dangerous, and risk kids no longer playing. Get safer, and risk creating a product that no one wants to watch. I side more with Pollard’s view than with Coates’, but either way, death seems almost certain, even if the method and the timeframe are anything but.