I’m looking forward to League of Denial, the first of Frontline’s two-part look at the NFL’s concussion crisis, which begins tonight. And while Travis and I will have thoughts about it in the days ahead, I’ve been thinking about something else in the run-up to the first episode. So many of the reviews of League of Denial have sounded the same note as any other report that expands our understanding of the extent to which playing football puts you at serious risk of brain injury: that the program will change the way you look at football. But will it, really? And even if it does, what would football look like if viewers wanted to see fewer head injuries but to change the game as little as possible?
We’ve learned a lot about concussions in recent years, but there isn’t a lot of evidence that understanding what playing football can do to your brain is turning off American audiences en masse. Sunday Night Football was the top-rated prime-time television program in the country during the 2012-2013 television season. And while the ratings were down slightly in 2012 from 2011, they were up 12 percent from four years previous–in other words, football viewership has actually grown during a period of intense reporting on concussions, of lots of on-air discussion of what kinds of hard hits cause concussions, and of new NFL rules that aim to prevent concussions.
And if Americans were becoming more sensitive to concussions as an issue, wouldn’t it stand to reason that they’d turn away from other sports with high concussion rates? Mixed martial arts have fairly high concussion rates, as sports go, and keep competitors away from fights for long periods of time. But it’s not as if American viewers have turned on the fledgling sport–in 2011, the UFC struck a $700 million broadcast deal with Fox Sports, which made MMA one of its tentpole events as the company geared up for its competition with ESPN. That’s not the kind of investment you make if you worry that audiences are suddenly going to turn on a property, rendering it a quickly-departed fad. The National Hockey League has even lower concussion rates, though it remains an occupational risk–and the league opened its season to its biggest TV ratings in more than a decade earlier in 2013.
I don’t think any of this is to say that individuals aren’t deciding that they’re done with football, or that the people who stay are somehow heartless. But I don’t think that people are quitting football in large enough numbers to really affect the game. And I suspect that those who stay have decided that particularly those players who are taking the field in an era where they can’t help but be aware that concussions are a risk of their job, and have some sense of the magnitude of the risk, are making full-informed choices, and ones that come with fairly high levels of compensation. We can argue about whether any level of compensation is appropriate for risking injury that may lead you to suicide or that may dramatically impair your quality of life. But that debate is separate from the consensus a lot of viewers appear to have reached between their consciences and their attachment to football, which is an outrageously entertaining sport.
I don’t know if League of Denial will change that. I don’t know if seeing a player die on the field during a nationally televised game would change that. I don’t know what number of suicides, by players with what level of national reputations might change that, and that’s not a kind of math I particularly want to engage in. I just don’t know if there is anything that would get a critical mass of the football audience to conclude that football, as played today, causes so much harm that it cannot be permitted to continue.
And if we reached that point, I have no idea what the League would do to keep its business going. I’ve started joking that Cleatus the Fox Sports Robot, the animated mascot of the network’s sports broadcasts is actually a way of preparing us for a day when football will be played by robots rather by humans. That way, we couldn’t just preserve hard hits–we could actually increase the level of the violence in the game. No need to ban head-to-head contact when you can just replace the damages parts and hammer out the dents during the break, or when you can rip off opposing players’ heads entirely. I don’t actually think this will happen–people enjoy getting invested in the achievements and personalities of actual humans far too much. But it’s a reminder that even if League of Denial could change audiences’ minds about concussions and about football, we’d still be an incredibly long way from a concussion-free game.