Football's Endgame: What would happen if America's pastime just ... died?
This story appears in the Aug. 29–Sept. 5, 2016 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Scrimmaging is out, scrummaging is in. Rucking and mauling are legal; the forward pass, not so much.
It is Sunday, Sept. 7, 2036. Still aglow from Team USA’s dominant performance in the Nairobi Olympics—yet again, Americans ruled the obstacle-course racing events—sports fans across the republic eagerly anticipate a full slate of American Rugby League matches.
Locks, props and hookers, it turns out, were the primary beneficiaries of the demise of the NFL. Long believed to be invincible, that cash-minting colossus collapsed in the late 2020s under the weight of litigation, insurance woes and the dramatic decline in youths taking up the sport. The cancellation of hundreds of high school programs—the result of exorbitant insurance after a succession of lawsuits—starved colleges of players. No longer nourished by its once reliable feeder system, the league’s days were numbered.
The first autumn post-football was the most traumatic. Hotlines were set up in NFL cities to provide grief counseling. Bereft fans learned about DABDA, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of coping with traumatic loss. They became adept at figuring out where they stood on her grim continuum of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Much anger was directed, predictably, at the owners’ designated flak-catcher, Roger Goodell. While fans and players cited a smorgasbord of reasons for despising the ex-commish—his handling of Bountygate and Deflategate; his increasingly despotic, heavy-handed rule—it was, in the end, his lack of vision and flexibility, chroniclers agreed, that brought down the league. (For his part, Goodell landed on his feet, using part of his vast fortune to purchase a private island off the coast of Maine.) Panicky TV execs scrambled to fill the programming void. The short-lived USFFL (U.S. Flag Football League) gave rise to the more successful CFFL (Coed Flag Football League), the longevity of which had everything to do with the beach-volleyball-sized uniforms worn by the women. That immodest success was eventually dwarfed by the wildly popular American Ninja Warrior, which begat Team Ninja Warrior, Ninja Sorority Challenge and the controversial, short-lived Septuagenarian Ninja. “There apparently is no limit,” one network suit noted, “to Americans’ appetite for seeing some poor schmo getting dropped into water from a giant rolling pin.”
The quietus of football also gave a Haloti Ngata-sized boost to the very sport that midwifed it a century and a half earlier. Responding (too late, alas) to concerns over head injuries, college and NFL teams, most notably the Seahawks, had begun teaching their players rugby-style tackling—target the thigh, hit with the shoulder—which proved far safer than using one's helmeted head as a missile. With Pop Warner no longer an option, tens of thousands of kids turned to rugby. Once a fallback for college football players who saw no future for themselves on the gridiron (but liked the idea of a contact sport with a keg on the sideline), American rugby evolved. With boys and girls learning fundamentals at an early age, rugby, as Ken Burns opined in his 2032 documentary, Death Spiral, satisfied “those overlapping urges baked into the American DNA alongside the doctrine of Manifest Destiny: bloodlust and the seizing of territory.”
Speaking of which, it is King Théoden who asks, as he straps on his armor before the Battle of Helm’s Deep: “How did it come to this?” How did the most popular pastime of its era end up on a slab in the sports morgue? Trying to identify when football’s downward trajectory passed the point of no return, Burns and other historians keep returning to a series of events, circa 2016, none of which seemed particularly seismic at the time.
• MARCH 9, 2016 Pop Warner settles a multimillion-dollar wrongful death lawsuit with the family of Joseph Chernach, a former high school player who committed suicide at 25 and who was found to have Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive degenerative disease that is believed to plague people who've suffered severe or repeated blows to the head. More lawsuits follow.
• MARCH 24, 2016 The New York Times reveals that the NFL's own concussion studies—the foundation of a series of league-generated research papers that played down the danger of head injuries—undercounted those injuries by at least 10%.
• JUNE 12, 2016 AIG stops insuring football players against head injuries in youth leagues and in the NFL. Other insurers follow.
• JULY 27, 2016 After boasting that an independent study showed that its Heads Up Football safety regimen reduced concussions by some 30%, the NFL is again spanked by the Times. Upon further review, the paper points out, the study showed “no demonstrable effect on concussions.”
• JULY 20, 2016 The NFL quietly announces it is parting ways with Dr. Elliot Pellman. The news serves as a reminder that, despite his lack of expertise in brain research or neurology—Pellman is a Guadalajara-educated rheumatologist and a onetime personal physician to ex-NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue—he was allowed to chair the league's oxymoronic Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee from 1994 to 2007, repeatedly using that pulpit to downplay and deny the dangers of concussions.
Kimberly Archie is an intense, busy woman who wears several hats. One of them, it seems fair to say, involves shining a spotlight on those places the NFL has long sought to cast shade upon. Think Erin Brockovich with a neurologist’s grasp of traumatic brain injuries. In her other roles, as a sports risk management expert and legal consultant, she has taken on—and vanquished—the NCAA, U.S. Soccer, PG&E and the NFL. She has visited the White House, for President Obama’s 2014 Concussion Summit, and lobbied lawmakers on Capitol Hill, pushing for rules to reduce collisions in sports for kids under 14.
For Archie, this is personal. Her son, Paul Bright, was an aspiring chef who died in 2014 at age 24. Bright crashed his motorcycle at a high speed, consistent with the erratic, reckless behavior that marked the final two years of his life. Before that, he’d been upbeat and hardworking. Bright played football for almost a decade, from when he was seven through his freshman year of high school. Kimberly had consulted with the plaintiffs in the landmark concussion lawsuit that the NFL settled with more than 5,000 ex-players in 2015. After her son's death she asked that his brain be tested.
“All the signs were there,” she says. “He had all these [football-related] problems with his knees and back, but his brain was going to be pristine?”
It was not. Paul Bright was found to have suffered from CTE.
Even before her son passed, Archie had been an activist and advocate for children’s safety. After her daughter broke an arm in a cheerleading accident, Archie founded the National Cheer Safety Foundation in 2008. Earlier this year she filed the paperwork for a new organization called Child Athlete Advocates that offers medical and legal support for young competitors. She has met with Goodell and then-NFL senior vice president of health and safety Jeff Miller, and she pitched them on her comprehensive safety program for youth football that begins with—wait for it—banning youth contact football. Like Robert Cantu, one of the nation’s preeminent concussion experts, she believes kids should not participate in collision sports. Given the slightest opening, she will bury you in the science backing up that position.
“Flag Until 14 is the future,” says Archie, referring to a national movement to get kids out of shoulder pads and helmets—to end tackle football before ninth grade—“and the sooner these ding-dongs in the NFL pull their heads out of their asses, the better chance they have of saving their sport.”
To speak with this woman is to be reminded that the biggest threat to America’s national pastime is not the rising popularity of soccer, nor the chronic gaffes and serial dissembling of the NFL when the subject of head injuries arises. It is the formidable power of one of the most awesome collective forces in nature: concerned mothers.
How ironic it would be, proposes John Vrooman, a sports economist and professor at Vanderbilt, “if the mighty, macho monopoly power of the NFL cartel was ultimately taken down by the holistic, protective feminine wisdom of soccer moms united.”
What devastation might such a gridiron armageddon wreak upon the nation’s economy? It would mean, most directly, that 53 players—plus 10 on the practice squad—on each of 32 NFL teams would be out of work. Each team also employs around 160 other people—scouts, receptionists, coaches and lawyers; folks who work in security, marketing and community relations. Multiply that by 32 teams, and that’s more than 7,000 jobs lost. Add to that number the legions of people working at the NFL’s 345 Park Avenue headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
Equipment makers would take a serious hit. Riddell would swiftly go under, although a Chapter 11 filing may already be in that company’s near future. The maker of the official helmet of the NFL from 1989 to 2014 is fending off numerous lawsuits, including one filed on behalf of some 1,000 former pros who contend that the company knew about the long-term health risks that helmets wouldn’t protect them from.
There would be a Darwinian shakeout of bars and restaurants located near any NFL stadium. Hotels that once filled up on home football weekends would hemorrhage much of their occupancy and, ergo, their leverage for gouging customers. Members of fantasy football leagues would find themselves with more free time for reading and projects around the house....
Back in the real world, football’s demise would shut down an escape route from the ’hood. This sport has been a lifeline for tens of thousands of young men from underprivileged backgrounds. Nope, they haven’t all graduated, or even gotten a square deal from universities grown accustomed to enriching themselves on—or, to use the verb preferred by Ta-Nehisi Coates, “plundering”—their labor. But their talent got them onto a campus. Tough to see how that’s a bad thing. At some Power Five schools, the death of King Football would drop a depth charge on the bottom lines of athletic departments. It would, as former NFL quarterback and former West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck notes, force school officials “to ask difficult questions like, ‘How important are athletics to our mission? How important is the men’s cross-country team?’”
Saying sayonara to football would impoverish colleges in other ways too, Luck points out. While 15% of U.S. college-age males are black men, they account for almost half of all Division I football players ... but only 12% of full-time male undergraduates. The disappearance of football would drive that percentage, already an underrepresentation, lower still. It would add to the vanillification of college campuses, increasing the number of white kids from the burbs who love hip-hop but don't actually know a black person.
To better understand the multiplier effects of football’s evaporation, SI consulted four sports economists, whose opinions were surprisingly in accord. Talk of economic cataclysm is “probably exaggerated,” says Vanderbilt’s Vrooman, “precisely because the NFL cartel is a self-contained, risk-free economic island, a natural-born automatic moneymaking machine disconnected from the cultural fabric and the economic grid.
“New venues are hermetically sealed to capture all economic gains for the home club and the rest of the monopoly cartel. So, ironically, there would be few, if any, economic spinoffs, multipliers or indirect effects, because the league gets everything while it passes the stadium funding bill to local taxpayers.”
What happens when your city loses its NFL team? “There’s no problem,” says Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College. “The scholarly research on this is very clear: There’s no evidence that bringing a football team to a city boosts the local economy. You’re playing 10 games a year in a stadium that’s generally built with public money and goes unused for 350 days a year. So now you’re getting back 20 or 30 acres of scarce urban real estate currently used to entertain football fans 10 days a year.”
“The size of the U.S. economy is $18 trillion,” notes David Berri, a professor of economics at Southern Utah. “The NFL”—whose 32 franchises are worth roughly $63 billion, total—“is a tiny blip on that screen.
“In a city, you might think it would be different. But the gross domestic product of many of these cities is into the hundreds of billions of dollars, while NFL teams are generating, say, [$350 million]. And a lot of that money doesn’t go to the city, anyway; it leaks out, goes someplace else. So the actual economic impact that an NFL team has on a city is very small.”
The biggest loser, aside from the league itself, would be the TV networks that have the potential to make “a lot of money off the NFL and college football,” says Dan Rascher, an economist and academic director of the sports management program at the University of San Francisco. “Those games are must-see TV; they aggregate viewership,” drawing ratings massive enough to allow the networks to jack up fees to local affiliates and advertisers. In the Netflix age, live events like NFL and college games buck the trend toward delayed viewing. Eager to see an event in real time, viewers are stripped of the ability to fast-forward through commercials. Should football die on the vine, says Rascher, “the networks will definitely suffer.”
But before you pass the hat for poor, impoverished CBS, NBC and Fox, reminds Zimbalist, remember that losing football also means not having to pay the NFL’s borderline-ruinous rights fees. When networks sign up to broadcast a Super Bowl, “they don’t know how attractive the matchup will be or what the state of the advertising market will be. If they’re lucky, they’ll make money—but they could also lose money, just as they could lose money on their season contract. The fact that football’s a very popular sport doesn’t mean that broadcasters make an inordinate amount of money on it.”
In the Victorian era of England, widows were expected to remain in mourning for several years, during which time they were to wear concealing black clothing, and veils over their faces. The period of bereavement for orphaned NFL fans might last as long, or—as we’ve seen with the likes of Baltimore—longer.
“You’re not just going to swap soccer in there and everything’s going to be fine,” says Robert Thompson, who directs the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse. “All those memories of watching games with your dad, all those years of learning the traditions and lore of your team—the players, the stats, the great games.... There are people out there who have done the equivalent of graduate work on their team—just listen to sports talk radio!” Their relationship with their team, he says, “is like a house they’ve been living in and paying off for generations.”
“That’s not to say that if the Supreme Court ruled that football was illegal all of a sudden, other sports wouldn’t fill the void. But it would take a long time to build up that equity.”
While Riddell fights for survival, other equipment companies are moving in. SG Helmets was founded by Bill Simpson (who also concocted the protective headgear widely used in auto racing) and Chip Ganassi. The outer shell of SG’s football helmet is Kevlar fitted over a foam lining that helps absorb “58% more g-forces than Riddell helmets,” according to a Purdue study. Meanwhile, a Seattle startup called Vicis (Latin for “change”) is rolling out its Zero1 helmet, featuring a shell which deforms on impact, like a car bumper, reducing the acceleration and impact forces that cause brain injury. Sadly, the Zero1 does nothing to protect the buyer from sticker shock: It will retail for $1,500.
In an interview last February, Vicis CEO Dave Marver corrected a reporter who stated that the helmet could prevent concussions. “It can’t,” he clarified. “We’re just hopeful it can reduce [the] risk of concussion and make the sport safer.”
Can any design, any material, any technology rid this sport of concussions? In a spasm of candor last May, Bills general manager Doug Whaley described football as “a violent game that I personally don’t think humans are supposed to play.” Whaley was roundly criticized for that remark, which he swiftly walked back ... even though he was probably right.
“I’m not sure there is a technological solution to the concussion problem,” says Berri, the sports economist from Southern Utah. “Large people hitting each other on the head—I don’t know how that doesn’t produce concussions.”
Berri envisions a version of the game in which the “headcracking” has been surgically removed. You’d have all the running and passing, he says, but instead of tackling, “you put sensors on people. You touch ’em, they’re down, or whatever. There are all sorts of technological ways to do this where you don’t have to hit somebody. “There will be old guys who say, I remember the way this game used to be played, when men were men. They’re gonna complain and say, I’m not gonna watch this because it’s different. But sports fans are notorious liars. Whenever there’s a strike or a lockout, fans always say, I’m never gonna watch another game. Well, the data says you’re lying. If the Cowboys are playing a version of the game without the headcracking, it’s still the Cowboys. Cowboys fans will show up.”
To which this author says, I respectfully disagree. Americans will not fill Jerry World just to watch a powderpuff version of the game they were raised on, an unapologetically violent contest featuring such gladiators as Lawrence Taylor and Ray Lewis, Walter Payton and Adrian Peterson, tarted up though it may be with sensors and lasers. Thompson agrees: "It's like saying you're gonna have boxing, but people can’t punch each other.”
Though it proved impossible, in the end, to remove the violence from football, it was possible to remove humans from the game. No, we're not talking about robots, which proved cost-prohibitive and were soon abandoned. In 2030, geeks from EA Sports and STRIVR Labs Inc., leaders in the virtual reality revolution that had swept the NFL and college football scene 10 years earlier, collaborated on an immersive 360º experience that afforded participants a quarterback's eye view of almost any game. Fans could replay classic contests—college and pro—or tailor their own matchups, sending Harry Carson (of the 1986 Giants), for instance, in chase of Carson Palmer (2016 Cardinals). The Virtual Football League, or VFL, raised $20 billion in its initial public offering and in 2032 took over the vacant offices at 345 Park Avenue.
To see where we’re going, it helps to know where we’ve been. When USA Football was caught in July exaggerating the efficacy of its Heads Up Football program, the NFL-sponsored association hit back with a 1,323-word statement from its executive director, Scott Hallenbeck. After acknowledging “our error in using preliminary data after the study was peer reviewed and published,” Hallenbeck went on the offensive. Heads Up Football, he pointed out, “is [about] more than tackling”; it focuses on all football fundamentals, educating members on “concussion recognition and response, heat preparedness and hydration, equipment fitting, sudden cardiac arrest.”
And by the way, he went on, don’t insult HUF by describing it as a mere “course." It is "a multi-pronged approach that works hand-in-hand with other USA Football resources to create a positive learning environment in which millions of young athletes can learn the sport more safely."
So, while HUF is not making the game as safe as the NFL would have had people believe, it is indisputably making football safer. It is part of the solution—that is, if you believe this problem has a solution short of making kids wait until high school to play tackle football.
“We’ve had ‘head-up-and-to-the-side’ instruction dating back to the late 19th century,” says Matt Chaney, an author and football historian who sounds like a slightly pissed-off Tom Bodett. “In the 1890s you had [Yale and Stanford coach] Walter Camp preaching the importance of hitting low and keeping your head up so you could see where you were going and avoid churning knees and thighs.”
Chaney has found 116-year-old clippings, too, of F.C. Armstrong, then the football coach at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute, stressing the importance of tackling “with [your] head thrown to one side.” In his next breath, though, Armstrong concedes that, in the fog of live action, one “may have to overlook the rule about keeping the head to one side.” A few years later, in 1906, Pratt cancelled its football program, unwilling to tolerate all the brutal injuries that were piling up.
While heads-up tackling sounded swell in theory, noted one clear-eyed Altoona Tribune scribe in 1925, it would only work “if runners could be forced to do their sprinting with head up and chest out.” But in the real world, backs like Red Grange “run very low. If the Wheaton ice man is to be tossed at all, the tackler has little time or opportunity to pick a suitable spot of the Phantom around which to twine his arms.”
This has been the pattern, down through the decades: public outrage over deaths and serious injuries has been followed by reforms that include, invariably, vows to remove spearing and butting in favor of heads-up or headless tackling.
“This theory has been recycled and regurgitated for 125 years,” says Chaney, his voice rising with irritation. “The problem then, and the problem now, is that there’s no way you’re going to remove head contact from a forward-colliding sport. We don’t need a bunch of frigging scientists and researchers to tell us that.”
A former Division II player whose blogging work can be found at FourWallsPublishing.com, Chaney is also a highly effective gadfly. He has made it his business, since 2010, to correct and update the statistics on football fatalities compiled by the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research. Between 1960 and 2014, he located more than 1,400 deaths—“cases both confirmed and still suspect for links to the sport,” he says. In a similar time frame, UNC logged just 904 deaths. The Center has not exactly expressed gratitude for his assistance. After receiving one correction from Chaney, the director responded, “I told you to take me off your mailing list.”
Quoting James Michener, Chaney says, “Every society decides what it is willing to pay for its entertainment.”
The more Americans learned about the true price for their once-beloved game, the less they were willing to pay it.