Football is an incredible game. Sometimes it’s so incredible, it’s unbelievable.—Tom Landry
Late in last night’s Super Bowl game, the NFL ran a ten-second spot where they asked children who might still be alive what they think Super Bowl 100 might be like. The answers were cute if not a little outrageous including things like hoverboards and other stuff I don’t remember. Coming at the end of the game, I doubt too many people noticed the spot at all, but I couldn’t help thinking that unless the NFL makes some serious changes, there won’t be a Super Bowl 100, and there may not be an NFL at all.
Let’s be very clear, growing up in Oklahoma, I was immersed in sports, even though I was too clumsy and uncoordinated to actually play. I love watching a good game, whether it’s baseball, basketball, or football. I love being at a game live, I enjoy being passionate in supporting a team, and I have this strange thing for hot chocolate from a concession stand. I’m not anti-sport by any stretch of the imagination.
However, I noticed something at the beginning of last night’s game that almost made me cry. Being the 50th Super Bowl, someone thought it would be nice to honor the MVPs from each of the preceding games. The names were those from my childhood, the men I’d watched battle on Sunday afternoons, the champions that defined the game in my imagination: Bart Starr, Joe Namath, Roger Staubach, Larry Csonka, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Terry Bradshaw, Jim Plunkett, Joe Montana. I watched as they took their places, crossing a corner of the field and I couldn’t help but notice that every one of those men who had played more then ten years ago had something in common: They were hurting. Sure, some handled it better than others, but you could see it in how they walked, how they held themselves, and how they stood, uneasily, on the risers. This is what football does to you.
There has been a tremendous amount of overdue attention this past year to the physical dangers imposed upon those who play football, especially at a professional level. Most critical among those is a problem with concussions, resulting in Chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. CTE is caused by repeated traumatic brain injury, the kind frequently experienced from concussions received while playing football. While advances have been made in regards to better helmets and other protective measures, concussions are still the game’s most dangerous injury. Even during last night’s game Carolina lost a player in the first half due to concussion.
CTE has only been identified in American football players since 2002. CTE is a degnerative disease that can lead to alzheimers, balance issues, severe changes in mood, blindness and hearing loss. There are multiple on-going lawsuits against the NFL from players, but the league has still been reluctant to fully address the problem and make significant changes to the game. Doctors are beginning to draw lines between CTE and erratic player behavior. Already, several retired players with CTE have committed suicide. There is even some speculation that O. J. Simpson has CTE and that it may have factored in the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.
CTE isn’t the NFL’s only problem, though. Millennials are not embracing the sport in the same way Boomers did, and the Generation Z kids coming up behind them are even less enthused. While stadiums are trying to digitize in an effort to keep millennials in their seats, a handful of old-timers charge that millennials are soft, the reality is much more severe. Millennials are a problem for football because millennials don’t trust the NFL.
What we’re looking at are generations of young people who are more connected to what’s real, more adverse to taking risk, and place greater value in day-to-day life. They are less concerned about making millions (though several of them already have) and more concerned about doing better by the planet, society, their friends, and their families. As a result, when they come across an organization, whether it be the NFL, the GOP, cable companies, or Wall Street Banks, they tend to walk the other way and find alternatives.
How can football survive if upcoming generations refuse to attend the games run by corrupt owners? What does the NFL have to do to survive at all? Of course, opinions vary, but here are some critical elements that simply must change:
- Acknowledge that in-game concussions are a serious threat to every player and not only change equipment but change rules to prevent them from happening. Yes, this will fundamentally change how the game is played, but it is necessary.
- More closely monitor behavior of active athletes. Cincinnatti Bengals quarterback Johnny Manziel is the poster child for this one. Fans are tired of off-field aggressiveness and won’t pay to watch childish brats being paid too much money.
- Provide more thorough and complete medical and mental care for retired players. One of the greatest scars across the face of football is players who are permanently disabled by the time their 40 and in financial trouble trying to pay for care.
- Lower ticket prices. Millennials and those behind them aren’t keen on paying $100 a ticket for nosebleed seats to a game that only marginally holds their interest in the first place. The same applies to basketball and most concert venues. They’re going to find seats increasingly empty if this doesn’t change quickly.
- Teams need to stop leaning on host cities and sponsors and learn how to pay their own way. Football teams, both college and professional, rake in billions of dollars, yet they don’t pay for the facilities in which they play, and in most cases they demand tax expemptions and other favors as well. Millennials and others are tired of footing the bill for the 1%. Let team owners and the NFL pay for their own damn stadiums, practice facilities rather than sucking host cities dry.
Dont’ let the excitement over last night’s game fool you. The writing is very clearly on the wall. Fans are not happy with the state of football and more than just millennials are ready to walk out the door and do something else with their Sunday afternoons. We love the sport and would like to see it continue, but the bullshit needs to stop. Football has to change.
Got that, Roger Goodell?