College football season started last weekend, and this weekend the NFL begins. Actually, it began last night, when the Seattle Seahawks clobbered Green Bay. And I’m excited for the new season. Kind of. Sort of excited. I like football, I enjoy watching it. The athletes are incredible, and there’s something breathtaking about a receiver catching a perfect spiral, somehow looking the ball into his hands while top-tapping along the sideline, barely in bounds. My wife showed me a terrific poem she’d found the other day, about the experience of playing high school football. (I can’t find it, or I’d quote). The author describes the muscle ache of landing on a frozen field in December, trying to see the play develop through his misting breath. Long descriptions of exhaustion and pain. And then the final line: “Dang, it was fun.”
I never played organized football, but I played lots of disorganized football, with my brothers and neighbor kids in someone’s back yard. We’d play tackle, and crash into each other, and the ball would squirt loose, and then we’d all scramble for it. Our backyard was long and narrow, and doubled as our dog’s, uh, water closet. And so at the end of a game, our clothes would be torn and filthy, covered with grass stains and doggy dew. Hands red–football’s a fall sport–an aching knee or ankle or shoulder or all of the above. Dang it was fun.
And then there’s this. The greatest football game I ever saw in my life was a college game, the 1980 Holiday Bowl. My prospective father-in-law and I watched it together, while my fiancee went to a bridal shower. It was a few days before the wedding. My father-in-law was, at least initially, rather a forbidding figure, and I found him intimidating, but not after that game. That game! It was a male bonding experience like none other, watching as Jim McMahon essentially willed BYU to victory over a frankly vastly superior SMU team. I loved McMahon anyway, still the greatest college quarterback I’ve ever seen. There were rumors that he got away with all kinds of honor-code violating stuff, which made me like him all the better; I could rebel vicariously through him, I thought. McMahon played in the NFL, and won a Super Bowl ring as quarterback of the 1985 Chicago Bears. He was an NFL rebel too, and a brilliant player.
Jim McMahon is three years younger than I am. And he’s suffering from early onset dementia. Repeated concussions have left him in constant pain, unable to remember, at times, the names of his children. His Bears’ friend and former teammate, Dave Duerson, committed suicide. An autopsy revealed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition that is found increasingly in former professional football players, and not found in the general population at large. A documentary film, League of Denial, which details the way professional football has covered up concussion-related injuries, was supposed to air on ESPN. Under pressure from the NFL, ESPN decided not to air it. (I saw it on Frontline. Devastating.)
And it’s not just concussions. Former football players have shorter lifespans than other Americans. Knees, backs, shoulders were all traumatized by the realities of professional football. And the NFL has been very slow to respond to the health crisis among former players.
It’s a hard sport to root for. And while the game becomes increasingly popular, it feels increasingly doomed. It would not surprise me if it ceased to exist as a popular American sport. No less a commentator than Bill Simmons has chosen to start this season with a state-of-the-sport op-ed that makes that very point: rooting for the NFL feels icky.
Football is a violent, contact sport. That’s one of the things I used to like about it. As a kid, I liked the speed and physicality of the sport. I wasn’t any good at it; if I had tried to play high school ball, I would certainly have spent most of my time on the bench. But I get the appeal. I watch it, and enjoy watching it. I rationalize that enjoyment: they’re consenting adults, and very well paid–grown-ups making grown-up choices. And at its best, football can be beautiful. So can soccer, and I’m increasingly watching soccer games, and not watching American football. I expect that will continue.
And the prospective demise of professional football is the good news. News out of the college game is even rottener.
It’s perfectly true that a full-ride college scholarship is a valuable commodity. There are any number of college athletes who were able to attend college because they played football, who would not have gone to college otherwise, who have subsequently become very successful men because of their educations. Those people, the genuine ‘student-athletes’ are in the minority. Most college program pamper football players to an almost ridiculous degree–provide tutors who literally pick them up and get them to class and ‘help’ with papers and homework. If players become injured and are unable to contribute athletically, they often lose their scholarships. Amateurism in college sports was always a hypocritical joke, allowing schools to make huge amounts of money off the blood and labor of young athletes, who can’t share in that money. Football makes Title IX a joke–female athletes are rarely treated equally in terms of scholarships or money. And coaches’ salaries are ridiculous: in how many states is the football coach the highest paid state employee?
That’s all going to change. College basketball player, Ed O’Bannon, was infuriated to discover that his image and likeness was being used in a college basketball video game marketed by EA Sports. He became the lead plaintiff in a class action lawsuit against the NCAA, and won. Forbes magazine’s article on the case suggested that the NCAA didn’t just lose, so did the ‘theory of amateurism.’ And so we find ourselves in untested ground, where college athletes really can be paid to play. There’s another case pending, in which college athletes could (and probably will) win the right to unionize.
Nobody knows how all this is going to work. My guess is that the already tenuous link between ‘playing college football’ and ‘attending college’ will be further eroded. My guess is that the Alabamas and USCs and Florida States of the world will begin competing for football players with alumni money, and the NCAA could well cease to exist as a governing entity. That seems to me the most likely outcome.
What will kill football? Three things. The further degradation of the college game, which has been such a strong feeder system for the NFL. Rules about when players can declare for the draft or how much they can be paid and when or whether or not college attendance even becomes necessary will all change, haphazardly and probably conference by conference. Second, I suspect that high schools will no longer support football programs, because they won’t be able to afford the health insurance premiums. And third, the vague unease felt by fans (like me), will increase, to the point that we give up and start watching a safer sport. I’m close to that point.
Football has never been more popular. I think it’s also doomed. And I’m not sure that’s not a good thing.