Growing concerns around head injuries and CTE will likely mean the NFL loses its appeal among aspiring athletes and fans in coming generations.
Like it or not, the NFL is on a path towards losing its massive appeal among American and international fanbases.
It won’t happen overnight. We’re talking about generational changes here — the same ones that removed Major League Baseball from its pastime lore to the proverbial “it’s boring” criticism so many sports fans utter in this age of instant gratification.
Right now, the NFL is king. And it will stay that way. At least for a while.
San Francisco 49ers
But anyone who’s casually followed the game — and its unavoidable consequences — can attest to the growing concerns over long-term head injuries and their lingering effects. From everything made famous in the Will Smith movie, Concussion, to various studies and reports since, the NFL will lose its luster.
At the centerpiece of all this is chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, which doesn’t reveal itself in the human brain until after a person suffering from it has died.
But the real-life problems football players face can be further understood here.
Earlier this week, the Journal of the American Medical Association (h/t New York Times) published updated findings, which revealed 110 of 111 deceased former football players had CTE, likely from repeated blows to the head.
Think about that number. Then think about the repercussions the players deal with.
Predicting the Implications
If you know a parent out there — chances are you do — with a young child, you’ve likely heard at least one of those parents expressing a desire to keep said child away from playing football and heading towards a safer sport like baseball, basketball or soccer. Maybe you’re even one of those parents.
Heck, even the late, great Los Gatos High School football coach, Charlie Wedemeyer, told me to stay away from football because it was too violent. True story.
KNBR 1050’s Rudy Ortiz broke down what will happen over the coming years and decades, saying “parents that are going to decide that their kids don’t need to be risking their health in order to have fun and play a team sport.”
So as the buzz and concern around football and head injuries increases, the level of up-and-coming participants heads in the opposite direction.
A Game of Social Class?
A number of years ago, author Malcolm Gladwell (h/t Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports) noted the game of football would become “ghettoized” at points in the unknown future.
It’s not hard to understand what he meant.
Affluent families aren’t going to put their children into situations where such conditions exist. NFL Mocks’ Erik Lambert went into more detail:
"As children from richer neighborhoods are diverted to different sports by their parents, the only logical step is for poor children to take their place. The risk of long-term physical health won’t be as big a concern to them. Especially given the imminent dangers of living in poor neighborhoods present. The chance to seize NFL riches just to escape that life will be all the argument they need."
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In a sense, the NFL will become a “poor man’s game” at some point in the future.
This will take time. But just as the argument about MLB and its slow demise from the glory years of the 1950s and 1960s, the NFL could see the same trend.
Only for very, very different reasons.
It’s possible fans will still want to tune into games, even after predicted social changes take place among the players themselves. But then we have to ask ourselves whether or not the NFL becomes a game of exploitation.
That’s another question for another time.
True, things may change between now and this path’s ending. Football may become safer or winds up being played in ways far less detrimental to the players’ collective health.
But we’re not at that point right now, which points the trajectory to the NFL eventually losing its appeal.