With all that college beef on parade this week, the NFL draft is a wonder of sports marketing, a televised pageant for the multibillion-dollar American football industry.
But there’s something football fans should know:
Football is dead in America.
Even through all the chatter and cheerleading and media hype, football as an American cultural institution lies in final spasm. It’s as dead as the Marlboro Man.
And if the professional game survives at all, it will be relegated to the pile of trash sports, like mixed martial arts or whatever is done in third-rate arenas with monster trucks and mud. It won’t be as American as apple pie. Instead, football will become the province of people with face tattoos.
Lawyers are circling football now. For years they’ve had their wings locked, cruising overhead, but lately they’ve swooped in low, landing and hopping over to take chunks out of the great billion-dollar beast.
But it’s not the lawyers who are the death of football. Blaming lawyers misses the point. Like their counterparts in nature, lawyers are merely the cleanup crew. What finishes football are the parents of future football players.
The NFL desperately needs American parents. Not as fans, but as suppliers of young flesh. The NFL needs parents to send their little boys into the football feeder system. And without that supply of meat for the NFL grinder — first youth teams, then high school and college — there can be no professional football.
And yet every day, more American parents decide they’re finished with football. Why? Because parents can no longer avoid the fact that football scrambles the human brain.
In cultural terms, parents who send their 10-year-olds to play football might as well hold up signs saying they’d like to give their children cigarettes and whiskey.
Make no mistake. I loved football. I loved it desperately. Even now, four decades later, I remember endlessly damning myself for being too small to play it at a big-time college. I ached for it, for the violence of it, for the training, the salt pills and no water on hot August fields, the helmet scabs on the forehead, but mostly the collisions. And I still love it, but I can’t shake the guilt of supporting the physical ruin of great athletes. My wife and I wouldn’t let our sons play. We just couldn’t.
Future historians may explain all this in terms of cultural change, of more information about concussions, spinal-cord injuries, paralysis and brain damage, and another football killer, taxpayer liability.
Some 4,000 former NFL players have joined lawsuits against the league for allegedly hiding the dangers to the brain. This follows a rash of depression-related suicides, with some players shooting themselves in the chest so that their brains could be studied after their deaths. One of these was the great Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson. He left a suicide note, asking that doctors examine what was in his skull after a lifetime of bashing it. College players have also filed suit.
Eventually, lawsuits will overwhelm the high schools. And high school superintendents won’t be able to increase property taxes to pay for the additional cost of subsidizing the game.
“The idea that five years ago I would have forbidden my kids to play football is hard to imagine,” said Joseph Siprut, a lawyer representing former Eastern Illinois University player Adrian Arrington and other athletes in federal court over the long-term effects of head injuries.
“It never would have occurred to me. Now, given what I know about the concussion issue — first as a lawyer who has litigation, but also as someone who reads the papers — for me as a parent, I don’t think I would ever let my kids set foot on a football field. Ever.”
Football may hang on for a few years, desperately like a cat dying under a back-yard deck, hissing as it goes. There are billions of dollars at stake, feeding owners, players, agents, advertisers, journalists, and most importantly, bookies. The NFL is about gambling.
The game is not just a contact sport — it’s a high-impact collision sport. It is about exploding into your opponent, refusing to break, while breaking others to your will and knocking them senseless.
For young players on the field and old spectators remembering, there is still joy in it. But expressing that joy has become culturally taboo.
Fans have been led to pretend that the violence is merely ancillary. But to say that violence isn’t at the heart of football is a lie. Remove the violence, and you remove what is great about the game, what is awe-inspiring and guilt-inspiring at the same time.
All sports can be dangerous. They involve physical and spiritual risk. But football is different from other team sports. It is designed to slam body against body, and often, head slams against head. There is no way to alter this fact, no way to spin it.
So if you’re wondering about the future of football during the NFL draft, try this experiment: Ask the parents of a little boy about tackle football, about concussions, and look into their eyes when they speak.