Watched in nearly 30 million households in the United States each week, the National Football League is arguably the most successful and popular sports enterprise in our country. But there are problems on the field that could drastically affect the way the game is played in the future.
In August, the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a lawsuit brought by thousands of retired players who alleged that the league had hid from them reports about the long-term consequences of concussions suffered during years of participating in the sport. Illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, dementia and Lou Gehrig’s disease are among the conditions that will qualify these football retirees or their families for settlement payments.
While the NFL will not admit any wrongdoing under this agreement and specifically is not accepting liability or admitting that the players’ injuries were caused by football, experts wonder what effects this legal action may have on the future of football — and particularly on the system of youth, high school and college teams that feed the ranks of professional football. To get the view of someone who has reported extensively on this topic, the JT spoke to Evan Weiner, an accomplished writer and commentator in the field of sports business and politics.
Weiner is a frequent guest on MSNBC and was the recipient of the U.S. Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award. His latest book is “America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century.
JT: What is the biggest threat you see to the continuing existence of professional football?
Weiner: When it comes to playing sports, all mothers become Jewish mothers. It comes down to trust. There must be a trust between parents and the people running the football leagues, so that if I let my children play the game in an organized youth league, in junior high school or in high school, they will be as safe as one can be playing sports. Parents understand that there will always be injuries on the playing field; that is the nature of participating in sports of any kind. But with football, we are talking about a child experiencing a series of concussions that possibly could cause long-term brain damage. So the biggest issue directly linked to the continuation of the NFL becomes the availability of a pool of amateur players that could become limited, as we find out more about the risks of playing collision sports such as football.
How will these trust issues affect organized football in the school systems?
The problem that most immediately affects the real future of all contact sports is the rising cost of insurance that may be necessary for schools to obtain. School systems nationwide deal with budget issues on a daily basis. If a family believes their child has been permanently disabled from concussions suffered during years of playing junior high school or high school football, they may sue the school system. Will school boards that either self-insure or pay a huge insurance premium really want to keep the games going? Those policies that deal with catastrophic injuries and their high price tags are going to be a real issue going forward. I can see school systems dropping football because of the vast increases in the costs they incur.
What other threats to organized football in the school systems do you see?
I feel that the possibility of a massive class-action lawsuit could really be — no pun intended — a game changer. The recent NFL settlement involved 4,500 players for $765 million; think for a moment what a suit with say 50,000 youth players could be worth if they sued state and county school systems.
Is the future of the NFL doomed because there will be an insufficient feeder system?
Professional football needs to learn from the history of other sports. For example, the NFL need only look back at how professional boxing went from being a major sport to becoming a minor one today because of safety issues. From the 1930s through the 1950s, boxing was extremely popular. A number of immigrants used boxing as a means to literally fight their way out of the ghetto and out of poverty. My Jewish grandfather was among those individuals. But during that time, the safety issues of boxing were never completely addressed, and now the sport has a very marginal following. Don’t think for a moment that in a generation the NFL can’t go the way of boxing.
So what’s the takeaway?
Those of us who have followed the game since we were kids want to see the NFL continue to flourish. But I believe the fierce and violent tackles that we see will be legislated out of the game. So in the future, I think we will see a less violent, more skilled and more position-oriented style of game. The NFL needs to demonstrate that it is serious about the head injury problem.
Weiner’s latest book, “America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century,” can be found on Smashwords, Kobo, Nook, Sony e-reader and Apple iTunes, along with his three other e-books.