NFL to Bring Its Human Head Ramming to Los Angeles

Certain media stories appear as naturally as the seasons. Soon, if not already, the obligatory business articles trumpeting the price of a thirty second ad on the Super Bowl will sprout up like flowers after a spring rain. Next, stories like this will report on the record viewership, which last year averaged 114 million viewers per minute and reached as high as 120 million viewers during certain parts.

Undoubtedly, a larger number of people watch part of the game to reach the average. A doctor returning from his shift watches the second half. A night shift supervisor at a factory leaves for work in the middle of the third quarter. A gay man at a Super Bowl charity party watches the Beyonce half-time show. And so on.

But never in my life have I seen the basic back-of-the-napkin math implied by the story reporting viewership numbers. Phrased as an elementary school math word problem: In a country of 320 million people, if a 120 million people watch a sporting event, how many people have something better to do?

The answer suggests that even at the sport’s zenith it does not command a majority of interest. So municipalities essentially trip over each other to woo teams, taxing everyone to support a program only a minority of people watch. San Diego may put together a package worth over a billion to keep the Chargers. A package worth $477 million wasn’t enough to keep the Rams in St. Louis.

The Rams supposedly will receive little in direct support in the deal to move to Inglewood, although the devil is always in the details. Spending taxpayer funds for a minority though would not alone disqualify public support. We build airports, but not everyone flies. We maintain national parks and not everyone visits. We build schools but not everyone learns.

The findings over the last decade about concussions and injuries in the NFL though bring a new dimension to the issue. The public’s subsidy partially enables a for-profit enterprise to inflict injury on its employees. Thus we all bear some responsibility for the player suicides.

In this country though we shrug our shoulders when adults knowingly consent to dangerous activities. Today’s players undoubtedly sign their contracts with knowledge of the risks, but somehow assume they will avoid the worst outcomes. Perhaps a little like a higher stakes version of the rationalization everyone makes when stepping onto a plane or driving their car. The bad things, we suppose, will happen to other people.

In the last four or five years I have substantially reduced my football viewing after becoming aware of the concussion issue. I doubt I will attend a Rams game. However, I would not wish to subject my own recreation to scrutiny and judgment. So, who am I to judge if we subsidize the recreation of a sizable minority of people who like to watch grown men chase each other for the financial gain of billionaires?

That we do this for a minority though is hardly the most lacking part of the public discussion. Ever ying has its yang, every boom, its bust. Our public discourse though never acknowledges that the NFL could have anything other than continued growth and prosperity despite several realities.

Reality: educated and wealthy parents of every stripe will continue directing their sons away from football. A Bloomberg Poll found that sixty-two (62%) of college-educated respondents and of respondents making over $100,000 a year did not want their children to play. Anecdotally we know these numbers are true. Our age has given rise to the term “helicopter” parent. The educated mothers I know slather sunscreen on their little babes even for a short walk in the park. Recent changes of rules will satisfy only those who wish to remain willfully blind to the fact that this remains a violent, physical sport.

Reality: whites in this country are disproportionately more educated and wealthy and a larger slice of the population. Thus the effect of wealthy, educated parents directing their children away from football will in the long road result in fewer white players in the NFL. This site pegs the league currently at only 27.66% white. Because quarterbacks, coaches and owners remain white, the public faces of the league at the present time remain “balanced” — but what happens when the numbers become so overwhelming that the optics cannot lie?

Reality: cord cutting will continue to put tremendous pressure on ESPN and all other networks who buy sports’ rights.

From these three realities, three predictions.

First, if the children of educated, affluent parents are not playing football their number and zeal as viewers will diminish. A loss of affluent viewers diminishes the attractiveness of advertising. If little Jackson, Aiden and Logan have dedicated years to soccer, do they ask Dad to take them to an NFL game and thereafter form allegiance to the team?

Second, corporate and government support of NFL becomes downright icky if we reach a day where the NFL looks like the NBA. Yeah, um, we have a sport in this country. We take black men from largely poor and uneducated families and watch them physically destroy each other for the profit of white owners. Brought to you by Coca Cola?

Third, the sport-industrial complex has also been fueled by television rights. The current bundling of cable channels almost acts like a tax. A household with cable effectively contributes $6 per month to ESPN whether a minute of sports is watched or not. No one entirely knows what that new reality looks like when cable is unbundled. It seems reasonable to assume that networks will more cautiously enter these long term rights contracts than they did in the recent past.

In the aftermath of 9/11 we collectively said that we had failed in this country due to a lack of imagination. We had not imagined that planes could be used as missiles to strike skyscrapers. In our public discussion about stadiums and the NFL, we also suffer from a failure of imagination. We do not imagine that the NFL could collapse or be significantly different than it is today.

A doubtful change in the near term, I suppose. Will Smith’s Concussion appears more likely to be remembered for his failure to receive a best actor nomination than for fomenting any real social change. But paradigms do shift. At one point in time, every city wanted to host the Olympics. The arm rests of seats in planes used to have ash trays. Adam Sandler once had profitable movies. And so on.

What if the pressures I wrote about above really start affecting the NFL? Or, let’s imagine what would occur if an enterprising California Assemblyperson introduced legislation banning participation in football by those under 18? Violent opposition would ensue, but national exposure would follow and the moral standing of the position is sound. Youth cannot purchase lottery tickets, enter contracts or buy cigarettes until the age of 18. We require parental consent for marriage as well unless the person has reached the age of 18.

Not surprisingly concussions also occur in youth football and if we believe that youth can’t knowingly consent to the risks of tobacco, why do we believe they are consenting to potentially long term brain damage? Others have argued for a ban and still others see the end of youth football because of rising insurance expense.

It’s a bit of mystery. Parents today have been prosecuted for allowing their children to play in the park alone and allowing their children to walk to school without adults. But they can drop their boys of the same age off for their regularly scheduled concussion sessions and it’s quite legal.

Should it be?


Los Angeles, California

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