Welcome to the Machine (Episode 4: The Twilight of an American Game)

This dispatch is dedicated to John Underwood, who called it way back in 1979 before anyone else saw it coming.

A few years ago, it was reported that veteran and highly-respected broadcaster Bob Costas would soon be leaving NBC after almost four decades with the network. Costas had filled almost every imaginable role: He had been the lead anchor for both the summer and winter Olympics, had been the lead announcer for several World Series, and had been the chief broadcaster for numerous Super Bowls.

But that year, Costas criticized football regarding its failures to adequately address the concussion and CTE crisis, by bluntly saying, “The reality is that this game destroys people’s brains.” These sentiments were stating the obvious, but Costas committed the cardinal sin of actually voicing them out loud. His was a lonely voice in a sea of enabling ones. “Sometimes you get to a point where it is not a fit anymore,” Costas said. Indeed.

But to witness the last gleaming of the National Football League, and the sport of football in general, you don’t need to hear about sports journalists wringing their hands over the moral dilemma of covering America’s gladiator spectacle of brain trauma. And you don’t need to see prima donna, multi-millionaire football players pretentiously disrespecting the national anthem.

You don’t need to see the ridiculous and patronizing commercials that air nearly every night once the season starts that contain as many women as men, wearing the jersey of their favorite professional or college team, munching down on Tostitos and salsa, while washing it all down with Miller or Bud Light, as if to tell all the mothers of young boys out in TV land that it’s completely normal — indeed almost necessary — for them to be fans of the game. I mean, look how much fun the women in those commercials are having! “Football ain’t just for men.” No, you don’t need to see all those commercials that are desperately trying to keep from losing more and more kids from playing the game because more and more mothers are saying no to football.

No. You don’t have to do any of that to see that football is dying. The simplest thing to do is to go out to any youth football field in your neighborhood and take a look around. If you find anyone, speak to some of the coaches and parents. In many places, the number of kids signing up to play youth football has plummeted.

For example, just five years ago one youth league in the Chicago area had enough kids sign up to play that the league had to field five teams at the 11 year-old level. But in the ensuing five years, the numbers dropped off so badly that only one team remains, and it has to play its games against teams in other areas.

What does this precipitous decline tell us about the state of football in America? If we extrapolate from a typical little league football program in a large metropolitan area like Chicago that drops from five teams to one in such a short span to the rest of the nation as a whole, and that resultant decrease doesn’t speak volumes about what is happening, nothing will. “Parents are worried about the brain,” one coach was quoted as saying.

Yes. That pesky brain. It is all about the brain. Not just the brains that are injured playing football, but it’s also about how the human mind operates, as the American middle-class slowly abandons football, a cultural movement that will cut the NFL — and eventually, college football — away from American virtue.

Because after all, what is virtuous about brain damage? Indeed, what is virtuous about any activity that medical science has told us will eventually harm or kill you?

Two years ago, I wrote a story that was published in Sports Illustrated’s The Cauldron, analogizing the NFL’s handling of the head trauma crisis facing it with the way Big Tobacco handled the emerging medical evidence about smoking. Both billion-dollar industries tried for years to conceal, then shout down, the truth.

Although I made several connections in that piece about the eery similarities between how Big Tobacco and the NFL responded to their respective crises — including actually hiring the same law firms — I didn’t address the similarities between smoking and playing football. What do I mean? One could observe that putting kids in football would be akin to giving them cigarettes, and leave parents to face the withering judgment of friends and neighbors. In some places anyway.

The response to my article was pretty significant from people who know me only as a writer; it was well-received. But the comparative response from my friends from earlier life — when I was a football player myself — was deafening in its silence. Having grown up in Texas, that really didn’t surprise me. Or bother me for that matter.

But stick with the smoking analogy as I move forward, because it is relevant in the final analysis.

Parents read the news, they know about concussions and CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. A recent study conducted by Boston University found that out of 111 brains donated from the families of deceased NFL players, 110 suffered from CTE, a condition causing depression, psychosis, dementia, memory loss, and death.

And what does this science tell us?

First off, it’s not just the concussions that are killing football. People suffer concussions in other sports. The common element is that concussions can happen when athletes collide at speed. The problem is, there has been a poor and desperate spin by football proponents to group soccer and other sports into the head trauma discussion to save football. But they can’t. That’s because what makes football different from all other sports is the way the game is designed to be played: Increasingly bigger, stronger, and faster human bodies crash into one another at high rates of speed with bone-jarring impacts. Sure, this can happen in soccer, baseball, basketball, hockey, and other sports. But that’s not the way those sports are designed to be played and it’s not what happens on every single play, as with football. And when you have high speed collisions like this, heads inevitably get in the way.

Parents of young football players are already feeling pressure and social stigma in some places. “It’s not like smoking, yet,” said one dad. “But it’s getting here.”

It’s already here, dad. It’s already here.

The concomitant result of fewer young kids playing football? Fewer teenagers will play football in middle school or high school. This is already happening all over the country, even in places that worship the game. Indeed, even in my home state of Texas — where football is nearly akin to a state religion on Friday nights — the numbers of kids playing high school football is slowly but steadily declining.

Die-hard football fans scoff at the notion that football will ever die. But the fact is, their arguments rest on false assumptions, like the person who looks at the minute hand on a clock and believes because they do not see it moving it is sitting still. But they come back in 30 minutes and notice it has turned a full 180 degrees.

The sure, steady decline of the game is occurring at a pace too slow for people to notice if they aren’t paying attention. They see the NFL and college football still going strong, but they ignore what’s going to happen in a few years when fewer and fewer kids play football. As the Texas Monthly article above notes, eventually, high schools won’t be able to field full teams, and the schools that are able to do so will have fewer good athletes.

The talent pool will start to dry up. The pipeline will slow to a drip. This will result in a smaller number of kids going on to play college football. Eventually, college football teams will begin to suffer the same fate. And so on and so forth.

College football first, then the NFL, will become another version of what has happened to NASCAR (which is also dying its own slow death), but for different reasons: The smaller pools of talent will all go play at the best programs, the number of which will assuredly dwindle. Eventually, the NCAA and NFL will consist of 4–5 dynasties that vie for the top spot every season. This the way it works in NASCAR; only about half a dozen drivers in any starting field have a realistic chance of winning any particular race or the overall championship.

Like NASCAR, the entire situation will become boring. As a result, fan interest, viewing, and attendance will decrease. And this self-perpetuating fall will continue until the game eats itself out of existence. Or at least to a small insignificant shell of its former self.

Think about boxing, for instance. Remember how huge boxing used to be? Muhammad Ali? Joe Frazier. George Foreman? The sport was so big that individual matches had their own names. Remember “The Rumble in the Jungle?” Flash forward to present day and ask yourself: “What’s going on with boxing these days?” You get the picture. One of the nasty, hidden truths about boxing was a thing that was then called dementia pugilistica. Dementia pugilistica is now called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the past decade or so, we all know what CTE is. And today, boxing — for all intents and purposes — is dead.

The gradual and certain death of football will come from the bottom up, as high school football loses its popularity and importance, then college football, then at last, the NFL. The league is certainly doing very little to prevent any of this from happening. The concussion crisis, CTE, and the way the league has completely mishandled the concussion settlement with its former players for example — the men who built the league — is an abomination.

Mix in other constant issues with players committing domestic violence, players using performance enhancing substances, and the misplaced and counterproductive flag-anthem controversy, and you have the perfect ingredients to kill the game.

In the end, the spectacle of football may not yet be on life support, but that’s where it appears to be headed. The more people continue to feed the beast and ignore the dark truths that are emerging, the more they will ironically hasten its decline. As Wes Ferguson of Texas Monthly aptly observes, if football fans long for a revival of their national “religion,” they might want to start praying.

Glen Hines is the author of the Anthology Trilogy of books — Document, Cloudbreak, and Crossroads — and the highly regarded Bring in the Gladiators, Observations From a Former College Football Player Who Was Never Able to Become a Fan, all available at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble. His writing has also been featured in Sports Illustrated, Task & Purpose, and the Human Development Project.

This series, Welcome to the Machine, is being simultaneously run on Amazon Kindle and the Welcome to the Machine Podcast, available on Anchor, Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

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Welcome to the Machine explores how various forces in American society and culture imperceptibly combine to push young men into football. It is mandatory reading for parents with sons and a cautionary tale for thinking people who continue to fuel America’s gladiatorial machine.

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Glen Hines

Glen Hines

Fortunate son. Lucky husband. Doting father. Marine Corps Veteran. On a writer’s journey. Author of the Anthology Trilogy & Bring in the Gladiators @amazon.

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