In my last year of high school football, we were doing a drill where two tackling dummies were laid on the ground about five yards apart. There was a ball carrier and a tackler. The guy with the ball was to run between the tackling dummies. The tackler was to stop him. It was highly competitive, and as is the case with most competitions involving teenage boys, overwhelmed by testosterone.
I was the tackler. Andy Westcott, who at the time was a fiery redhead like me, was the ball carrier. Andy went low; I went lower, and we charged toward each other like a pair of rams on a mountainside. As we clashed, the clap of our helmets colliding at full speed was thunderous. Both of us fell to the ground in stunned silence. All around the field, practice ceased, players and coaches alike turning to witness the end result of this horrific clash.
I recall looking around as I sat there as if I was viewing the world through a haze. Everywhere, things appeared to be moving in slow motion. Soon, a coach was in front of us. To check and assure we were okay? No, to praise us for our rugged toughness. We were soon back on our feet and on to the next drill.
That was football then, and in many ways, it is still football now. While practice sessions aren’t nearly as vicious, little has been done to alter the on-field violence of game day.
Is football on the endangered sports list? Fear of the long-term effects of head injuries has more parents turning their kids away from the gridiron. As we watch a generation of its stars suffer the tragic impact of their chosen sport, is football in danger of going out of style?
If the people who run the sport don’t wake up and address these issues so obviously staring them in the face, it may very well be.
That fact of life is beginning to show cracks in the foundation of what for decades has been America’s most popular spot. A Chicago Tribune study in 2017 offered a window into how football is failing at the grassroots level. One youth league folded for lack of players. Another dropped from 12 to four teams. High school football participation across the USA has decreased 3.5 percent in the past five years.
The fear of the long-term effects of concussions, most notably chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease that has impacted many former NFL stars and causing some to take their own lives, was the main reason given by parents who opted to keep their kids off the gridiron.
But it isn’t just participation numbers that are declining. On the eve of Super Bowl LII earlier this year, NBC Sports released numbers that showed the passion for football at the highest level is also on the wane. In 2014, 58 percent of people polled said that they followed the NFL closely. Four years later, that number had dipped to 49 percent.
There are other compelling reasons for football’s decline in popularity. Some are undoubtedly (and irrationally) affected by African-American NFLers kneeling during the National Anthem to protest racial inequality in the USA. It’s interesting to note from the NBC study that the largest decline in NFL viewership was among white males, a 22 percent dropoff.
The tedious nature of the sport leads football to lack appeal with the fast-paced social lifestyle of today’s youth. They are choosing sports such as basketball and UFC, which are over quickly and offer up instant gratification.
Let’s be clear here – the NFL remains America’s game. About 100 million watched the Super Bowl, compared to the 19 million who took on the World Series. But the signs of erosion, while slow-moving, are evident, and the game’s power brokers would be wise to heed the warning signs.
And if they choose to ignore the signs, they might want to check with baseball and newspapers to see how well that game plan worked out for those industries.