On Sunday I hope to see my favorite professional football team win a second consecutive Super Bowl. So it feels odd that a column on the front page of my local newspaper this week would have me considering when professional football will end up like boxing, another American sport that glamorizes brutality.
Say what? Pro football is the most popular sport in America, with both viewers and gamblers, while professional boxing now barely hangs on. The National Football League’s championship game typically is the most-watched television program of the year, which is why companies this year paid an average of $4.5 million for 30 seconds of advertising. (Though GoDaddy has made more money from ads it supposedly couldn’t run than from ads it could.) We take football far more seriously than we do a lot of other far more important topics.
In short, if football is dying, some might say, give me the disease.
And maybe I’m nuts. After all, I have suffered multiple concussions and take a bit of weird pride in the fact that I was once knocked unconscious in a college football practice (yes, practice) by a guy who is (at least for now) the head coach for the Cincinnati Bengals. But if I were a gambler, I’d bet that next year’s Super Bowl — the 50th — will be the high point for pro football before an inevitable downward slide.
Unless some prominent Republican politician’s kid gets killed on the gridiron, I don’t expect football’s decline to be sudden. There’s too much money involved — perhaps most importantly at the college level. As long as doddering alums will pay big bucks to relive their college days by cheering for nonstudent athletes clad (if only for a year or two before they go pro, get hurt or flunk out) in the alma mater’s colors, major universities will continue to pay football coaches far more than their presidents. And even if colleges start paying their players, the reason many of them play in college is for the chance to turn pro.
Still, the column by Los Angeles Times writer Bill Plaschke helps demonstrates why I believe pro football may be peaking in popularity. At some point we will have to come to terms with the fact that our favorite sport kills and maims too many people, most of them kids. There’s a reason that, as Plaschke points out, even “Iron Mike” Ditka wouldn’t let his own son play football today.
Like football today, boxing was once one of the top three sports in America for viewers and gamblers, Aside from the corruption that came to characterize the sport, those of us old enough to remember Muhammad Ali battling Joe Frazier could no longer in good conscience watch the bloodshed — especially after seeing what the sport did to the wit and vocabulary of a man who could have been the rhetorical model for Richard Sherman. (Even as young sportscasters now emulate others who copied Howard Cosell, perhaps without knowing who Cosell was.)
We’ve now seen the corruption that football madness can engender, even at the high school level. It’s much worse in college, and of course this year has been a bad one for the NFL. People still have a somewhat favorable view of the league, but disgust or disinterest has set in for many. As scandals and awareness of the bloodshed both increase, people will find other entertainment options.
I don’t know what might replace football in popularity. I’d hope for baseball, but basketball is more likely. Mixed martial arts, soccer, golf and auto racing all have rabid fans, but not enough to convince the rest of us to buy expensive apparel and plan our weekends around events.
Maybe we’ll give politics or community affairs or education more attention. Perhaps we’ll read more. Maybe we’ll go back to actually engaging in activities ourselves, rather than simply watching others do so. But probably not, unless those activities involve some form of video gaming that we can do while drinking beer, eating pizza and burgers, betting big money, and yelling at the screen.
In the meantime, of course, most of us will keep watching football, rooting for laundry, hoping “our guys” crush the competition without anyone getting killed in the process. Go Hawks!