Before spending a few hundred million taxpayer dollars — for example, on a new stadium for the Falcons — it is worth mulling worst-case scenarios. The worst of the worst cases for the stadium is that, within a few decades, football as we know it is extinct.
Get this straight: I’m not predicting football’s death. The NFL and college football have never been bigger. Projecting the sport’s demise would seem to put one in the company of Harold Camping, the nonagenarian preacher who (twice!) last year forecast Doomsday, not among UGA football’s season-ticket holders.
That said, there are some dark clouds on the sport’s horizon. What better time to pause and consider those clouds than before a deal is signed and the bonds — for which Atlanta’s hotel tax revenues would be committed until 2050 — are sold.
The place to start is with the dominant story this NFL offseason, which concerns player safety. The NFL faces 70 lawsuits covering more than 1,800 ex-players who claim the league knew the dangers of concussions but didn’t fully inform players about them. A few cases were filed here in Georgia.
These legal filings provide context for the NFL’s biggest headache: the bounty program run by the New Orleans Saints. Coaches and players alike chipped in thousands of dollars to reward hits that knocked opposing players out of games, or worse. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell hammered the team in response, suspending coaches and players, and taking away precious draft picks.
Only the willfully blind could believe the severity of the penalties was unrelated to the pending lawsuits. Or that the same motivation didn’t lead the NFL this week to release a study suggesting former players have longer life expectancies than average. The league clearly is taking the suits seriously.
In a way, though, the suits and potential damages are the least of the NFL’s concerns. If each of the 1,800 players was awarded $1 million in damages, that wouldn’t exceed the league’s reported profits for even two seasons.
But as the NFL changes rules to enhance player safety, including reducing the speed and frequency of collisions on kickoffs and penalizing hits against “defenseless” players, fans grumble. NASCAR, which has seen its popularity drop sharply since emphasizing protections for drivers, is an ominous comparison.
Even the players are leery of the changes. “This is football. It’s not powder puff,” Bernard Pollard, a safety for the Baltimore Ravens, recently told CBSSports.com. “When Nike unveiled their new uniforms, I’m surprised they didn’t have flags on the side. … You’re taking away the game of football.”
Players like Pollard know football is popular chiefly because it is so violent. Imagine a game in which every player is protected the way quarterbacks are now. Be honest: Would you watch?
There are other threats. Only a fraction of those who play football are pros. What if colleges or high schools are sued by concussed ex-players? How hard would schools — which, unlike the NFL, have a purpose beyond football — fight? Or might they be more inclined to fold their programs, costing the NFL its de facto minor leagues?
The supply of players could also drop if fewer parents let their children play the game.
A watershed moment may have occurred last week with the suicide of Junior Seau. He was one of the NFL’s best, most popular players from 1990 to 2009 — when many parents of young children, like me, were young fans.
Those of us who grew up watching the big-hitting Seau — fittingly pronounced “Say Ow” — will want to know if brain injuries played a role in his death. Many will think twice, at least, before letting our kids play his sport.
Still think football is invincible? As economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier noted in a recent article at Grantland.com (“What would the end of football look like?”), the nation’s most popular sports in the early 20th century were baseball, boxing and horse racing. The latter two have lost much of their following.
They added, “If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist.” They’re not smaller, mind you; they are gone, 29 years later.
These concerns may not rise to the level of killing a proposed stadium (though there are other arguments against it). But given the pace at which they’re rising, it’s worth asking if football’s future might not be as rosy — that is, not $300 million in public funds rosy — by the time that new ballpark would open.
– By Kyle Wingfield