REPOST: The end zone

It’s a well-known fact that many people watch and enjoy football. This article from The Economist discusses the future of American Football and how long its popularity among people will last.

Image Source: theeconomist.com
Image Source: economist.com

BY THE time it is over, more than half a billion chickens will have given their lives so that their wings might be dipped in barbecue sauce. Enough avocados will be eaten, mashed into guacamole, to lay a trail from Seattle to Boston and back, four times. Even those who think sport is silly must pause to acknowledge the Super Bowl. The ten most watched television broadcasts in American history have all been Super Bowls, as have the next ten. By a conservative estimate, 112m Americans watched it last year. The number who will see the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots on February 1st is slightly more than the number who say they attend church once a week. Many churches have given up competing and instead throw Super Bowl parties as a way of expanding the flock.

This year’s contest has many subplots that have required the intervention of politicians. Joe Biden, the vice-president, was asked to comment about the underinflated balls used in the semi-final by the Patriots (“Deflategate”). He revealed that he too prefers a softer ball. Serious people questioned whether it was good politics for Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey and aspiring candidate for the White House, to be photographed hugging the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. All this is frivolous, but it cuts through to voters in a way that budget maths does not.

The mingling of football and politics stretches back to the turn of the century, when Theodore Roosevelt, who worried that a fondness for billiards had made the country’s ruling class soft, brokered a deal to make football safer. The three most recent Republican presidents were all cheerleaders, before that activity came to be considered girlie. Hunter S. Thompson once spent most of an hour talking football with Richard Nixon. “Whatever else might be said about Nixon—and there is still serious doubt in my mind that he could pass for human,” wrote Thompson, “he is a goddam stone fanatic on every facet of pro football.”

Though it may not seem like it, the days of politicians using football to relate to ordinary Americans are numbered. This Super Bowl has an extra edge because it is the first since actuaries for the NFL, which runs the professional game, estimated that a third of ex-pros may eventually suffer brain damage. Put another way, 35 men on the pitch in Phoenix can be expected to endure early-onset Alzheimer’s ordementia pugilistica for the entertainment of everyone else. (The NFL agreed to set up a fund to compensate players with brain injuries in 2013.)

Because football is so widely followed, it is also a starting point for bigger arguments about America. When Ray Rice, a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, was filmed punching his girlfriend unconscious in a lift, the incident sparked debate about whether football rewards violence; about domestic abuse; about the rewards for inept executives (Roger Goodell, who bungled the NFL’s response, was paid $35m in 2013); and about the oddities of tort law (Mr Rice won millions for wrongful dismissal after the Ravens fired him). The discovery of a manual issued to cheerleaders for the Buffalo Bills, known as the Jills—filled with rules for everything from etiquette (“Do not be overly opinionated”) to advice on how to care for “intimate areas”—prompted a debate about whether cheerleading is demeaning and whether the pompom-wavers should be paid. Some, amazingly, are not.

Many of the charges thrown at football are bogus. The link between the sport and violence off the pitch is spurious: violent crime has been declining since the early 1990s, since when football has become even more popular. The notion that the sport is racist because the players risking injury are mostly black and the fans mostly white ignores the fact that the game is the only one followed with equal fanaticism by black and white America, or the possibility that adoring a player of a different race might be a more powerful force for good than any number of affirmative-action initiatives. As for the Jills, some of their manual is practical and, in parts—“never use words/ phrases such as: like, I seen it, you’s guys, dude, them guys, pee and ain’t”—interchangeable with The Economist’s rules for its journalists.

Crunch time

The maiming of so many of football’s professional players is different, because it is an objection to the game itself. The NFL players’ union says that the average length of a professional career is just under three and a half years. Watching a big hit on a player now comes with the same twinge of guilt as watching clips of Muhammad Ali being pummelled. Though high-school players are less likely to suffer brain damage, some school teams were forced to end their seasons early last year because so many children had been injured. Almost half of parents say they would not allow their sons to play the game, a feeling shared by Barack Obama. Nor is it easy to see how the rules could be changed to reduce the risk of brain damage in the professional game to an acceptable level.

Yet the sport will not continue to be both as popular as it is now and as dangerous. Those who dismiss football-bashers like Malcolm Gladwell, who compared the sport to dog-fighting in the New Yorker, as elitist east-coast types should remember that football began as a form of organised riot on the campuses of elitist east-coast colleges. Changes in taste can trickle down as well as bubble up. During the second half of the 20th century boxing went from being a sport watched together by fathers and sons to something that dwells among the hookers and slot machines of Nevada. Hollywood’s output of Westerns peaked in the late 1960s, after which the appeal of spending a couple of hours watching tight-lipped gunslingers in pursuit of an ethnic minority waned. Football will go the same way.

Check out more stories about football and baseball by following this Will McHale Google+ page.

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