A sport’s decline begins with the athletes. The great boxing writer Bert Sugar quipped a few years ago that “the best two American heavyweights today are Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacher.” But they chose football.
These days there’s much talk about football soon following boxing’s path — a downward slide from mainstream titan to premium channel novelty catering to connoisseurs of the craft, those with an eye for the brutal dance and a stomach for blood. How soon and to what extent this happens is a good late-night bar debate. Over/under 2050 when basketball passes football as America’s Game?
There will be early signs, many of which we’ll only identify in hindsight. But one will be as precise and jarring as a helmet-to-helmet hit on a high throw over the middle: The kids will stop playing.
Today ESPN reported that participation in Pop Warner football dropped by 9.5 percent from 2010 to 2012. That sharp dip followed decades of unimpeded growth, and comes at a time when the NFL is more popular that it has ever been.
The drop is not surprising; the stat simply puts a number on what folks have been seeing on youth football fields across America.
In Brownsville, Brooklyn, for instance, the Mo Better Jaguars — subject of last week’s cover story — fielded only three teams this year, rather than their usual five. Not enough kids. The oldest team, the 10-to-13-year-old Junior Midgets, forfeited two games because fewer than the required 16 players showed up.
The NFL’s players union told the ESPN that up to 70 percent of the league’s athletes played Pop Warner.
While not shocking, the participation drop was sudden. The growing body of evidence showing football’s role in long-term brain damage apparently hit a tipping point, and parents figured their kids would be better off doing something else.
Dr. Julian Bailes, Pop Warner’s chief medical officer, told ESPN those worries were the “the No. 1 cause” for the shrinking participation. “Unless we deal with these truths, we’re not going to get past the dropping popularity of the sport and people dropping out of the sport,” he said.
As the research has suggested, the root causes of the damage are inherent to the sport. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell can prohibit the biggest hits, can punish headhunting safeties and linebackers with five-figure fines, can reduce the violence most apparent on TV broadcasts and create the feel of a safer sport. Perhaps the number of concussions will drop, and, at the very least, players who suffer them won’t be rushed back into action the way they used to.
But the tens of thousands of sub-concussive hits that occur every play, in games and practices at every level — the repetitive collisions that neurologists say can help produce chronic traumatic encephalopathy — those are staying.
Maybe we get more rule-changes involving how lineman can block and defenders can tackle. Maybe we get some revolutionary helmet that diminishes the problem.
For now, though, all we get is 59-year-old Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett on TV explaining that he sometimes forgets what he’s talking about in the middle of a conversation, forgets routes to familiar places, and suffers from depression. Dorsett, of course, played football for far longer than the average Pop Warner or high school kid. But we also don’t know much about what happens to the brains of the average Pop Warner or high school football player. A scary uncertainty for a parent, especially when, a few times every autumn, headlines tell of a high school player dying from a head injury.
The NFL is a powerhouse and this is America, where a multi-billion-dollar war chest can almost bend reality to its will. Football is entrenched and it’s not moving without a paradigm shift.
But the sport’s most valuable commodity — a deep pool of extraordinary athletes willing to sacrifice their bodies for our entertainment — is in jeopardy. The pool is shrinking.
Send story tips to the author, Albert Samaha