There have been increasing indications that the game of football is being politicized, turned into a wedge issue by various factions. When President Barack Obama, in an interview to run in New Republic, reaffirmed his status as a fan but expressed his misgiving about allowing a son to play the sport and the violence of the game, the other shoe dropped. On the weekend before the sport’s biggest day, there must now be a question as to the future of the sport.
President Obama isn’t alone in this dilemma, it is one parents have dealt with for years, and the game continued to thrive. But now there are forces aligning not to make the game safer but to marginalize it, drive it from schools through a combination of increased costs and safety concerns and perhaps ban it.
Not the first threat to the game
Football has been here before in the early 1900s but the president at the time- Theodore Roosevelt- rather than contemplating the dilemma, bounded into action. Roosevelt saw the game as a teaching tool and important trainer of a vigorous, dynamic youth and nation. Roosevelt’s activity brought the game back with common rules aimed to make the game safer, most of which endure to this day.
But rather than echoing Roosevelt, who’s most famous public statement on citizenship in a republic about “the man in the arena who strives valiantly,” describes what everyone who has ever buckled a chinstrap has learned from the game, President Obama sent no such clear signal of support for the sport. So with coalitions forming- some no doubt political- that pose a threat to the game or want to harm the game or just inadvertently do harm to the game; football as a sport is now in play as part of a national debate.
Just who or what are these aligning forces?
The first of these is demographic change. This is the first time since in 70 years since the end of World War II, when the majority of the men who are consumers of the game of football, at the NFL, collegiate or high school levels, have never played in a competitive tackle game at any level. Changes in population, where new Americans come from and the availability of the game have changed it from a sport many have played to one merely watched by many.
Among President Obama’s Oval Office predecessors, Eisenhower, Ford, Reagan all played the game in college. There is even a photo of a frail, thin John F. Kennedy, whose youth was beset by physical ailments, in a JV uniform at Harvard. But our public life has fewer examples of that kind of commitment to the game as a source of vigor and learning and negative examples abound. This, so far, has not diminished fan avidity or the popularity of the NFL. But separating the former player, who has direct experience of the many great qualities of the game, from the fan who sees it merely as a mode of association is a threat.
The news of the medical issues and suicides of some former players, manifesting in the current litigation also figures to be, as former baseball commissioner and Williams College tackle, Fay Vincent called an “existential threat.” But a longer look at these lawsuits reveal a frustrated and angry group of former players, who after years of asking their union for better timed benefits, see litigation as their only option. But many of these former players, and now plaintiffs, have watched their own children play the game. They are not seeking to destroy the game. But their claims are stuck in a distinct blind spot in the collective bargaining process that favors short term dollars over transitional and lifetime benefits.
Junior Seau's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit last week.
The path for the plaintiffs to win this lawsuit requires claiming that the game contains intrinsic dangers that have been suppressed and secreted. At least that’s how their lawyers who are running the same playbook they perfected in asbestos and tobacco litigation see it. Except football, while it comes with some possible risk of injury, is a game that provides a range of public and private goods, unlike cancer causing substances. What is certain is that news being generated by lawsuits is galvanizing a variety of potential opponents into a coalition that now threatens the sport.
Finally, two issues near the game itself on the professional and college levels threaten to inflict harm on it and prevent its leaders from bold action to advert these harms.
The collective bargaining relationship between the NFL and the NFLPA is the most contentious it has been since the early 1970s and for the Commissioner or any of the management side stake holders to lead, they need the cooperation of the players union. The current “they say day-we say night” debate between union and league over virtually every issue could be a major factor in allowing harm to be done to the game as entrenched sides may not be able to find common ground to save their sport.
The continued groundswell for greater equality and benefits in the college ranks by athletes, lawyers and editorialists is also a threat to the future of the game too. The squabble over rights and benefits, however valid, tends to distract from the larger impending threat and impair the kind of leadership necessary to meet such a crisis.
What can be done?
There is no doubt NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell correctly recognizes the impending threats. He has brought benefits to the players and invested in medical research. But he must do what he can to build a more cooperative relationship with DeMaurice Smith and the players union as he cannot act alone as evidenced by the bounty appeals. He needs both retired and current players aligned with him. To get this requires more transitional and educational benefits to former players and perhaps even the involvement of the NCAA, to consider extended educational benefits for former athletes to even the exchange between school and player and keep it about education. Finally, all the champions of the game and its significance need to come together to remind the public of the power of this most American of games.
Only a select few will play in the Super Bowl, but there are legions among us, who owe our college educations, our careers or success in difficult times to the lessons learned on the playing field. The game can be sustained, so that the next president who ponders his son playing will wonder not about if that son should play but at how high a level can he reasonably aspire to playing and what lessons of teamwork, discipline or courage he will gain.
But the game is on. Hopefully football will prevail.
Follow me on Twitter: @RobertBolandESQ
Robert Boland is the Academic Chair and Professor of Sports Management and Business at New York University's Preston Robert Tisch Center and a long-time contributor to the National Football Post. He is a noted sports lawyer and a co-director of NYU's Sports and Society Program. He is an expert in collective bargaining, labor relations, sports economics and franchise performance. A former college player and coach, he was for more than decade a certified player agent in the NFL.