With stadiums filled to capacity every weekend, it is hard to imagine football will end up like boxing, shown only on pay-tv to diehard fans who delight in violence, watching combatants uncaring about their own futures.
High schools are finding it increasingly more difficult to field teams because of parents not letting kids participate for fear of injuries, primarily concussions. Statistics show that participation in football is dropping every year in middle school, high school and Pop Warner leagues.
Years ago, boxing was a sport for the masses, drawing crowds of 70,000 or more at major league ballparks. Friday night fights televised from a packed Madison Square Garden furnished fisticuffs for years. Local Golden Glove tournaments created neighborhood heroes.
And then Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought and everything changed as they nearly killed each other with the ferocity of their blows. Mike Tyson scared everybody. Ali, especially, aging and addled, turned many off to boxing.
As the masses abandoned boxing’s brutality, many could still not get enough of the violence. The answer was pay television at exorbitant prices brought into homes or bars.
Fight fans laid out a half-a-billion bucks to watch Mayweather and McGregor fight recently for the heavyweight title. Those who wanted violence got what they paid for, a technical knockout, McGregor still standing, but unable to defend himself. Mayweather got $100 million and McGregor received a third of that.
The decline in participation for young boys playing football because of the fear of injuries closely parallels the loss of interest in boxing because of violence.
But is it reasonable to think given the huge popularity of football that it will become as limited as boxing has in appealing to just those gridiron fans who prefer violence to skill?
The 1,696 men who play in the NFL do so for the millions of dollars it will bring them despite the fact that debilitating depression, in some cases leading to suicide, awaits many of them, especially interior linemen, from the thousands of hits their heads will endure during their careers. That is their choice.
Some men have already left secure positions on teams stating their concerns about health issues down the road. Indeed, an announcer and former NFL player, Ed Cunningham of ESPN, has resigned stating he can no longer be associated with the game because of its inherent dangers.
But for many, the financial reward, as it is in boxing, is too great a temptation. And the fans still demand the game.
This resembles, does it not, the history of boxing? It was the horrific violence of Ali, Foreman, and others that turned many fans away from boxing.
Is there a singular act that may do the same to football, driving viewers towards pay television for the ever narrowing group of fans who will always prefer violence over skill?
In the Washington Post, noted columnist George Will recently pointed out:
“Football’s kinetic energy – a function of the masses and velocities of the hurtling bodies – has increased dramatically in 50 years.
On Alabama’s undefeated 1966 team, only 21 percent of the players weighed more than 200 pounds. The heaviest weighed 223; the linemen averaged 194.
Of the 114 members of Alabama’s 2016 squad, just 25 weighed less than 200 and 20 weighed more than 300.
In 1980, only three NFL players weighed 300 or more pounds. Last season, 390 weighed 300 pounds or more, and six topped 350.”
Bodies hitting ever bigger bodies.
It is up to all of us who love the game to save the game.
Parents must remain vigilant in allowing their children to play only under coaches who truly know the game and teach it correctly, especially tackling.
The NFL and NCAA and all state high school associations must more carefully adjust contact rules and provide better equipment, especially helmets to combat CTE, the result of concussions.
If we collectively negate the undue violence, we can more thoroughly enjoy what has truly become America’s “National Pastime.” Let us all work toward that goal.