With another football season starting up in America, so too do we start all over again with the question, is football dying?
Though there obviously aren’t numbers yet for this upcoming fall, U.S. youth participation has trended downward, anywhere from 1 to 3 percent per year over the last five to 10 years, depending on the organization and age level. While the greater awareness of concussions and their long-term impacts got this trend going, these declines are also driven by dying rural schools dropping the sport, early sports specialization, white families putting their kids in lacrosse, and kids at the end of the bench figuring they have better things to do then bash their bodies in practice for no reason. (By all accounts, the only region where youth football continues to grow, or at least not decline, is the Southeast.)
Insurance companies are balking at covering football leagues, or at least charging them a lot more. (Rising insurance costs was one cited reason for Arizona junior colleges dropping football after the 2018 season.) Even as USA Football and other organizations institute more programs and rules focused on player safety, multiple states have tried (and so far failed) to ban tackle football participation by kids younger than 12.
Major college football attendance in 2018 was at its lowest in 22 years, with students, already falling out of the habit of going to their high schools’ games, leading the decline. College football playoff television ratings were down in 2018-19 compared to the previous season, though regular-season NFL TV ratings were up 5 percent over the same period.
Even with a decade of decline, it still seems a little hyperbolic to declare the sport as dying. Even with drops and participation, attendance and ratings, football at all levels remains one of America’s most popular sports among youth to play, and among people to watch. And that’s why within football, the reactions to the sport’s current state run from let’s-take-care-of-this-problem-now-before-it-gets-worse to weirdly defensive.
A recent article by Dennis Dodd at CBSSports.com encapsulates both of those reactions nicely. His piece focuses on the attendance issues facing college football, but it gets into what’s happening at the youth level as well. In the let’s-take-care-of-this-problem-now-before-it-gets-worse category, Dodd cites statements from Steve Shaw, supervisor of officials for the Southeastern Conference, the mighty SEC, which even though it’s located in the current heart of American football, and even though with programs such as Alabama, LSU and Georgia continually wins national championships or is competing for them, has suffered attendance declines along with the rest of top-tier college football. Here is Dodd quoting Shaw:
“If you go back to the 1950s, what were the top sports in America?” Shaw asked a group of officials and media in April.
When the answer came back as horse racing, boxing and baseball, Shaw responded, “Where’s boxing today? If we don’t make changes for the good in our game, we could lose our game.”
Horse racing isn’t exactly where it was in the 1950s, either, but in football there isn’t an issue of players getting shot if they break a leg, so boxing — whose greatest champion, Muhammad Ali, was also a living example of brain damage caused by the sport — is the most apt comparable. The struggle for football is to still provide some level of violence its audience craves while not at a level that makes more and more people cringe as they learn more about the long-term effects of the sport. That’s a tricky line to walk.
It’s also a tricky line to defend the sport as is, because you have to do it in a way in which you don’t put football in the same category as other inherently dangerous activities or health risks. Which brings me to the weirdly defensive category of Dodd’s article, as embodied by Jon Butler, the executive director of the Pop Warner youth football organization. Pop Warner is among the many football organizations that are the subject of lawsuit related to their liability in causing CTE — basically, concussion-related brain damage — in its participants. Despite that, with Pop Warner reporting stable tackle football participation after near double-digit percentage drops in the early 2010s, Butler is feeling better about the state of the sport. Weirdly better. From Dodd’s article:
“I can tell you I think we’re all feeling a whole lot better now than we were three to four years ago,” said Jon Butler, Pop Warner’s executive director. “There’s not that feeling of imminent doom. People that we’re working with are doing a great job. Nobody is talking about getting out of the business or jumping [insurance] rates.”
Butler is frustrated with what he says is media hyperbole reporting on player safety. He wouldn’t name the insurance executive but emphasized the industry’s current stance: “First, we have a duty to football. This means too much to people and has for so long we can’t turn our back on it. We figured out tobacco. We figured out asbestos. We’ll figure this out.”
Um, does anyone want to tell Butler how tobacco and asbestos “figured it out”? Basically, by getting class-action sued into near-oblivion by states and private citizens over their inherent health risks, to the point where their use is either socially unacceptable or outright banned? If boxing, tobacco and asbestos are the comparables for football, then maybe the sport isn’t dying fast enough.