Football’s saving grace?

This week GQ published an excerpt from the forthcoming Chuck Klosterman book, “But What If We’re Wrong?” that considers* the future of football.

Maybe more specifically it looks at the future of the popularity of football.  

Late afternoon at Ohio Stadium of an Ohio State Buckeyes football game.
Late afternoon at Ohio Stadium of an Ohio State Buckeyes football game.

He makes some excellent points, including touching on a potential phenomenon I hadn’t considered specifically while already dismissing naive, short-sighed assertions that football is going to die out in the near (or any) future:

It could become the only way for a certain kind of person to safely access the kind of controlled violence he sees as a critical part of life.

He goes on to say the attacks from overthinkers like Malcolm Gladwell could ultimately enhance whatever popularity football still has after the current war on the sport reaches its height, a conclusion that makes quite a bit of sense, especially if you have been following the presidential race this year.

… there is a sense that the game is being taken from fans, and mostly by snooty strangers who never liked the sport in the first place. It will come to be seen as the persecution of a culture. This makes football akin to the Confederate flag, or Christmas decorations in public spaces, or taxpayer-supported art depicting Jesus in a tank of urine—something that becomes intractable precisely because so many people want to see it eliminated. The game’s violence would save it, and it would never go away.

Sometimes (often?) folks like Gladwell don’t know what they don’t know about people they, well, don’t know. That has a tendency to lead to some very problematic conclusions that seem perfectly well-reasoned until they are actually applied to real life.

Beyond that, Klosterman’s conclusion doesn’t account for the people who just go to football games more or less because they are social events, but it raises another question I’ve contemplated a lot as we’ve gone through various rules changes.

If football really were in danger, could it be as much from inside forces as out?

What I mean by that is this: Are football administrators running the risk of writing their own demise by taking away too much physicality in the name of safety?

If the game ceases to be violent, it ceases to be unique.

Again, I want to stress I don’t really see a realistic scenario in which football actually goes away completely. I mean, I’m biased for the game, and I could be making the same mistake intellectuals are accused above of making by over-relying on my own sensibilities and experiences to project what the public might do, but I tend to think I’ve probably got more in common with most football fans than the Malcolm Gladwells of the world.

I seriously doubt football will ever stop being significantly popular, and quite honestly it is so popular now it could lose a lot of popularity and still be more popular than everything else. Maybe the latter is overly optimistic, but that’s not the point here anyway.

The point is there is a fine line between making the game safer and removing its appeal. I think we’re pretty far from the latter, but it’s a volatile situation and as a strong believer in the value of the game, I’d prefer we not take any undue risks.

That said, I see the safety initiatives overall as positives. Certainly continually working harder to diagnose concussions is a necessity. Preventing people from returning to play too soon is not negotiable, and I think that is more readily accepted now than it was just in the time since I last suited up as a high schooler at the turn of the century. Continuing research into the effect of multiple sub-concussive hits is also important, as is looking to develop better equipment and (most especially) better ways to deal with mental illness no matter the cause, be it physical, mental or a combination of the two.

I don’t mind the targeting rules overall if written and enforced smartly, but there are some aspects of it that are ill-conceived if well-intended and also poorly applied too often.

I don’t think it serves the game to over-regulate violence, but I do think there are a few hits we can do without, and many of them are really not sound football plays anyway. A defender is often better off not making some of the hits that have been outlawed. Head shots are more likely to miss than a tackle aimed at the midsection or chest, and they can both send a painful message. We’ve been teaching kids for decades not to hit with their eyes down, but that was rarely enforced and the NFL and especially CFB overreacted with the targeting rules that are way more complicated than they need to be.

Violence is what makes football dangerous. The degree of violence involved is also what separates the game from the others and makes it more rewarding to play and to watch. There is no getting around this in my estimation.

That’s why I think we’ll see helmet-less tackle football before something more like flag football become the dominant form of the game.

I would argue violence is at the heart of the popularity of many things, at least in America. Aside from (and sometimes along with) scoring, the most violent play is almost always the most popular part of every sport we follow closely. Even tennis leaves people gasping at aces that sizzle by an opponent. (Why do you think they bother monitoring the speed of a serve?) Ever see the visceral reaction to a vicious block… in volleyball? Hockey has big checks and, you know, actual fighting. Then of course there is the dunk in basketball and the home run in baseball. These are all violent events that yield huge cheers. They are the most anticipated parts of those games for many people.

There is more to all those sports than the violence, and the same is true in football. They all have various strategies that are interesting to the hard-core fans and usually require some sort of skillful play to actually score. But violence is what gets much of the attention even when a game can be won without it.

Factors both economic and visceral will maintain football in some way or another — as long as it doesn’t lose too much violence.

Gladwell’s position, as summarized by Klosterman, isn’t completely void of realistic events. I do think we’re eventually going to see high schools find it very hard to continue offering the sport as they do now because of concerns about liability and insurance. Heck, even without those issues the sport (or many if not all sports) just might become too expensive for public schools already facing a funding crisis to offer anyway sooner or later.

But to suggest that’s then the end of football at higher levels is pretty amazingly short-sighted, even more so than the incredibly lazy “boxing is dead” narrative people often throw out.

A) Boxing is still a multimillion-dollar sport that can grab the public’s consciousness at very short notice (as Klosterman points out with the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight of last year) and, B) Boxing’s problems are almost entirely related to the industry being unbelievably poorly run. Boxing is so naturally appealing to our sports fan sensibilities that millions of people follow it even though there is a dearth of marketable stars and they almost never fight each other in their primes.

Consider this: Floyd Mayweather Jr. is a millionaire and his fights aren’t entertaining even to boxing fans

Now, if you haven’t been keeping up with boxing lately because you don’t want to pay for a pay-per-view (a fee they somehow keep getting people to hand over even though the sport is dead…), I have good news: You can watch some of its fighters free later this summer during this thing called, “The Olympics.” Coincidentally enough, you’ll also find dozens of other sports that have little or no high school sports presence and still manage to hold yearly international competitions.

Clearly the end of high school football wouldn’t be the end of football as a whole. In the absence of that feeder system, the most likely scenario would see elite prospects make their way at private academies such as we are already seeing sprout up anyway. And if there’s any problem funding enough of those to keep the game going, well I know of a certain $8 billion-per-year league that could probably pitch in. Heck, some major colleges just might find a way to help, too.

The NFL and major college football are too big to fail, and they have millions of people inside and outside the industry who don’t want them to fail. So they won’t.

This is not to say losing high school football wouldn’t come without a cost as far as popularity and culture (I’m sure there would be plenty of fallout that took on different forms, and I would hate like hell to see it happen), but to say it would kill college football and the NFL is laughable.

I definitely encourage you to read all of the Klosterman excerpt.

*The excerpt is about football, presumably not the entire book.