The Transom, Ben Domenech, February 5, 2018

Congratulations to Eagles fans and the city of Philadelphia, or what remains of it in the aftermath of a classic Philly approach to celebrating: wrecking absolutely everything in sight.  Last night’s Super Bowl was a great, well-played game with few mistakes by either team – if you believe that you have to be perfect to beat the Patriots, the Eagles came as close to it as possible. After a season that saw ratings dramatically decrease during the regular and postseason, football defenders will be able to point to a game like that and defend the product that has become so controversial and, surprisingly, the most politically fraught of all sports. The problem, of course, is that this does nothing to change the fact that football is doomed.

The truth is that it’s not politics or internal dissension that is going to kill the NFL as the biggest sport in America – despite reports to the contrary (if you’d like to read more on that, read Mark Leibovich’s long magazine piece).  It’s the fundamental fact that younger talented athletes are going to be moving away from playing football to playing other less risky sports, and because of that, the product is going to continue to suffer. Why try to risk it all to play quarterback when you could make a career as a shortstop, or tight end when you can be a power forward?

Read this piece by Emily Kelly, wife of a former NFL safety, if you don’t believe me.   “Besides damage resulting from football-related concussions, my husband has never had a diagnosed brain injury. He’s never been in a car accident or fallen off a roof. He never took steroids. After struggling in retirement with alcohol abuse for about six years, off and on, he hasn’t had a drink in eight years. And he’s only 43…

“He was losing touch with reality and was getting more and more paranoid. The first time he accused me of stealing loose change from his nightstand I was speechless. And when I told him how illogical it would be for me to do such a thing, he looked at me with even more suspicion. But his paranoia didn’t end there. It would leave me with a heaviness in my chest that made me sob without warning.

“He went from being a devoted and loving father and husband to someone who felt like a ghost in our home. For a couple of months one winter he was so depressed and detached, he couldn’t muster up the energy to speak. My questions went unanswered until I simply stopped asking them. The silence was unnerving…

“After years of little to no sleep, he alternated between sleeping either three hours a night or 20. I’d wake up to find every blind and curtain in the house closed and Rob sitting on the sofa with a blank expression on his face. He no longer felt comfortable driving, refused to leave the house and cut off contact with everyone…

“It wasn’t until I joined a private Facebook group of more than 2,400 women, all connected in some way to current or former N.F.L. players, that I realized I wasn’t alone. Our stories are eerily similar, our loved ones’ symptoms almost identical: the bizarre behavior I had tried to ignore, the obsessive laundering of old clothes — our washing machine ran from morning till night.

“It was comforting and terrifying all at the same time. Why did so many of us see the same strange behaviors? “Our neurologist said they do it to calm their brains,” one friend told me.”

This crisis presents the league with a huge challenge: they may need to figure out an incredibly challenging host of medical problems in order to continue to function and profit at the scale they’ve previously enjoyed.  “Alicia Duerson, widow of Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, shared some of the details surrounding Dave’s battle with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Duerson committed suicide in 2011, just as CTE began attracting national attention, and asked that his brain be donated to science, so others might be spared from the syndrome that plagued the last decade of his life. Alicia powerfully depicted a man with incredible skills and talents away from football—a Harvard MBA graduate, and successful business owner, dead at only 50 years young, with so much potential left unfulfilled.

“Despite—and in some ways because of—these heartrending stories, signs of hope abound. Steinberg noted that “there’s now a profit motive in finding solutions,” whether better helmets to protect against hits, better tools to detect concussions, or better drugs and devices to treat the symptoms of brain injuries. Former NFL quarterback Gus Frerotte also appeared at the summit, discussing efforts to create apps that monitor brain health, offering proactive intervention in close-to-real time, rather than only after major concussive events.”

Rob Tracinski has more.  “I don’t say this as someone who bears any particular animus toward American football. (I only bear ill will toward soccer.) Of course I wanted to be a pro football player when I was a kid. What boy didn’t? Now I’m glad I never pursued it, and you can bet I’m not going to allow my own boys to play full-impact football.

“That’s what is already strangling the sport. Educated middle-class moms are doing their jobs and protecting their kids’ health, so signups for youth football are already dropping, reducing the talent pool for the sport. The results is that football is going to increasingly become a sport for poor kids and minorities—those whose parents haven’t yet gotten the message about the risk of brain trauma, or those who feel they have so few opportunities that they might as well take the risk.

“Yet that makes the sport even more uncomfortable for fans. What happens if football becomes a game where white middle-class people pay millions to watch poor and minority kids bang up each other’s brains? I don’t think that’s going to be tenable.”

Tracinski suggests that the NFL is adopting the Philip Morris strategy – and that’s true, in terms of exporting the product and trying to work around the edges. But there’s one more thing that they’ll turn to soon along these lines: the NFL is going to have to embrace the gambling side of what they do explicitly, because that is one fandom that won’t go away.

Americans were expected to wager almost five billion dollars on Super Bowl LII.   They may soon have the opportunity to do so legally, everywhere. Many states are planning for what they will do in the wake of a Supreme Court case that could open up the gambling floodgates.  “Lawmakers across the country are moving quickly to legalize sports betting, wagering that the U.S. Supreme Court will allow it by session’s end and set off a race among states to cash in on contests ranging from regular-season college hoops to the Super Bowl.

“The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Christie v. NCAA, which could invalidate the 1992 Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, or PASPA, banning states from authorizing or licensing sports betting. New Jersey argues the law violates the 10th Amendment, which says that any powers not granted to the federal government fall to the states. And court-watchers think a majority of justices seemed inclined to agree, based on their statements during oral arguments in December.

“Sports betting bills have been filed in some 20 states, ranging from ones detailing exactly how the sports betting would work, to mere placeholders that would allow for specific language once the case is decided. Some bills, if passed and signed, would become law immediately upon a go-ahead ruling from the high court. Most would use existing wagering structures such as casinos or lottery commissions to oversee some form of betting on professional and college games. Some would allow on-site betting only, as at casinos or racetracks; others would allow betting remotely.”

Who cares whether ratings are down if the NFL can get a piece of that gambling pie? And even if that means the sport shrinks in popularity and viewership, and the athletes aren’t the best of the best, there will always be someone to bet on everything.

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