What would the end of football look like?

Kevin Grier and I have a new piece up on Grantland, on that topic.  It is perhaps hard to excerpt, but here is the close of the piece:

Another winner would be track and field. Future Rob Gronkowskis in the decathalon? Future Jerome Simpsons in the high jump? World records would fall at a rapid pace.

This outcome may sound ridiculous, but the collapse of football is more likely than you might think. If recent history has shown anything, it is that observers cannot easily imagine the big changes in advance. Very few people were predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, or the rise of China as an economic power. Once you start thinking through how the status quo might unravel, a sports universe without the NFL at its center no longer seems absurd.

So … Tennis, anyone?


"Outside of sports, American human capital and productivity probably rise. No football Saturdays on college campuses means less binge drinking, more studying, better grades, smarter future adults. Losing thousands of college players and hundreds of pro players might produce a few more doctors or engineers."

This is your hypothesis I have the most trouble with. College kids will not substitute Saturday tailgating with studying. They'll substitute it with other recreational activities, perhaps even binge drinking without a purpose!

Those very things would predict that football is here to stay.

If football dies, another sport will replace it. Probably soccer. Don't let it happen.

Some other sport would surely replace it. If it was anything except soccer I'm sure binge drinking would dip a little. if it is soccer than God help us all... http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/02/02/egypt-soccer-riot-army-police_n_1249233.html

Or Rugby. Then the TV stations would divide it up into quarters and add timeouts for commercial breaks. Except for American TV ruining Rugby, I'd be quite happy to see that happen.

Actually, the Super 12, which was the first professional competition to start up after rugby union dropped amateurism in 1995, actually did try dividing up the games into quarters for the first season, to increase the TV rights values. People hated that, and they dropped it. Rugby has found ways of inserting TV advertising time (longer half-time, breaks after the scoring of tries or even penalty goals) that are still annoying, but less disruptive to the flow of the game.

American football evolved from rugby, which evolved from soccer. Would these be replacements, or regression?

No No No!
Soccer and Rugby evolved at the same time. They were all "football" games as they were played with a ball and on foot. Soccer is "Association Football," Rugby is "Ruby School Football," and so on. There were /many/ other football games (most schools and towns had their own), but most of them eventually coalesced into three or four games.

Rugby did not evolve from Soccer. Rugby and Soccer both evolved from a primordial ooze of generalized football. Each English school played a slightly different game, and each time the schools played each other they would hammer out the rules for that match, 1/2 way between the rules for each of the schools. "Ok, today forward passing is allowed, but we are going to play with their round ball. No tackling just checking." Once those two particular sports had caught on and started getting standardized, they evolved apart. You can see a glimpse of this idea today in the "Compromise Rules" series that is 1/2 way between Galic football and Australian football.

When has binge drinking ever been without a purpose?


True. The central notion is right there, expressed by the noun "binge" in the compound noun expression "binge drinking."

I came here from Grantland (no comment system? really?) to post this here. It is also extremely unlikely that this gets momentum at the national level in Congress for a hundred different reasons. Even at the state level--nearly every state is financially tied to football for all of the reasons mentioned.

The slow death--I am convinced by your article that this is genuinely possible--will come from lawsuits and an unwillingness by insurance companies to cover high school football. Once insurance companies do this, it's over. Talent dries up from geographical regions and states covered by those insurance companies, and those kids either move (an optimal scenario for football but unlikely because parents make decisions about moving and most are unwilling to lose their jobs just so their kids can play sports) or play soccer/basketball instead.

It is a nice time to buy an MLS team. Realistically speaking, states would not have to lose money invested in stadiums because soccer can be played on a football field after it has been converted to a soccer pitch.

One factor being mentioned on sports radio these days is that measures to reduce injuries also dampen the enjoyment of those who like football as it is now.

Your joking me. Have you looked at revenue or ratings?

No, he's right. Complaints are high.

Absolutely, it's the fall in the consumer surplus of the hardcore fan.

... generally true in all sports, of course; the TV coverage is pitched at getting the maximum viewership, which means aiming at the person who isn't sure whether they want to watch or not, rather than at maximising the enjoyment for the person who is such a big fan they'd be watching anyway.

People's preferences are revealed by their actions, not their words.

Panem et circenses -- true in the 1st C. Principate, true in 21st C. America.

There must be football. Almost always and almost everywhere, although the particular sport we choose to call football varies.

The best example of a modern, football-less civilisation is South-Asia. And it is that part of the world which is the chief proponent of short-form cricket. Cricket speaking countries such as Australian, England and others which do have football(s) are much happier with the long form game, even though cricket is a smaller fraction of the overall sporting market.

Interesting, I hadn't thought about the fact that the (to me, inexplicable and appalling) love of people in the subcontinent for Twenty20 could be explained by the fact that they don't have a "football" sport to follow, unlike people in England, Aus, SA and NZ, where there has been more resistance.

Not likely to disappear, but I think changes to the game may be adopted:

Rules changes that pretty much eliminate any helmet leading-hit. (Helmet to helmet hits are already illegal). Tackling below the waist only could be one such rule.
More drastic, but not likely to happen, would be to eliminate helmets altogether. Then few would have the incentive to launch themselves head first to tackle someone. In the present form of the game, guys wearing a helmet and gear start thinking they are made of kryptonite and lauch themselves like missils at opponents with incredible speedsand force. There was an article recently that showed there are much less injuries in Australian footbal or rugby where guys actually don't wear protective gear!

I'd like to believe that the NFL could eliminate a lot of head trauma but... tackling someone to the ground is always going to have a significant risk of head trauma.

Also, if football players continue to be really huge and fast and strong... even with no helmets, you will have a lot of energy transfer in tackles.. yikes!

I think the theory is that you will have less energy transfer if the people colliding weren't armored.

You have to consider the implications for technique. In rugby, you tackle by driving the shoulder into the waist, which is much less likely to result in head trauma, even from impact with the ground. That simplifies it a bit, but I think getting rid of helmets would dramatically reduce head injuries.

Didn't they add helmets in the first place because players were dying without them? This line of thinking reminds me of simplistic libertarian arguments that we would be better off without X regulation without considering why it was enacted in the first place.

Lots of evidence of damage/trauma among offensive and defensive lineman, who just hit each other, including with their heads. There isn't any easy way to change line play.

You could put the rugby offside rule in place (any player in front of the player with the ball obstructing the path of an opponent to the player with the ball is offside).

Of course, that would be abolishing line play, rather than changing it.

There's a crap ton of concussions and concussion-like symptoms in both Rugby and Aussie rules. They are just behind us in freaking out about it. Think of where we were in 2005 on this subject. They still get knocked woozie and get right back in the game.

Rugby has less knee injuries from head to knee "triangle" hits. They have more broken noses and lacerations from cleats. Aussie rules looks really gruesome, but is actually much much less contact then either Rugby or American Football.

That said, a Rugby style "must wrap" rule would help American Football a lot.

Don't forget that hitting a guy that doesn't have the ball is a foul in rugby. That means that in a given phase (equivalent to a down), only one guy gets hit. That reduces the total number of hits dramatically.

Not really. In Rugby the play is continuous, and there is a lot of contact involving multiple players in the ruck maul and scrum. You don't get to spend much of the game on the sideline or in the huddle. However the hits are a bit less intense and you nearly always see them coming and have a chance to protect yourself. Subjectively it all ends up evening out in my experience.

As my 90 year old father insists. Football players don't tackle anymore they hit with their shoulder pads (or helmets when in nasty mood). When he played in the 30's you where teach to wrap your arms around the opposing player and bring him down, also since the shoulder pads where rudimentary blocking involved more pushing than shoulder contact.

The game has evolved to where the equipment meant for protection is being used as a weapon. Bring back the leather padded helmets and restrict the use of shoulder pads and face masks to receivers and running backs and concussions will be reduced significantly..

Interesting piece. I haven't seen a lot of data on this, but it seems to me that football is already going through a major transition.

The way I see it, there are spectator sports that grow out of or in tandem with participatory sports -- e.g. basketball, baseball, soccer, golf, tennis -- and there are spectator sports that base their popularity on the fact that they are an exciting spectacle rather than on a mass participatory base -- I'm thinking of boxing/MMA, track and field and many other Olympic sports.

While I don't have a lot of empirical information, I think football may be moving from the first category to the second: over recent decades, football has decisively beaten basketball, baseball and hockey to be the dominant spectator sport, actual participation in football is, as far as I understand it, either stagnant or decreasing. These stats (http://www.sportsbusinessdaily.com/Daily/Issues/2008/09/Issue-244/The-Back-Of-The-Book/Team-Sports-Participation-In-The-US-Up-For-Organized-Leagues.aspx) suggest that for 16- an 17- year olds, tackle football has fewer players than baseball, softball, basketball, soccer and voleyball (if you combine variants). I don't know how these numbers have changed over time, but it seems to me that football's popularity as a spectator sport has become disconnected from the base of people who have ever actually played it.

So while I tend to think that football isn't going away, the nature of the game (and how viewers relate to it) seems to me to be changing.

I suspect the change will come with the first High School district that asks for a quote for blanket insurance coverage without football. The demands of liability insurers long ago removed trampoline from American schools, so football could probably follow the same example. In much of America, the Friday night football game is a central civic ritual in the Fall, but, as more attention is often paid to anything other than the game, I suspect that a soccer game could be substituted and most people wouldn't notice.

I thought the school districts' liability was limited because participation in football is voluntry - known risk assumption - what ever the legal terminology is.

Not so?

Not so. Above and beyond the fact that football can be obligatory in PE classes, team football play is sponsored by a school and takes place on school grounds with school owned and approved equipment under faculty or school employee supervision, all elements leading to liability, even when expressly waived by parents/players or supposedly covered by individual insurance policies. There are plenty of kids out there with life-long injuries who have sued school districts and won compensation. But asking for an insurance policy with football excluded, which means, essentially, abandoning football, is a major political taboo in school politics across the US.

I've never been to a Texas classroom, but I doubt there's anywhere in America where they are suiting up for full contact football in a PE class. Class would be over before you got everybody strapped down.

I suggest you try this. It would amuse me. I'll keep the getaway van's engine warm for you.

Is there a reasonable alternative sport that is also rough but that doesn't have the head injury risk? If you don't play a contact sport, you miss out on an important developmental experience. But knowing what we know now, you've got to really question whether the risk is worth it.

Hockey is a somewhat safer alternative, but no one would call it safe. Playing rugby growing up, I always suspected better reports about concussion with respect to rugby were more about under-reporting and lower scrutiny then they were about any safety advantage.

Rugby may have less of a concussion problem, although it does have a record (worse than American football) of major spinal injuries in scrums and at ruck and maul -- however, major injuries in rugby are overwhelmingly at amateur recreational level, suggesting that proper training and fitness regimes reduce the risks a great deal.

Another point is differences in the way games are played. You don't get 350 pound behemoths playing rugby, because there are very few men of that size who are both sufficiently mobile and able to handle 80 minutes of continuous play. And as a more mobile, less static game, there are fewer of the direct head-to-head hits.


There's some evidence that reporting of injuries in rugby is suppressed.

I'm pretty sure I had a concussion in rugby as a 15 year-old, and nobody thought anything of it at the time. In football today, I'd have been off the squad for some time.

Regarding mass, the smallest players in rugby might be bigger than the smallest football players, as there's no real wide-receiver analog. And speed may have more to do with concussion than mass, anyway.

I think most NFL wideouts would do fine as fullbacks or wings.

I think the biggest difference is speed at impact. I'm making the (big?) assumption that kinetic energy dissipated is the issue. Is that true? Those 350 pound lineman are moving at what, a meter per second before contact? Two?

The big hits are things like punt returns, where you might have two guys, who might only weigh 175 pounds, closing at 20 meters per second, since they'd both be track star sprinters. Those hits don't really happen in rugby much. 20 m/s is probably an extreme closing speed even for football, but it's an easy to use number.

So the punt return hit is half the mass, but perhaps 400 times the V^2.

Much faster than that. A football player is expected to be able to run a forty yard dash in under five seconds. That translates to over 7.3 meters per second at impact for the direct head on collisions. When you take into account that both players are running at each other at the same speed in these collisions, you increase the kinetic energy by a factor of four.

Nobody is really running that fast... if you are really running as fast as you can (and 14.6 < 20 anyhow) you can't hit anything. But the speeds are terrifying and are not equaled anywhere in sport.

Regarding weight, the smallest guys on the Australian RWC team were about 190. Sounds about right for a slot receiver. Big time NFL wideouts like Megatron or Burress are about 235 and would be fairly terrifying at inside/outside center, if their bodies and lungs could hold up (big if).

per Wiki, Ma'a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams are 234 and 238 pounds respectively, and they both play inside centre (or "2nd five eighth" as we call it in NZ), so someone Plaxico's size would hardly be a shock. And big wings and fullbacks are hardly news, after guys like Wendell Sailor, Francois Steyn (243 lbs) and Jonah Lomu (played at about 270 lbs).

One of the differences between rugby pre- and post-professionalism is that forwards have got only slightly bigger, but a lot more mobile and skilled, whereas backs have got much bigger -- back in the 80s there used to be many backs playing at 1st class and international levels who where 175 lbs or less -- think of Terry Wright, Michael Lynagh, Grant Fox. You never see that any more -- very few players at top level now under about 205 lbs.

I don't think anybody noticed that I summed the KE's incorrectly.

Name Redacted, when you account for both players running at the same speed, you increase the KE dissipated in the impact by a factor of two. That was my mistake, as well. Two players at ten meters per second is not the same as one player at 20 meters per second.

I got a concussion playing rugby. Someone playing the team I was on also broke his neck the year before.

I sympathize with hockey and ruggers as alternatives, but I think that the true substitute good for football is UFC. Football has developed a greater air of bloodsport than it once had: players go for larger hits as opposed to form tackles, Gregg Easterbrook talks incessantly about ballooning size and speed among football players, and helmet-to-helmet rule crackdowns usually provoke resistance among the players. I think any alternative that doesn't carry this kind of narrative with it is doomed to a tepid response.

that's part of what I was tryng to get at above -- I think people relate to football differently now, not as an extension of sports they themselves might play or have played, but as a kind of gladiatorial exercise more similar to boxing or MMA than to baseball (or the football of old).

I was hoping for something kids could do that would get them used to knocking down and being knocked down. Something less dainty than soccer, with winners and losers. I don't think MMA is there (yet) though.

Soccer isn't a dainty sport. When you slide in to tackle someone, you're meant to bring them down - you just make sure you get the ball first. It's called a ball-and-man tackle (completely legit; a man-and-ball tackle is a foul, though)

Football has developed a greater air of bloodsport than it once had

No -- not more than it had at the turn of the 20th century. Football was in trouble ~100 years ago (at the university level -- there were no pro leagues then) because of severe injuries and deaths on the field, and rule changes 'saved' the game:


I had no idea about Teddy Roosevelt's role in creating the modern version of American football. Wow. Imagine a time when Presidents actually did things that were useful.

Yellow Flag

I don't think there would be a sport as huge as football all over the USA. Hockey could become much safer without destroying the game. And it "could" thrive in the south, as street hockey is incredibly common. Hockey doesn't need ice. Although the southwest might be areas where soccer could start to take over, but still unlikely to become the national sport, despite how awesome I think it is.

Americans love team sports these days, and I don't see that going away. Baseball has been on the decline for decades. There is also lacrosse, which nobody has mentioned.

There's only one kind of football in the world. It's where players aren't allowed to touch the ball with their hands, so that they actually have to use their - unbelievable! - feet most of the time. Incredible, isn't it? But I am afraid that in terms of binge drinking there is no real difference... So you guys may as well keep your strange habits ;-)

"in terms of binge drinking there is no real difference"

actually there is -- soccer (in my experience) has a much stronger relationship with binge drinking, not to mention violence (which is basically non-existent in American football or rugby crowds, but rather a major problem with soccer fans).

Are you talking about American soccer fans or global soccer fans? You can't assume that if soccer raised it's profile in the US, American fans would behave like European or South American soccer fans. For one thing, even if soccer rises to the level of the NFL, it still won't have anywhere near the cultural saturation it does in many countries around the world.

all true.

I was wondering who would wear a shirt like this:

You are ignorant of football history. Its called football not because the ball is touched with feet, but because its played with a ball and its played on foot. Rugby School football, American Football, Australian Rules Football, and the game most europeans call football are all descended from these football games.

This exact topic has been on my mind.
As a (former) neuroscientist, I have to say the CTE stuff looks very real, although it is quite early days for this work (... they just need more brains donated, which is happening, and how about more data from some animal studies?). So it is far from sure but... I'd bet on it in a minute being true...

It could be very hard for the NFL to eliminate the head trauma, especially given that football players are only going to get bigger and stronger and faster.

One outside possibility - it is possible to imagine therapies aimed at minimizing CTE from trauma. This is clearly off in the future right now, but with all the work on degenerative brain diseases (Alzheimers, Parkinsons), this may not be as crazy as you think.

You didn't pick hockey as a winner. I think hockey can very much decrease head trauma (already happening, but could increase a lot with rules about checks). Americans who want a sport with bodyblows could become hockey fans in part (is it so hard to see, say, the Bruins getting very big if the NFL becomes smaller game)?

And will soccer start to ban/limit headers? Or have protective headgear? headers -> known to cause concussions sometimes.

From what I've seen, most of the concussions in soccer come from head-to-head or head-to-elbow contact, not from head-to-ball. That said, it is a serious issue, although one that could be fixed fairly easily with rugby-like helmets (which some players already use).

But the science on CTE is just starting. It's a big unknown if it comes from concussions or lots of small hits. There is some preliminary stuff out that suggests soccer headers might be nearly as damaging as anything else. However it would be pretty trivial to take headers out of soccer, taking tackling out of football not so much.

Head-to-ball, with modern (lighter) balls is unlikely to be a sufficient shock - the ball just doesn't have enough inertia to push back very hard. With the old leather balls (before the seventies), I'm sure it was different.

The danger with headers is when two opposing players rise for the ball at once and you get head-to-head contact. Tends to be more of a problem in midfield than in attacking/defending situations - could perhaps be minimised by restricting the parts of the pitch where headers are permitted without fundamentally changing the game.

Elbows do need fixing though. A rule that all players other than the goalkeeper must keep their arms by their sides (ie they can't raise them or stretch them out) would resolve that, and also a lot of other incidents.

Yeah, I can't see basketball making it. It's already had its chance. Hockey is the obvious winner: much faster, rough, and more strategic. It captures a lot of what football has. If only scoring was higher.

Hockey will never be a big national sport because it requires ice. It's just not something that people in the South or Southern California can play/relate to.

Head trauma in the NHL is starting to garner as much attention as it has in the NFL.

Sidney Crosby has been out all season if that's not enough of an advertisement. Several of my beloved Flyers have also been riding pine due to head trauma.

Not to mention the goons who are dying even faster than pro wrestlers.

Hockey is awful on television. I thought HD would help, but it really hasn't.

The soviet union collapsed and therefore so could football is such a terrible argument. The economic fundamentals are completely different, broken socialist system versus an ever increasingly popular sport. Ya football could end but so could anything by that logic. And what's more likely to end before football, every other contact sport and possibly every other sport period. Football simply outshines every other sport when it comes to both complexity and excitement, it appeals to both our base nature and our intellectual ability like no other sports.

Saying that the end of football means the end of drinking on campus just goes to show how much this article is just troll baiting or your complete lack of a clue. It's obvious that TC is not one to be this clueless.

LOL irony much? As the article stated, what were the dominant sports at the turn of the prior century?

Their other 'example' of something real big going way was how many Fortune 500 companies in 1983 don't exist anymore.

I would reckon most of those were gobbled up by bigger companies, or split into smaller ones. They didn't go away.

So unless Tyler expects football to merge with soccer, he needs a better example.

The counterpoint is that, yes, Ford existed in 1940 and in 2012, but are the two entities even recognizable as the same company? I don't think so. Just like someone from 1940 would recognize modern football, but just barely, so too will football in 2070 seem to us.

Bad example with Ford...the made cars in 1940 and today they make...cars.

Maybe GE is a better example of a company transforming over time.

In any case that wasn't their point. They were anticipating us scoffing that such a big game could go away, but noting how many names have changed in the Fortune 500, not that those companies are different.

And if football in 2070 is 'unrecognizable' then it's not football, it's something else with the same name.

I guess it depends on how broadly you define "football." I have a very broad definition that easily encompasses American gridiron and Canadian gridiron (which I think everyone would agree with) but also rugby and even Aussie rules (which not everyone would agree with). Not soccer though.

I wonder whether people realize how much the (American) game has changed over the years, from the 1890s pre-TR era, to the advent of the forward pass and the T formation, to the free substitution era, to racial integration, to the "modern" era with its offense-friendly rules and hyperspecialization. Quite a few of these rule shifts were real sea changes in the game, and the forward pass and the free substitution rules were accused of not being "real" football. There remain enough similarities that I still think of it all as football though, and I think in the future it'll remain football, but different. As long as you have a goalpost, an endzone, a scrimmage line, stoppage between plays, kicking, and tackling, you have football.

They were gone due to competition. The NFL is a monopoly. So again, terrible comparisson.

Call me crazy, but wouldn't you just put an end to BOXING before football? Or what about those gruesome UFC fights?

Unfortunately, I think the human cost isn't anybody's priority here, and the lawsuits would soon correspondent to reflect the risk appetite. Sad but true.

Those "gruesome" UFC fights pretty much never result in long term damage.

There's some thought that hockey enforcers experience brain injuries even from the relatively mild blows in a fight. I'm not convinced by this, because there are other things that are special about people who grow up to be hockey enforcers that might predispose them to their bad outcomes. But it's out there.

I suppose hockey enforcers also fight much more frequently than the typical MMA athlete, and spar a similar amount. So they have more chance to get injured.

How would we know? It hasn't been around that long. If it's a problem in regular boxing, I can't fathom how it could be anything but worse with what is basically no-holds barred fighting.

Most serious boxing injuries come late in fights, hence the elimination of 15-round fights. UFC matches are relatively much quicker and often involve wrestling. The number of blows is much lower.

No-holds barred except for, you know, all the holds that are barred, e.g.


Put that through a NOT gate and you've got the basis for a pretty good self-defense course. As is, the MMA folks are very clearly trying to give the illusion of uncontrolled brutality while making sure nobody actually gets hurt.

There's a lot of technical reasons why mma is safer than boxing, but the biggest and easiest to understand is that you can win an mma fight by doing something other than bludgeoning your oppoenent in the head.

Hard head punches in MMA are risky for the puncher as well as for the punch-ee. MMA's light gloves and hand wraps provide far less hand protection than boxing gloves and boxing hand wraps.

Doesn't change the risk profile for the punch-ee any because nobody in MMA is not punching somebody in the head on account of prospective hand damage. They usually keep punching after breaking their hands. Yet another blow to the Intelligent Design theory.

Actually, boxing is a pretty good example of a sport that used to be as big as anything around, but has shriveled to a raising of its former self for similar reasons.

Why exactly did boxing shrivel, anyway?

I'm assuming here that (modern boxing + MMA) < (olden days boxing), so it wasn't just displaced by a more interesting alternative.

Many factors combined to cause boxing's downfall. There's the proliferation of alphabet-soup sanctioning organizations with multiple "champions" in each weight class ("What is WBA, WBC, WBO and IBF?" would make a good Jeopardy question); too many weight classes (from eight to seventeen in the last few decades); crooked promoters (Don King and Bob Arum, anyone?); the way top fighters often avoid fighting each other in order to protect their records (say, when is the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight going to happen?); and most of all, the big Kahuna, the odious beast known as Pay Per View.

Thanks. I'd love to see Pacquiao trounce Mayweather.

What causes division and weight class proliferation, I wonder? In powerlifting, it makes a little bit of sense, because that's a sport that's primarily about participants, not audiences. Why did it occur in boxing?

What causes division and weight class proliferation, I wonder?

It's all about the money. More weight classes = more champions = more championship fights.

Granted, some boxers have benefited from the new weight classes. Let's say that you're a boxer who stands 5'9" and whose regular weight is around 170 pounds. If you cut weight to 160 and fought as a middleweight your typical opponents would be three or more inches taller than you and would normally walk around at 180+. Cutting to the welterweight limit of 147 might be too debilitating, maybe impossible if you're past age 30. Today, however, the new light middleweight/super welterweight class with its 154-pound limit could be perfect for you.

One bit of irony is that the new weight class that makes the most sense, the 200-pound cruiserweight class, gets almost no respect.

Several of those probably weren't that important. Boxing has had more more eight divisions since the 1920s, and a long history of crooked, promoters, often from organised crime. The multiple championships is also not new, during the inter-war period there were credible championships run by the old NBA (National Boxing Association, now the WBA) and the old IBU (International Boxing Union, now the the EBU (European Boxing Union)) along with the NYSAC (New York State Athletic Commission) and occasionally some of the other national and state commissions also recognised different champions. One of the reasons for boxing's popularity in the 1950s was that it was relatively easy to film, the small size of the ring allowed bright lighting and allowed the heavy rather immobile cameras to cover the ring fully. Other sports were more technically difficult to cover as camera panning and zoom improved other sports could be covered more effectively.

Forty or fifty years ago there were boxing gyms all over the place. My college didn't sponsor but had a "boxing club". Boxing has really stopped being a sport that kids (much less parents) are eager to practice themselves.

It shriveled partly because of that, and partly because of major corruption and lack of unified organization.

"Or what about those gruesome UFC fights?"

They are way less injurious than boxing, actually.

Do you honestly believe that people will stop drinking at colleges on Saturday if football dies? If fantasy football is gone, sports nuts will just find another sport to obsess over. No time would be saved.

Yes, the article runs of the rails when it starts speculating as to all the wonderful effects that will come from the end of football, all of which are completely implausible and suggest a serious misunderstanding of human nature.

The earlier part is very good though.

It's not that hard to believe. I attended a university that was in one of the large, sports-centric conferences, and there was a huge upswing in binge drinking that corresponded with the rise of our football program and college football generally. During my freshman year, hardly any of the students tail-gaited, but by the time I graduated, dame days turned into a huge, awesome drunk-fest.

At Duke the football team sucks so they get drunk as basketball games. The real explanation is that on each campus there's an innate demand for a certain number of wild-ass partying days a year. A football game provides a convenient medium for that to happen. If they were taken away another event would take its place.

Now probably the optimum number of wild ass party days is higher for a Florida State student than for a Stanford student, but that's irrespective of football.

Football isn't going to disappear. They'll be playing football in the 25th century. It is the highest grossing sports league in the world.

We still have people working in dangerous professions, and people will continue working in that dangerous profession.

Football is a game of supreme strategy. It's the only game where giving your opponents points, choosing not to score, or deliberately committing a penalty can be worthwhile. It's a game where inches and pounds matter. It's a game of giants where one 300 pound man pushes another 300 pound man six inches to his right to create a small gap so a 250 pound man can run through it at 25 miles per hour. It's a game of fingertip catches on fifty yard passes with three defenders. It's a game where a team can stage a comeback in the last two minutes. Every moment of play can be spectacular.

Soccer is boring and stupid. I'd rather watch the grass on the field grow. What kind of game has a clock that counts up, and referees arbitrarily determine when the game is over? Why should a sport limit the limbs you can use to play? Is this the Special Olympics? You can sleep through 90% of a soccer game and miss nothing exciting. Soccer is more fun to play than to watch.

Da Bears!

The 'only sport'? Basketball uses all three of those strategies, because it also has a time clock.

And while I agree with football being a very strategic sport, baseball is comparable.

I was high on hyperbole so I concede the first point without argument.

I'm not sure I agree that baseball matches the strategy of football. Sure there are lots of strategic decisions in baseball, but the number of strategies is far smaller. Every down opens up a hundred possible offensive and defensive combinations. Baseball might have three choice for each at bat, and the strategy is pretty stable between pitches with some variation at three balls or two strikes. The pitcher has a large playbook, but the right fielder doesn't know how he's going to contribute to each pitch. In football, every player has one or more specific jobs and ad hoc assignments for every play.

I'm happy to hear your counter. I'm not disparaging baseball.

I think it's pretty subjective to try to decide which is 'more' strategic. They're different.

Agreed about football players all involved in every play. But with every batter there's strategy from the fielders on where to be positioned, knowing what to do based on game state, etc. Plus in baseball personnel moves are irrevocable so there's strategy there of when to take guys out.

I think both have lots of strategy, probably more than the other major sports, although they have plenty too, and their partisans will vehemently disagree with me.

All sports have strategy. Some, like baseball or sumo wrestling, have strategy that isn't readily apparent.

I don't disagree with you on baseball, but taking your example there is some loosening of the definition. A strategy is, "If he does this, I will do this. If he does that, I will do that."

In baseball, there are a limited number of optimal choices for a given situation. For example, infield in with a runner on third and one out in a close game. The relative positions of the players are narrowly constrained, and the actions of the ball off the bat adds a stochastic element. The first baseman likely doesn't know if the next pitch will be a curve or fastball, but he does know this is a potential bunting situation. That is a fairly clear cut scenario as baseball goes. Offensive strategy is limited to the action of the batter, runner, and choice of original lineup or pinch hitter (or runner). In many situations, the actions of three consecutive batters is the limit of offensive tactical thinking. It is more sophisticated than meets the eye, but far more constrained than, say, chess.

I think you caught my drift that football, and to a lesser extent basketball, involves a concert of every player's actions. No player is superfluous on either offense or defense on any play. The score, results of prior plays, weather and light, time, time outs, fatigue, pain, field position, down, yards to go, etc. all factor into the game. It is as close to combat as a sport can get in terms of tactical and strategic decision making.

I'm not saying other sports don't have strategy, tactics, teamwork and athleticism. It's like comparing a pianist to a banjo duet to a chamber quartet to a Latin band to a symphony orchestra. To me, modern American football is the most strategically sophisticated sport ever invented. The forward pass added to an already sophisticated game.

I love baseball, dividing my loyalties between my birthplace Yankees and my home town Cubs. It's a relaxing game to watch, and today's pro baseball players make difficult plays look incredibly easy. Their precision is incredible. Hockey is another sport that boggles the mind with its speed, precision, violence, and teamwork, but there are long periods of posturing and puck chasing. Soccer is hours of slow, boring posturing. Same with auto racing.

A soccer game could be boiled down to less than 15 seconds of highlights. A football game almost has to be experienced en toto. The highlights are either surprises or crescendos.

If injuries become a problem they change the rules or equipment to make it safer. The only thing that's going to kill football is the total disappearance of interest by fans and young players*. That requires a much more compelling alternative and at least a generation.

A much more compelling alternative would have to be based on emerging technologies otherwise I'd guess we'd have it already. High tech small scale wargames? 15' mecha gladiator suits?

* Ok one other thing might be an extended total war/rationing scenario.

Take away the facemasks, change the helmets to leather, shrink the shoulder pads. They create a moral hazard by minimizing the immediate (but not the long-term) negative effects of leading with your head.

What we'll end up with is something like a cross between gridiron and rugby. And how we'll get there won't be top-down like the Grantland article suggests, it'll be bottom-up. California high schools won't ban football, but more and more California parents will ban their children from playing football.

If anything a total war will lead to more and more violent football, as we'll get desensitized to the neurological risks. What's a little CTE in 50 years when you might get hit by a mortar shell tomorrow?

re: Total War.

If all able bodied men are drafted goodbye pros and college. If high school budgets are cut 80% goodbye 90% of high school football teams.

But see, Army football, 1944-1946. Total war was the best thing that ever happened to that team.

This is a good point but was that really total war? I wonder what the German sports world looked like in 1944.

If ever a thread allowed for moving goalposts this is it.

Fair point. I doubt the Dutch, for instance, were putting out a large number of muscle-bound 240 lb 6'4" young men during those years. Football requires, at the least, plenty of food and plenty of protein.

Oh also you'll need to make a rule requiring linemen to line up in a two point stance (ie, no hands in the dirt prior to the play). In a 3 or 4 point stance the lineman is oriented with his head facing forwards, usually directly at the head or shoulder of the opposing lineman. Making everyone use a 2 point stance will all but eliminate the head-on-head that happens on the line. They usually don't have highlight style WHAM hits, but these little contacts, over and over and over again, cause as much if not more brain damage than the big ones.

> They usually don’t have highlight style WHAM hits, but these little contacts, over and over and over again, cause
> as much if not more brain damage than the big ones.

I still find it hard to believe that the relatively gentle contact of the line could cause brain trauma. I'm open to evidence, but I remain skeptical.

Mike Webster would like to have words with you, if he could.

There's evidence. That's how little we know... we don't know if it's big hits or lots of little hits or what that cause problems.


Check out Kyle Turley.

re: Uniform changes
They aren't going back to leather helmets, they have safer soft designs based on composites, it will just take time -- prolly be standard issue NFL in 2-3 years, D1 in 5 years, high schools in 10.

Punishing the hits out of existence seems like the best play. Put monitors in the helmets that go off when the head takes an impact. That may require that player to go to the bench "for evaluation" in addition to the possible on field penalties.

I expect to see these helmet chips sooner rather than later, with a flashing red light whenever a player suffers what they consider a concussion level impact. The technology has got to be there already; the questions are cost and reliability.

And the completely gratuitous shot at Alabama and LSU is kinda funny coming from a professor at OU.


Bear in mind that OU's prominence in football is the result of a deliberate strategy, adopted about 60 years ago, to raise the profile of the university by having a football team that was successful at the national level.

There have been two posts so far from football super-fans ("Ian lippert" and "Willitts") and neither has bothered to say anything about what the article actually says, they both just talk about how fun football is to watch and follow.

Actually, I don't see any comments here that really try refute the article's points, other than "James" saying "but boxing is more gruesome than football!" which, as the replies point out, is not exactly reassuring for football, since boxing used to be huge and today is sort of a weird niche that is not really part of polite society.

How's this: the wages earned by football players and the joy experienced by fans far, far outweigh the potential harm to players. Furthermore, I believe that up to this point, most of those expressing concern for the players are little more than concern trolls.

The question has got to be whether the sport can survive if dramatically fewer people play it growing up. I have kids. Do I direct them away from football? What happens to the sport then?

I suspect this really isn't a problem. NASCAR survives just fine when most fans never do more than mild speeding on public roads.

Did you play football growing up?

NASCAR has been in an attendance and rating slump for several years now. It's looking more like NASCAR is an inherently regional sport that had one short flash in the pan as a national sport.

Formula One? Sumo?

Yep, this is the big problem for football's future. How many parents are going to try to get their kids into boxing, now that the brain damage angle is well-known. What happens when the same is true of football? Say, when 3/4 of the current crop of players just goes away, because their parents won't sign the permission form for high school football. Alongside that, as football loses its luster, there will probably be fewer donors interested in giving lots of money for college stadiums, fewer parents pushing the local high school to have a football program even if they have to sell all the textbooks to pay for the uniforms, etc.

But at what point do real prospects stop participating? I imagine that the marginal athletes with no chance of a scholarship or a career in the sport will be the first to stop playing. It will require a critical mass of these players to stop participating before whole leagues start shutting down so others will not even have a chance to play.
With technology and an ever increasing heterogeneous society it seems almost ridiculous to even speculate about the state of any sport much more than a generation out. To say that a sport will be around, in its present form and level of relevance, 50 years from now is foolish.

Declining participation wasn't what killed boxing. The realization that it was a brutal sport that was doing permanent and debilitating damages to its participants didn't help.

Yes. Tummier has got it. Who cares about the players after they become ex-players? They are there for our enjoyment, only.

I propose that we not have any safety rules. Someone dies on the field? Meh.

The Roman gladiators were sacrificed for the entertainment of the masses. Are we saying we are better than the Romans?

I also touched on the benefit realized by the players from the current regime. I am willing to bet that a very strong majority of the population would willingly, if not enthusiastically, subject themselves to the same risk of cognitive impairment as that experienced by NFL players for millions a year.

I'll fade you.

It's not just some minor cognitive impairment. It's serious stuff and early death.

I tend to agree with Tyler that the game might well disappear over some period of years. A drop in high-school level participation propagates through the system. And that drop is coming, and could be dramatic.

I don't think neurologists are concern trolls.

How about for a college scholarship to South Carolina?

This may well be true where professional football players are concerned. But as Tyler and Kevin point out, any change will come from the bottom up. High school football players in particular earn no wages, and have far fewer fans, yet suffer the same potentially debilitating consequences. And their parents are not engaged in trolling when they express genuine concern.

Can football survive as a professional-only sport? Are there, in fact, any professional-only sports? Specific classes of auto racing would certainly qualify, but there's a whole lot of informal auto racing taking place on America's back roads, so I'm not sure that's a good model.

Good riddance. But what is the next most plausible route?

It is interesting that overall, this discussion by proponents/participants of violent sports is so much more cordial than those on the macro posts on this blog.

The violence inherent in football acts as a catharsis (in the Aristotelian sense) for its spectators, allowing us a vicarious outlet for our aggression to purge the baser emotions from our soul. Meaning that, on the whole, those of us who live and die with our teams are more balanced, less stressed, and generally cheerful, pleasant people.

Except don't mess with us on Saturdays during the fall :)

So, if we have less football, will we have more war?

More dueling, at least.


Will countries that play football against each other ever go to war with each other?

(Actually, there are no internationals in football [gridiron].) But there are great international competitions in rugby.

Well there are international competitions in American football. http://www.eurobowl.info/ The teams would get rolled by a good high school team, but the competition is out there.

Heh! Who says that is the definition of catharsis (over which people have argued for 2000 years)? Why couldn't it be a purgation of a cognitive sort of emotion? I don't find the catharsis argument compelling. Sublimation perhaps. Replacement or stand-in for real conflict perhaps. Ersatz tribalism, definitely...

If litigation threatened football existentially, football would fight back in the political arena. With so much money to lose, franchise owners and everyone else with their wallets on the line would lobby the hell out of congress to immunize the sport from lawsuits completely. It would be an interesting political fight, as litigators everywhere would back the right to sue, and the dispute might prove salutary, as it would likely spill into other areas, potentially limiting lawsuits wherever "the dangers are already well known to the public". Also, I would have a better idea of knowing which candidates I wanted to vote for if I knew where they stood on this issue. I say we start asking candidates now where they stand on this potential legislation.

I think litigation is only one of the risks. It's a real one. But what about a faculty senate at an institution of higher learning? At some point, won't they wonder why they're promoting something that limits its participants' ability to engage in a life of the mind?

But that's a losing battle.

Football would essentially be arguing,

"Yes, playing football causes significant brain damage, but we don't think we should have to pay for it."

Even if they win on the legislation, which I doubt they would, their very arguments will weigh heavily against them in public opinion.

Football can't win because the harder they fight the more the dangers become known.

This seems like one of those "what if the south won the civil war articles"; in other words, not too useful.

Boxing may be relatively less popular but it hasn't gone away or been suffocated with lawsuits; has it even had a decline in the number of participants? Ice hockey was never as big as football, but it hasn't been diminished by brain injuries (see extensive coverage on suicide of hockey goon Derek Boogard in NY Times recently).

Football, especially at the high school and lower levels will take measures to reduce contact, but it will survive in some form for a long, long time. And there is really nothing to take it's place on the popularity scale.

And off-topic: how do you write and publish an article that throws around an obscure abbreviation like CTE without explaining it? Does Grantland use editors? Seriously, how many of you knows what it stands for?

FYI, it's Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Here is the most important question from my standpoint. Does Tyler actually watch football? Or does he prefer to look at things from outsider perspective and provide quirky opinions. There are two different perspectives: the fan and the economist. I think he is good with the latter but has no insight on the former. The sports stuff has been particularly atrocious and been made fun of by both sports blogs and commenters (sports fans) on those blogs at length. While Tyler has great insight on macroeconomic theory, these articles have been disasters.

I'm a serious NFL, NBA and NHL fan. Although the Warriors continue to irritate me every year. I'm totally excited by Linsanity.

I think Tyler's comments are very relevant and well-put - but then again, I agree.

Bill Simmons made some comments about all of us watching lacrosse because NFL would be dead a while ago. I think he was half-joking, but... do you think Bill Simmons is not a fan?

Well, if large changes are unexpected, football could *double* its present size (#teams and/or fanbase). That too is unexpected.

Yeah 100% agree. Just as easy to say the reverse argument. I am gonna go on a real limb and say Goldman Sachs goes under, or some equivalent!

Don't we all just need some avenue by which it is socially acceptable to be a boor?

Yikes! What happened to the old optimistic Tyler? First TGS, now this. Has Tyrone taken over?

Actually, I believe a fair number of people predicted the downfall of the Soviet Union.

But they were mostly graduates of places like Eureka College, which doesn't count. Very few Harvard professors, the only kind of people Tyler respects, made that prediction

I'd like to see the reference to people who in, say, 1985 predicted the downfall of the Soviet Union by 1990 or even 1995. Where are these people?

Please don't quote me people who also predicted UFOs landing at the white house by year 2000, the end of the world last year, etc.

If you make enough crazy predictions, one or two will end up right and you can claim to be a genius!

People's suggestion that some other athletic activity would fill the void makes sense to me, but that doesn't mean it has to be an existing one. Tyler, what might a new, quintessentially 21st C sport look like. Some sort of variation on ultimate frisbee?

Um, can you elaborate on this. Why do you see another sport filling an already arbitrary void.

Sure, if your variation is that you make them able to run and tackle why not?

Wow, the *exact* same thing happened to The Incredibles.

All sports are despicable, excluding tennis and table tennis, of course.

Is chess a sport?

If you are trying to be provocative, why not be really provocative and speculate what the end of the Olympics will look like? Can you imagine Usain Bolt playing in the NFL? Now that would be something people would actually watch.

It's been tried. It worked, but not that well.


I understood that American football, soccer, and rugby are part of the same family of sports, soccer or association football resulting from an attempt to change the rules to make rugby safer.

That said, I agree the NFL could simply change the rules to minimize injuries, though it wouldn't be quite the same sport, as some commentators pointed out there have been bigger changes in professional and college football in the past. I think a bigger threat is that the current status of American football as the top sport in the US is very much a product of mass television, and there is a good chance that THAT is going away.

Numerous commentators have pointed this out, but a decline in popularity of American football won't end binge drinking, at least not if soccer replaces it.

You have an incorrect conception of the history of the various football codes. And football will be sustaining mass TV long after 2 1/2 men is dead and gone.

Actually football is one of the things keeping TV afloat. No one much cares whether the see Glee the minute it comes out or DVR it and watch it later (thus skipping commercials). But football is appointment television, and it must be watched live.

I think soccer will get some serious cultural traction soon. My son and his friends care a lot more about what's happening with Barcelona or Arsenal than about our own NFL teams. There's no reason American club teams couldn't compete at the highest international levels fifteen or twenty years from now.

I wish I could short you on this one. I don't know anybody who follows soccer seriously and I live in a large costal city.

Unfortunately in Boston I know lots of people who follow European soccer seriously. I would guess that in affluent East Coast towns like Scarsdale, NY or Belmont, MA EPL is rapidly catching up with MLB in popularity. A minor tragedy if you care about American culture, but probably inevitable.

I would guess that in affluent East Coast towns like Scarsdale, NY or Belmont, MA EPL is rapidly catching up with MLB in popularity.

At least in Boston the local sports coverage doesn't bear this out.

Nice anecdotal evidence. But again the NFL market share is literally crushing anything else. So I'm not sure your cultural argument holds. I mean look at the viewership ratings, NBC is basically a network because it does so well with Sunday Night Football. In addition the only money being spent by networks is on the World Cup, an event that happens once every four years. It will be very difficult to increase viewership for soccer, considering sports fans are already committed to one of the big four (NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB). Also how often do you see ESPN talk about soccer, hockey gets more discussion and they are currently hovering around 1.4% of the viewership time.

So while you and your son like soccer more than football, the vast majority of Americans disagree.

Here's a solution: Steel velcro. (http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17739-extreme-steel-velcro-takes-a-35tonne-load.html)

Put that on the players' helmets and when they headbutt each other, they get stuck on each other.

Here's hoping. I would celebrate the day the NFL closes its doors. To me it seems more realistic that football will continue to be popular but will draw its players increasingly from the poor. I also think basketball stands to gain the most.

I am surprised that no one has mentioned lacrosse as a possible replacement for football. At this point, I agree that (assuming the theory is correct) soccer probably has the best chance to fill the void, I think there is a chance that lacrosse could enjoy increasing popularity.

Out here in Colorado, the sport has grown dramatically in the last 20 years, and from what I understand, Texas and California have followed a similar trajectory. Probably not likely, but something to keep an eye on.

lookup Bill Simmons's comments on lacrosse (watching it in the future due to decline of NFL).

I could get behind this. Lacrosse is, aside from rugby, the footballiest of the non-football sports.

If there was a disease that cripples as many young men as high school football millions of dollars would be spent in an attempt to find a cure. Why should a 16 year old boy who can't legally sign a contract be able to succumb to peer pressure and expose his body and brain to permanent damage? What right does a parent have to enable such a thing? Ostensibly, high school sports are intended to be extensions of "physical education". All but a select few of high school football players never put their uniforms on again after the final game of their senior year. A very useful education. Perhaps at some point parents, school officials and the students themselves will come to their senses and physical education will concentrate on activities that can be carried on throughout life and with friends and spouses, golf, tennis, cycling, skiing and so forth. Without the feedstock from high school programs, college and professional football will decline in participation and audience.

Not sure if serious, but football is going nowhere. Its been popular since its very start in college and then with the progressive advancement at the professional. Baseball was the biggest American sport only until everyone realized how much better football is - and now they figured out a formula so that every team can compete (go figure, fans like this).

Tennis fans can dream I suppose, but the major pro sports are going nowhere. Enjoy the game, because its awesome.

Have you seen the NFL since Roger Goodell took over? This two-hand tag crap they want to sell is the beginning of the end.

The day the giant James Harrison vendetta emerged from the league offices is the day the NFL started to die.

So you are agreeing with Tyler? Or do you have other things to say?
I mean these comments seriously and respectfully.

What if football went back to the single-platoon style? Would call for a much different type of player than today. Might reduce the sheer kinetic energy involved in the collisions.

I don't know if I find your scenario that likely just because I think the NFL will find a way to insulate itself from any lawsuits. NFL players have been in the game often since before they were in high school. The NFL can easily just write off any injuries that way.

The college game and high school are more vulnerable but I think if they go south the NFL will be able to arrange for some sort of minor league system to seed their players for them. In order to avoid both lawsuits and anti-trust issues they'd make it an independent system.

I do think that there must be some scenario where football disappears just because the game does appear to dangerous to last. But this doesn't really make your scenario convincing, we don't know what the story will be.

One thing that has already happened is that in changing the rules to make the game less violent they have degraded the quality of play. The game's become less complicated and more of a duel between quarterbacks. Football became popular after Don Coryell and Bill Walsh helped to make it much more complicated and interesting with the different versions of the west coast offense.

Some fan's like a big passing game but I think in the end most will find it a less satisfying experience. The game is becoming more like baseball which can be boiled down to a duel between pitchers. Only without the beauty and grace of the baseball diamond.

And the takedown has come!
Score one for FLORIO!


One great (and old) idea is football helmets with padding on the outside...


I think Cowen and Grier have a solid grip on the potential impact of increased liability. Those who fail to understand that are missing the broader point.

I played football for four years at the Div. 1-AA (now FCS) level in the mid 2000's. We had a coach that put us through what he called "the concussion drill." Our posted schedules (put up everyday prior to practice) would explicitly state on it "5:00-5:10-- Concussion drill". For those 10 minutes we would proceed to run into each other coming out of the "chutes" (familiar term for any other old lineman out there); one person would sit at the end of the in the position of a baseball catcher, and the other would come out of his stance through the chutes and run that person over. It was supposed to teach us "how to run over and through a block." I can tell you that the drill was named for what happened on the receiving end; each time it resulted in a direct helmet-to-helmet blow that was very disorienting.

This happens at a fantastic university, but there was no oversight. The football coaches were oblivious to the concussion/head trauma stuff. I subsequently graduated from law school and I agree with Cowen and Grier that the legal liability for this time of stuff is through the roof. Football coaches are so oblivious to the dangers that they actually have named drills after the medical problems we want to avoid. This is a huge can of worms and it will lead to lots of liability at some point; whether that crushes the sport is a different story, but it is a plausible outcome.

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