Why the NFL Isn't Going Away

The recent injury to Damar Hamlin on NFL Monday Night Football has once again raised questions about the safety of the game. Liberal thinkers have wondered why the country is addicted to such a violent and brutal game, while others believe the NFL should be banned.

There is no denying that injuries are a common part of the game. Fans are used to seeing players being regularly assisted or carted off the field. Serious concerns are usually raised only if an injured player can’t give the “thumbs ups” indicating they are conscious and reasonably aware.  Hamlin’s injury was extremely rare -- cardiac arrest caused by a blow to the chest. On the other hand, knee injuries occur most often, but anyone who follows the game knows that head injuries, which occur on a regular basis, raise the greatest concern since they can have devasting long-term consequences.  One survey of retired NFL players found that 9 of 10 had at least one concussion. At least 10 percent of NFL players will develop Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE. The symptoms of the disease have become well known and include aggression, confusion, depression, and lack of impulse control, which can result in interpersonal violence and suicide. Symptoms often appear after a player has retired, and a recent study found the average life expectancy of NFL players with CTE is 51.

For years the NFL denied there was any connection between concussions and long-term harm and that returning to play did not involve significant risk. These findings were based on bogus studies authored by an NFL committee. It wasn’t until 2009 that the league conceded that concussions could have long-term consequences, and in 2016 the NFL admitted that concussions and CTE were related.  The league has taken steps to lessen the impact of head injuries including things like concussion protocols, penalties, and player ejections for those who target the head. Since 2014 the league has also compensated former NFL players for their injuries. When one takes all this into account, it does beg the question, why is the league so popular and are there any redeeming social benefits?

Since 1965, NFL football has been most-watched spectator sport and has become an American tradition. Football is a two-dimensional game that televises well. Many fans prefer to watch games on TV rather than attend live. What specifically attracts people? The athleticism combined with the violence makes games both thrilling and riveting to watch, especially for those of us who have grown up with the NFL, which brings up another point. Not only do young boys watch the game, but players become role models to be emulated. And the ultimate success of the NFL is directly tied to the quantity and quality of the prospects available, who often start playing in grade school. Over the past decade or so fears have risen about the potential for brain injuries in children. Much of this was spawned by the problems experienced by NFL players, and fewer young kids are playing. The big drop-off has been between the ages of 6 and 12, where participation is down about 20 percent. However, the number of high school-age players has not declined significantly. In 2019, 1, 006,013 played football -- a drop-off of only 3265 since 2009. During the pandemic, the number did slip below a million, but will probably rebound to some extent, although there will be fewer high school-aged youth in the general population. That said, it seems safe to say that fear of head injuries, at least to this point, has not hurt the NFL, and player standards will remain high.  Consider that only .00075 percent of high school and 1 percent of college players will make it to the NFL. For the vast majority who don’t make it, football can instill values like courage, discipline, hard work, and teamwork as well as providing an outlet for aggression so common in young males.  Although Lebron James has compared the NFL to slavery, the average person would undoubtedly find the rewards for making it to the NFL attractive. The starting minimum salary for a rookie is now $705,000, which puts a player in the top .07 percent of income earners.  And if a player has the average career of three or four years, the money can provide a solid financial footing for the rest of their lives. Of course, the downside is the risk of serious injury, but to this point, the NFL has had no trouble attracting individuals more than willing to take that risk.

The discussion of player salaries begins to get at why the NFL’s popularity will almost certainly continue. Total revenues are approaching $20 billion a year and league commissioner Roger Goodell hopes to increase that figure to $25 billion in five years. By contrast, the next closest league is major league baseball with total revenues of around $11 billion. The wide divide between the NFL and other sports leagues can be explained by TV and more recently streaming revenue.  In 2021, 75 of the 100 most-watched shows were NFL games, and these types of numbers have been fairly consistent for years. As a result, the league will receive an incredible $113 billion over the next decade in TV and Amazon streaming revenue. The money is divided equally between the teams, which amounts to $321 million per team each year, which almost insures profitability.  

In short, the NFL is the most successful sports organization in history and will continue to be America’s game. It’s the country’s best entertainment value since other than streaming and basic cable, there are no fees involved. In addition, easy access to various gambling outlets will only increase the league’s popularity. Violence and aggression will always be a part of the game because that’s what appeals to those of us who watch. To make the game less so would hurt TV ratings and profitability. Unfortunately, head injuries will also remain a part of the game, although improved helmet technology will provide more protection.  There is also little doubt that calls to ban the game or to make it less violent will continue, but they will mostly be in vain.

Image: NFL

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