By Jim McCarthy Apr 12, 2012 1 comment

NFL: Distant Early Warning Part 2

A while back, I said that the NFL, while being the strongest entertainment property in the world, should be picking up trouble on the Distant Early Warning system.  The point I made then was that the in-stadium experience was so rough, so savage that eventually it would change the perception of the non-stadium goer and chip away at the value of the organization.

I believe strongly that I was right then, and that it is another flavor of the problem that has emerged strongly since then: brain injuries in the sport.  A few months after I wrote the piece I linked above, I had a conversation with a guy who plays a very quiet but meaningful behind the scenes role with an NFL team (though not formally associated at all with the team or league) and said “this concussion issue could cause a lot of problems.”  His feeling was that it was an issue, but not a major issue and didn’t present a challenge to the long-term health of the league.

I tried to tell him that the way I saw it, football exists as it does because moms put up with it.  This is how it works: for football to be played at the incredible level of preparation and athleticism that we see in the NFL, there must be a robust college system.

For there to be such a system, colleges have to lay out the cash to support football teams, which are expensive.  For them to be able to do that, there has to be a lot of interest on the part of students, alums, and others to go to and watch on TV (in bigger schools) these games.

For that to exist, there needs to be media coverage and a high level of athletic quality in the college game.  For that to be there, High Schools must produce enough football players for 1% of them to be good enough to play in college.

For that to happen, there have to be enough youth programs to produce high school talent.

And for that to happen, moms have to be comfortable letting their sons play.  Yes, I know dads are involved, and they probably are the ones pushing football.  But if it’s just a matter of a scraped arm, a bruise or at the outside, a broken bone, moms are going to allow it to continue.

But if it’s brain damage…

This could be a long-playing issue, but gradually, the mothers of potential youth players could slowly starve the NFL of talent.  Sure, there will always be people willing to trade brain function sometime in the future for the possibility of wealth, fame and glory now, but if you don’t have the numbers in the programs, you simply don’t get the product on the field that you have today.

Since then, the story’s only gotten worse when it comes to head injuries in football.  Coaches deliberately targeting the heads of players known to have had concussions?  Former players creating a class action lawsuit over their head injuries?  Yes, and there’s a lot more of this to come

Football’s a tough game, and that’s part of what makes it fun to play and fun to watch.  On the other hand, there are very few fans who want to see anybody, especially their sports idols, reducing to forgetful, hobbling, bankrupt old men just a few years out of the league.  And if there is a subset of those fans, I think it’s safe to say you can ignore them as irrelevant to the success or failure of the league and the product.

Especially compared to those women all across the country who will ultimately decide how their sons spend their Saturday afternoons.

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