Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Pride Goeth Before the Fall

So this happened.

I don't have a lot to add to this story that other pundits haven't already, but I missed the Wind Sprint and this to me is a big story and ties directly in to what we have talked about and continue to talk about on this blog.

I think Aikman has some very valid points.  I know it seems ludicrous when you look at football's numbers right now, but Aikman's taking a long view, as in one or two generations long view.  The boys at PTI have discussed how boxing used to be a huge part of American culture, and even baseball has fallen from its loftiest of perches.  Baseball will always be big, and it will always be with us, but kids on the playground these days don't exclusively dream of playing center field for the Yankees.

Cultural shifts happen.  To some degree baseball's king status was a result of it being the only game in town for the longest time.  Baseball as a professional sport was already an adult when professional basketball and football leagues were entering their awkward teenage years.  Even though the seasons of the sports don't perfectly sync up, baseball was bound to lose some fans to the other sports, even though I would argue that more professional sports helps create a professional sports world that overall enhances the value of any particular sport.  ESPN, for example, wouldn't exist if MLB were still the only pro sports league.

So what cultural shift could knock some wind out of football's sails?  Aikman mentions two things:  overexpansion/overexposure, and injuries (specifically concussions but I will address the broader point).

Aikman has a good perspective on this.  Growing up in Texas I watched Aikman bring 3 Super Bowl victories to Dallas, and then he got knocked out of the game for getting too many concussions.  The Cowboys haven't been back to the Super Bowl without him.  Father Time catches up to everyone.  Emmit Smith and Jerry Rice hung around arguably longer than they should have, arguably damaging their brand by petering out over the course of a couple lackluster seasons, although they didn't harm their relationship with their former fan bases the way Brett Favre did.  But how many more years did Aikman have?  Brady looked like he was on the downslide the past season or two, and then this season he resurged and led his team back to the Super Bowl.  In fact, Vegas is giving the Patriots good odds to return next year.  Yeah, Emmit petered out a couple years after Aikman, but quarterbacks have longer careers than running backs because they don't take as many hits and don't rely on their speed (which is quicker to go than arm strength).   Aikman retired after receiving his 10th concussion at the age of 34 after 11 years in the league.  For comparison:  Peyton Manning is 35 and has played for 13 seasons, and the only thing that will keep him from playing longer is injury.  Tom Brady is now 34 and has been in the league for 12 years, and without the injury concerns of Peyton or Aikman, looks fine to play several more years.

So injuries cut short Aikman's career (like they might do to Peyton).  But that happens right?  It happens to lots of football players.  Heck, Greg Oden just had another surgery that will bench him for the remainder of this year.  Oden may never play again, and never got the chance to play a full NBA season despite being a #1 draft pick, and his sport is far less violent.  But stories like Oden in the NBA are far bigger outliers than career ending injuries in the NFL, and while I don't want to put QBs on too big a pedestal here, Peyton's injury and the Colts performance in 2011 put a particular exclamation point on the statement that teams can live or die at the QB position, more so than at any other position in the sport that right now is the most popular.  If your franchise QB goes down, your season can go with it, and for playoff teams that creates a ripple effect throughout the entire league.  The NFL recognizes this, and they've basically developed Marquess of Queensbury rules for pass-rushers.  QBs are more protected by officiating than probably any other position in sports, and yet they still get hurt, and when they do a team, the city it sits in, and TV networks selling advertisements for those games watch millions of dollars go up in smoke.

Injuries are a part of any sport, but football is the only one that involves contact by design.  Yeah, you bump and shove in basketball, but then you get called for a foul.  Hockey has checking and fighting, but you still have penalties and ultimately the hits aren't the fulcrum around which the sport pivots.  But in football you tackle.  Every play will result in one of two outcomes:  a score or the ball carrier getting knocked to the ground.  Every play sees linemen at the least hitting each other.

Half my friends from college that played football in high school have some form of nagging injury.  Their wrists pop from years of jamming pads, or they have a slipped disc in their back, or their knees pop from that time they tore lateral cartilage.

All of this leads into the upcoming cultural shift for football:  The more we learn about these health risks, the more parents will discourage children from playing it.  Aikman is a Hall of Fame, multiple championship winning QB, and in that article he's quoted as saying he'd rather his own kids play something else.  Peyton and Eli Manning got where they were by having the genes and mentoring of Archie Manning.  Aikman could produce similar athletic progeny, and yet he'd rather them play soccer, or lacrosse, or basketball.

I can sympathize.  Aikman says he wants his kids playing something else, but he won't actively discourage them.  I, however, will actively encourage my kids to play other sports.  I will actively dissuade them from playing football, and I will absolutely prohibit their playing it at the Pop Warner level.  Not only are injuries just more endemic to the sport, but I don't trust the coaching.  The NFL this year had to institute a new rule mid-season where a player that takes a hit to the head has to get cleared by an independent doctor not indebted to the team before he can return.  Why?  Because these professionals put Colt McCoy back into a game after taking a brutal helmet shot in which he suffered a concussion.  Trained professionals either missed the concussion or actively ignored it.  I certainly don't trust amateur coaches at the high school or little league level who encourage kids to "rub some dirt on it" and "suck it up".  The past decade has seen multiple instances of high school kids dying of heat exhaustion while training for football because the coaches push too hard.

So the prevalence of injuries in the sport currently combined with the attitude shift of parents I think creates two problems for the NFL that boil down to the same root:  absence of talent damaging the product.

1) Current teams like the Colts are losing their best players to concussions and other serious injuries that harm viewer interest.  The 14-2 Colts under Peyton Manning are exciting to watch, and I'll pay to see that.  The 2-14 Colts without him are an embarassment, and even if my team is going to beat them by 30 points, I can find other things to do with my time than watch it happen.

2) Up and coming generations of athletes are being increasingly encouraged to play other sports.  Athletes like LeBron James can play any sport they want.  They are physically gifted.  And if my son were equally gifted, I would press him very hard to play baseball or basketball, because salaries in those sports are comparable but careers are longer and safer.  Over time and multiple generations, the best and brightest will be in other sports.  Football will always have players, but it will be settling for the lesser athletes, kinda like boxing now vs MMA.

Add on top of this the NFL wants to increase season length to cram in more games for more money.  Guess what happens when you play more games?  You get more injuries.  As seasons get longer, your franchise players will have even bigger challenges staying healthy, and the product will be even further damaged.

I don't know what the answer is, but as a fan of the sport it is good to know that lots of minds are thinking about it.

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