Following Junior Seau's apparent suicide, I can't help but wonder how long it will be until the National Football League no longer dominates American culture. The NFL rules the ratings right now, and with that comes endless revenue from marketing, licensing, and broadcast rights. Networks understand that the NFL is akin to the "Midas touch." NBC, CBS, and FOX renewed their contracts with the NFL that will generate the NFL an extra billion per year in revenue, jumping up to $3 billion annually through 2022. ESPN also renewed its contract for the "Monday Night Football" broadcast, upping the annual payment from $1.1 billion to $1.9 billion through 2021. But what if the NFL no longer dominates American culture by the end of these ten year contracts?
While some may think the NFL is untouchable, the most logical argument to propose its decline is the state of boxing. It is clear that boxing does not have the infrastructure of the NFL, but boxing was once the ruler of the ratings. Boxing broke all the records in its heyday. The Dempsey-Carpentier fight in 1921 was one of the biggest events of the time period. It produced the first ever million dollar gate in boxing history, and over 91,000 people watched it live in person. This event was truly a landmark moment in sporting history. Boxing's popularity boomed during the Muhammad Ali era of the 60's and 70's. The Ali-Frazier bouts were some of the biggest events in American sports history. Then "Iron" Mike Tyson rose to stardom in the mid 80's and ruled the sport until 1997 when he bit Evander Holyfield's ear.
From that point on, boxing fell out of the public consciousness. Great fighters continued to emerge, such as Oscar De La Hoya, Lennox Lewis, Floyd Mayweather, Bernard Hopkins, Shane Mosley, and Manny Pacquiao, but the overall impact on American consciousness severely lessened. Some critics point to a lack of great fighters from the mid 90's to the present. Others point to the rise of MMA fighting. I point to the bloodsport. The MMA explicitly contradicts my stance, as its popularity is definitely on the rise, but the MMA is relatively new. Wait another ten years. Wait until you see the true impact that fighting has on a person's life. Everyone has seen Muhammad Ali and his battles with Parkinson's disease. Repeated blunt force head trauma has taken over his life. Everyone has seen Mike Tyson go crazy with face tattoos, ear biting, and even a rape conviction. The effects of the sport are tangible. MMA will see its biggest star fade out in a couple years and struggle to walk. The bloodsport nature of boxing eventually lost its appeal.
That appeal surged to the NFL. With pads, helmets, and uniforms to hide behind, NFL players have become modern day gladiators. The bloodsport of the NFL is masked and camouflaged. While boxing embraced the open visual aspect, the NFL has hidden the violence. Casual viewers see a huge hit to someone's head and they go "Ohhh!" Rarely does someone think, "Man that guy is going to have some problems." When someone sees a guy's face contort ten different ways due to a punch, everyone immediately understands that pain. The visual representation of violence in boxing no longer matches the ethos of American society. The visual representation of violence in the NFL is supported with much greater enthusiasm due to its ability to feed the violence America craves, but in a masked form. When that NFL receiver gets knocked out running across the middle, no one sees his face. No one sees the pain. No one sees the eyes roll back. No one sees the life sweep away.
But now, the NFL has a new face to deal with regarding its bloodsport nature. Retired players. Retired players no longer have a uniform and helmet to shield them. Retired players become mortal. Retired players become open.
After years of denying the correlation between concussions and brain damage, the NFL has finally switched its stance in the past couple years by enforcing rule changes regarding hitting, kickoffs, and sideline evaluations for those possibly concussed. Make sure to click that link, and watch part two, they provide the biggest hypocrisy the NFL will ever have to battle. The NFL has gone on a safety crusade in the past couple years, but it is too little, too late. CTE is chronic traumatic encephalopathy and it has been linked to numerous professional athletes in football, wrestling, hockey, and boxing. CTE is a disease of the brain caused by repeated head trauma. CTE results include large accumulations of tau proteins, the killing of cells responsible for mood, emotions, and executive functioning. None of these results are promising for a long life or happiness.
Currently, it is unknown as to what exactly happened to Junior Seau. The only facts are that he sustained a gunshot wound to the chest and died. If Seau did commit suicide, it is interesting to note that he left his brain intact. Seau may have purposely shot his own chest in order to allow his brain to be tested. Such things are completely speculative, but it is a reasonable possibility. If Seau did actually do this, it will be interesting to note what results come back.
Junior Seau was awarded the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 1991. By all accounts, Junior was an outstanding man and citizen. For Junior to reach the depths of depression, mental illness, and eventually supposed suicide, something had to have changed. Well, twenty years of an NFL career may have been that change. The man played linebacker for twenty years! Imagine how many times he suffered blunt force trauma to his head. Then imagine the fact that Junior and all NFL players did not understand the true ramifications of concussions up until just recently. These gladiators got hurt, and they were told to go back in the game. The NFL mantra is "Be available." Every NFL player will tell you, the biggest thing you can do for your career is to be available. If you aren't playing, someone else is, and that someone else may take your job. With the average NFL career standing at 3.3 years, being available is the biggest way to lengthen that career.
It is important to understand that the symptoms of CTE do not affect just the health of older retirees. Junior Seau passed at the young age of 43. David Duerson passed at 51. Kendrick McKinley passed at 23. Each man took his life. So far twelve relatively well-known former NFL players have committed suicide in the past 25 years. Seau's shot to the chest also mirrors Duerson's case. Before he shot himself in the chest, Duerson texted his family members that he wanted his brain to be used for research at the Boston University School of Medicine. Neurologists at Boston University confirmed that Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions. The sad thing about CTE is that it is only officially diagnosed post-mortem. The symptoms of dementia, memory loss, aggression, confusion, and depression can plague the individual with no official diagnosis.
With Seau's passing, and the eventual next passing, the NFL may be headed toward a lawsuit that will cripple the league. In today's age, incoming players understand the ramifications of their choice to play football. For the previous 90 years of existence, players did not understand the ramifications of football. As sad as it is to say, there will be another Junior Seau. Another player will miserably suffer and end the suffering through his own means.
The consequences of football are not going away. Concussions are a part of the game. How can the NFL eradicate concussions? They can't, and they know it. Hitting is rooted in the foundation of football. How can you play football without tackling someone? How can you play football without rushing the passer and trying to move through linemen? How can you play football, run with the ball, and expect to land safely every single time?
The only way to prevent hitting in football is to turn it into flag football or two hand touch. Even then, men are still going to run into each other at full speed, whether rushing the passer, trying to grab a flag, or reaching for that two hand touch that turns into a push. Eliminating hitting is impossible. Hitting sells. Violence sells. Without hits, the public won't watch. Without hits, the NFL will lose its appeal on American consciousness.
So what is the NFL to do? They are caught in a catch-22. Either eliminate hits and lose the biggest fan base in American society, or allow football to remain a bloodsport and watch former players struggle in life after football. Either way, it's a lose-lose situation. So what is football going to be like in ten years? Will it still reign supreme? Will the networks still pump out billions for the rights to broadcast it? Or will it fade away, just like boxing once did? Maybe it will become a pay per view event. Maybe it will no longer look like football and instead turn into something different altogether.
Maybe there will be no more football.
With concussions on the rise and their devastating impacts seeping into the American consciousness, football may die at the entry level. Will you let your child play Pop Warner football? Will you allow your child to graduate from Pop Warner and move onto the high school stage of football? Will you allow your eighteen year old son to then play college football? If so, you just let your son suffer repeated hits to the head for at least ten years. Is it worth it? It's hard to argue with a $30 million dollar signing bonus in the NFL, but it's also a deal with the devil. At some point, the collection will come. For some, that collection is the end of life.
I repeat, maybe there will be no more football.
The end of the NFL is well on its way.
Ed. Note: ESPN has confirmed that Seau's death was a suicide.
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