Sunday, February 12, 2012

The end of football?

Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier have a piece at Grantland that hypothesizes how professional football may end as a major American professional sport under the weight of a worsening concussion crisis. They argue that the "collapse of football is more likely than you might think. . . . Once you start thinking through how the status quo might unravel, a sports universe without the NFL at its center no longer seems absurd." They also argue that the economic consequences will be minimal at the national level, although harsher at the local level in small markets (e.g., Green Bay) that only have professional football.

I agree with the basic point of the piece. I am not sure how long football can continue as it currently is played (and I say that as a big fan). It is not just about "hits to the head" and concussions. The irreducible element of the game is for incredibly large, incredibly athletic, and incredibly fast-moving men to run into one another at full speed. It is simply not possible for serious long-term healt problems to result, no matter the evolution in equipment (which the NFL promoted in a Super Bowl ad this year). All the conversations about player safety seem to ignore that modern players are significantly larger than they were 20 and certainly 50 years ago, but that they're also signficantly faster, quicker, and more agile. If F = M x A, then players today are hitting and being hit with significantly more force than 20 or 50 years ago. Neither eliminating helmet shots nor improving helmets can change that.

This doesn't mean football is going away, just that it is going to become less important to our sports culture. The chain they describe looks something like this: As fewer high schools and colleges have football programs in light of the medical evidence (and probably some large liability judgments), more and better athletes will be drawn to other sports, leaving football with less talent, less money, less cultural and media presence, and, ultimately, more of a niche place in the sports landscape.

It's an interesting take on the issue. There is historical precedent--look at boxing and horse racing.  And their broader point is not so much predicting football's demise as suggesting what could happen if things play out a certain way (mostly because of the medical, and subsequent legal, issues) and the status quo unravels. And who better than economists to follow the logical trail . . .