Friday, September 1, 2017

Is football in decline?

Not in financial terms. Overall revenue for the 2016 NFL season was around $13 billion. That’s about $3 billion more than the second-most lucrative North America sport, major league baseball. And major-college football, especially in the Midwest and below the Mason-Dixon line, continues to draw enormous crowds as well as lucrative sponsorships.
What I’m most interested in is football’s appeal at the grass roots. When I was growing up in the seventies, 90 miles north of Seattle, organized team sports were basically limited to the big three: football, basketball and baseball. I played all three. Hockey was a club sport. There were signs, however, by the late seventies that soccer, the most popular sport globally, was establishing a beachhead. A coach and teacher at my middle school, Dominic Garguile, went on to a highly successful run coaching the women’s soccer program at my alma mater, Western Washington University, putting soccer on the local sports map.
A friend of mine, a football teammate for seven years, dislikes soccer. He once complained that soccer was siphoning off potential football players. I understand his grievance, but I don’t share it. Like my friend, I have a deep, if ambivalent, attachment to football. As a seven-year-old, watching Super Bowl III, in January 1969, I was moved to tears when the great Johnny Unitas couldn’t rally the Baltimore Colts against the upstart New York Jets and their “mod” quarterback, Joe Namath, the first quarterback celebrity. A few years later I hitched my wagon to the Pittsburgh Steelers, which were just emerging from roughly 40 years in the NFL wilderness. In the seventies, the Steelers turned the tables in a big way, winning four Super Bowls in six years.
By that time, I’d earned a bit of football glory for myself, playing a significant role in our football victory over our rival high school, boosting my confidence to the extent that, if I remained disciplined, I might achieve something substantial with my life. My aim was to establish myself as a prominent journalist. A few years later I took a left turn, abandoning my career in journalism to devote myself to the writing of fiction. For a year or two ahead of the millennium, I barely watched any football at all—not even the Super Bowl. But living in the Boston area, how could I resist the alchemy between Bill Belichick, a dour football genius, and Tom Brady, likely the most poised athlete on the face of this earth. Throughout our young century, the Patriots have won almost unceasingly: Five Super Bowl victories, while almost always qualifying for the playoffs.
But football, as we’ve learned in recent years, has a dark side. I can’t prove that my diagnosis of Alzheimer’s is connected with head trauma. But given the lack of evidence of Alzheimer’s in my family tree, it seems probable that a serious childhood concussion, followed by seven years of organized football at a time when head trauma was not nearly as well-understood as it is now, accounts for my diagnosis.
It may be instructive to view football through a Red state-Blue state lens. Certainly football is especially popular below the Mason-Dixon line, the fault line of American politics going back well before the Civil War. On the other hand, the birthplace of football—Ohio—is in the north. A more accurate gauge might be the nation’s roughly 3,000 counties. In affluent, more educated counties, I suspect, parents are likely to be less eager to expose their children to football’s hazards—especially what we now know about the consequences of untreated concussions. Of course, football isn’t the only sport to spawn concussions: thanks to youth soccer’s popularity, many young soccer players are suffering concussions as well.
And if you are my age or older (I’m 56), you may recall that heavyweight boxing—particularly the bouts between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali in the 1970s—made for great sports theater. Part of the allure was Ali’s magnetism, but there was a panoply of other boxers who had large followings. Without resorting to Google, the only contemporary boxer I could think of was Floyd Mayweather. But going back to the 1930s, when my dad was a teenager, young men in many communities were expected to have basic boxing skills. And we’re not talking about the streets of Brooklyn. This was Bellingham, Washington, not a particular tough place to grow up in, either in my era or my dad’s.
Here in Massachusetts, the city of Brockton’s moniker is the “City of Champions.” The name alludes to two famous boxers who grew up there: the heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano, who died in a plane crash in 1969, and “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, who dominated the middleweight class throughout most of the 1980s. Further buttressing the city’s sports legacy is that Brockton has won many state football championships over the decades. But in recent decades, Brockton has struggled as a community. According to data from my former employer, the Massachusetts Municipal Association, Brockton was behind only 28 cities and towns in the category of “income per capita,” a key statistic to gauge a community’s wealth or poverty. And being well-known for football or boxing isn’t likely to make much of a dent, in local economic terms.

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