Home and Away: the questionable future of American football

by Vikram Bodas and Sam Forstner | 8/4/16 5:30pm

Sports.SamForstnerVikramBodasColumn_ElizaMcDonough
Eliza McDonough/The Dartmouth Senior Staff

Each week Vikram Bodas ’18 and Sam Forstner ’18 will tackle a controversial issue in the sports world. Much like home field in baseball, each week one of the writers will take their stance first (“away”), allowing the other to respond with an argument of their own (“home”). This week they will be debating the viability of football and the question of whether our generation’s children will grow up playing the same game.

The prevalence of concussions and other repeated head injuries in American football, as well as reported links to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — a progressive disease that results in the degeneration of brain tissue — have called the future of the sport as it exists into question. Former players have filed numerous lawsuits against the NFL claiming memory loss, depression and other symptoms that the NFL allegedly knew about and made the conscious decision to bury. However, the league remains immensely popular among Americans and boasts the highest television ratings of any professional sport in the country. All this then begs the question: Will our kids grow up playing a version of football that resembles its current form?

Vikram (Away): I can answer this question in one word: No. Due to the recent deaths of legendary players such as Junior Seau and Ken Stabler, CTE and the dangers of head injuries in football have entered the mainstream media. Youth sports are the lifeblood of the popularity of any sport and high levels of participation are vital. This increased media coverage on the dangers of football has already led to the inevitable decline in youth football. In light of these deaths coupled with advances in science within the field of brain sciences, even President Barack Obama said that if he had sons he would not let them play youth football.

Sam (Home): First of all, despite the fact that I was rudely cropped out of the teaser photo in The D two weeks ago, I refuse to let my voice be silenced. I’d like to let the numbers speak for themselves — and speak they do. Fox drew an average of 26.9 million viewers during the 2015 season and ESPN’s Monday Night Football averaged an audience of 12.9 million. The 2015 Super Bowl alone drew 114.4 million viewers. As long as there is money to be made, the sport will survive. The league signed a $27 billion television deal with Fox, NBC and CBS, the three major networks, in 2011 that will last through 2022. Additionally, youth tackle football participation actually increased, from 1.216 million in 2014 to 1.23 million 6- to 12-year-olds in 2015, according to data from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Vikram (Away): Let’s deal with that first sentence in your response. Clearly, our esteemed editors picked the better looking columnist to feature on the front page. That aside, your numbers are somewhat cherry-picked and misleading. The Sports & Fitness Industry Association also reported the number of kids between the ages of 8 and 16 playing youth football has dropped by 5.4 percent since 2008. Although television ratings currently remain strong, you cannot deny that with time more and more research will come out to suggest that playing football is something that human beings simply should not partake in. Putting on body armor and running into each other for the entertainment of others is barbaric. As our society and culture progresses, the types of activities that we accept as entertainment change.

Sam (Home): Let me turn away from the quantitative side of things now and provide anecdotal evidence to prove my larger point. My little brother, a rising junior in high school, has played football his whole childhood. Last season, he sustained a concussion in a game, causing him to miss the season’s final two contests. In the week after the game, my brother replayed one film clip over and over again, showing anyone that would watch. It wasn’t one of his long runs, or one of the tackles he made on defense. It was his concussion. Over and over again, he’d press play and watch himself take a handoff, be wrapped up around the knees by one defender, and then have another opposing player launch himself headfirst, knocking my brother to the ground. I could barely watch the video without cringing and I know my mom certainly couldn’t, but my brother and his friends loved it. It’s the brutality of the sport that makes it like no other. For better or worse, NFL stadiums are today’s coliseums, the players today’s gladiators. And the mob is certainly still entertained.

Vikram (Away): Oh Sam, I expect much more from you. Just because a bunch of hormone-fortified kids from Nowheresville, Mich. thought that your brother’s highlight clip was “sick” does not justify the youth of this country continuing to play a violent sport. At some point, I have faith in parents stopping their kids from playing football. I do concede that the popularity of the sport in America is still overwhelming so I think, at the very least, the rules of football will be altered at least somewhat significantly in the near future. This could include removing helmets from the sports entirely to stop players using their heads as weapons. I’m not sure what changes can be made, but I am certain that the NFL will continue to make a significant effort to change so that the sport can at least survive in some shape or form.

Sam (Home): Vikram, I’m disappointed you’d treat my previous argument so reductively. But then again, how could someone from Greenwich, Conn. possibly hope to understand the sport that captivates working-class Americans every weekend from September to January? The collective memories of tossing a football with your dad in the yard on a crisp fall day have outweighed any criticism up to this point and they will continue to do so. Widespread evidence of head injuries? Football survives. Numerous allegations of domestic violence perpetrated by NFL players? Football survives. And I am confident that whatever comes next, the game of football will survive it, too.