I have been a football fan most of my life.
I began officiating high school football in 1979 and still wear stripes and carry a whistle as a referee and crew chief today. As a sports reporter, football season was my favorite time of the year. Despite being one of a handful of women sportscasters in the country in the 1980s, my forward-thinking news director at what was then KTSP-TV in Phoenix, Arizona, anointed me the beat reporter for the NFL’s Cardinals, which meant I got to travel on the team charter, sit in the press box during game time, attend weekday practices, and immerse myself in the world of professional football. Along the way, I covered the college game, as well. Football was glorious.
Now, I wonder if, sometime in the near future, football will go the way of Rome’s gladiator games, a massive sparkling spectacle known only in the pages of history.
It seemed as though the era of steroids and performance enhancing drugs might doom the sport, but fans want nothing more than to watch giant men with bulging muscles assault one another in a legalized fashion. I don’t know if football is actually “cleaner” now than it used to be, and it certainly appears that those in charge of the various levels of the game are vociferously eschewing the chemicalization of the sport, but the average fan seems unconcerned, as long as the home-town team is winning. Note here that I am not throwing stones. I enjoy a bone-crunching hit as much as the next person, but those collisions can come with severe medical issues.
Which brings me to the concussion era. Will fear of brain injuries change the game as we know it? The recent revelation that 110 of 111 deceased former NFL players showed signs of the brain-ravaging disease CTE was chilling. Still, the numbers are often hard to read. Perhaps in thirty years we’ll have a better idea. That said, the NFL’s cavalier attitude when dealing with the suffering of former players and their families created an atmosphere that portrayed those who work between the lines as petulant crybabies, an obscene view that left the league looking cold-blooded and heartless.
Then there are the media-splashed bad-boy behaviors – domestic violence, DUIs, drug and alcohol abuse. Statistics show that college and professional athletes are no more likely to be involved in these types of activities than average folks, still big-name people garner big-time attention. It only takes a handful of negative stories in our 24-hour news cycle to see what we think is a trend.
The game also has a problem with roughly half of its fan base. A recent NFL report claimed 45% of the league’s followers are women. These are the people who primarily shell out the bucks to buy all those team-themed products. Now consider the image of Ray Rice assaulting his then fiancée in an elevator, one of a number of events that portrayed women as football punching bags. And the cheerleader issue that sadly promotes the idea of donning as few clothes as possible and standing at the sidelines, cheering on the boys. Cheerleaders from a number of NFL teams have filed lawsuits claiming they were subjected to demeaning “jiggle tests” and paid little for their work. On a positive note, TV cameras seem to focus less on bouncing sideline breasts, these days. Is this an NFL concession to the power of the pocketbook?
Arguably, the biggest problem football has is time. An average NFL games consumes over three hours. Add the 100-plus commercials per contest and viewers – especially those who are finding ad-less streaming more to their liking – and it’s easy to see why the game is beginning to flounder. Fans, especially young ones, are not buying into the pro experience and without new pigskin enthusiasts the future looks bleak.
These issues are forming a cascade, leading to one that could ultimately end the game. The NFL, the NCAA, and the National Federation of State High School Associations are reeling with the possibility that many parents will no longer allow their children to don shoulder pads and helmets and that fans are starting to lose interest in droves.
Football is on the cusp. The sport could, in our lifetime, disappear. Can we – or rather should we – try to save it?
Anne Montgomery’s new novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain is available at https://www.indiebound.org/book/9780996390149 and wherever books are sold.