As a kid growing up in the south, I know the 3 F's in life very well.......Faith, Family, and Football. So just as much as it will pain you to read this, it hurts me twice is much to have to write it. However, the facts are the facts. As a social innovation firm, it is our job to fix problems in organizations from small businesses to school districts. Before we do anything, we must first diagnose the problem. This may not seem like great timing for this, with the season starting this week, but it is the best time to get your attention seeing that you have been waiting for football all summer. Let me be clear about one thing: Saying something is dying does not mean it is dead. Football can be saved. But, the arguments I am about to present make for a very bleak future for a sport many Americans love. My goal is to bring awareness to these issues. I also want to show that it is not only the responsibility of the NFL to save football but that each fan has a responsibility in saving football for future generations to enjoy. Let's get started.
The Danger Of CTE
From Junior Seau to those who currently play under the Friday night lights, Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy or CTE has touched many in the football community. Since 2002, when it was discovered that football legend Mike Webster had CTE, it has been a thorn in the side of the NFL and done much to increase the anxiety in parents of young boys (more on that later). There are four stages to the degenerative disease:
1. In the first stage, there is a buildup of tau in the frontal lobe. Tau is a protein that forms around the brain's blood vessels. Tau not only interrupts normal function, it ultimately kills nerve cells. Yet, this stage asymptomatic and often goes undiscovered.
2. During the 2nd stage, symptoms begin to appear as people display episodes of impulsivity, depression, and even rage. The protein begins to affect more nerve cells.
3. The 3rd stage sees a progression of the tau protein from the crown (top) of the brain to the temporal (side) of the brain. This leads to confusion, memory loss, and impaired emotion.
4. The 4th and final stage is indicated by a severe number of nerve cells dying which leads to a deformed, brittle, and a brain that can shrink to nearly half the size of a healthy brain. Cognitive function is severely reduced at this point and advanced dementia sets in that ultimately leads to death.
Imagine this horrible progression of the condition happening to an 18-year-old kid. That's what happened with one teen who was diagnosed a few years back (family did not want to disclose his name) with having CTE. When a parent hears these statistics, they are understandably very alarmed. This leads me to my next point.
The Decline Of Youth Football
Growing up in Memphis, you know the football schedule in the city. You have high school football on Friday nights, Pop Warner on Saturday morning, college football the rest of the day, and the NFL on Sunday. Over the course of the last decade, the Pop Warner part of that formula has declined drastically with middle and high school football programs around the country beginning to be disbanded. CTE has been only part of the reason for the decline. One of the biggest reasons for the decline is due to the casual participants of football at that age. The core participants are defined as children 6-17 who play at least 26 organized games a year with casual participants active less than that. In the past, casual participants were able to convert to core participants by maintaining interest. Simple things like throwing the ball in the backyard, playing in open fields with friends, or even playing in the street were all attributed to the pipeline of programs all over the country and, ultimately, the NFL. Today's kids do not go outside nearly as much as they used to, which has contributed to this decline. It is this very decline that may give rise to a new American sports powerhouse.
The Rise Of Fùtbol
In 1994, the United States hosted the World Cup and drew unprecedented awareness to soccer in this country. Two years later Major League Soccer (MLS) began. With the growing awareness and popularity of the sport, moms looking for something for their kids to do on Saturday mornings signed millions of kids up for soccer (thus the term " soccer mom" was born). Those kids have grown up to become parents and, armed with the science about CTE, they are signing their kids up for soccer. The sport has continued to grow in popularity for the past two decades so much so that it now claims the 4th spot in the American sports landscape, supplanting baseball, with no sign of slowing down anytime soon. Because the U.S. Men's Soccer program has started to produce better players with a better program (for the longest time the argument has been the U.S. is not good at soccer because the country's best athletes do not play the sport), major corporate sponsorship has come to the sport. MLS is not only growing, there are now two lower tiered leagues. The FIFA video game series is the #2 franchise passing NBA 2K and very close to eclipsing the Madden series. Another thing to keep in mind are the Census numbers. The country's Spanish-speaking population is growing rapidly, and if you polled most of them, soccer would be their favorite sport. When you keep all of this in mind, the last thing you need is what is likely to happen five years from now.
2021: The Year Of The Next NFL Lockout?
When you have a sport that is fighting the perception of a serious sports-related medical issue in its top league and a declining pipeline juxtaposed with a rising rival sport, the last thing you need is a stoppage in competition. That seems ever so likely in the next couple of years. The players have issues that include the league drug policy, insurance, post-career care, and, more importantly, the revenue share. The league is still producing a massive amount of revenue, and the players feel as if they deserve more of it. Many NFL players see the current CBA as a slap in the face as they watch NBA players being given unprecedented contracts (which will be even higher next off-season). Anytime a sport stops competition it is difficult to get fans reinvested. Just ask Major League Baseball after the '94 strike. Interest was regained temporarily during the home run chase of '98, but it quickly went away when the media christened it the steroid era, and interest has been declining ever since. So unless they can come to an agreement within the next couple years its very possible that the NFL could share the same fate.
What's The Bottom Line?
This is a very critical moment in the life of American football. If these issues are not proactively addressed, American footballers could quite honestly become extinct. Even with all the evidence, there is a pathway to change its current direction. We need more involvement from high school, middle schools, and youth football programs with programs like USA Football, which allows for certification training that teaches the proper way to tackle and CTE awareness with its HEADS UP initiative. This would go a long way toward protecting players and giving parents the piece of mind that their kids will be as safe as possible when they take the field. Also, the NFL could expand their PLAY 60 program to convert more casual players to core players. Even with the overall downward trajectory of youth participation, 2015 saw a slight but encouraging uptick in the number of participants. Doubling down on PLAY 60 and creating other programs can possibly reverse this trend. So as you can see, it will take the ENTIRE FOOTBALL COMMUNITY to make sure football does not go the way of the dinosaur, grassroots programs and "The Shield" working together. If not we do nothing, then instead of Sunday NFL games your only option may only be the EPL. That truly would be a sad day in America. #AnOwlInYourCorner