|Troy Aikman, whose Hall of Fame career was ended by concussions, questions the NFL's future. (Getty Images)|
The timing is wrong for this story, but then again the timing would never be right. Because this story considers the idea that football's popularity -- even as millions of fans are tuning in this week to the scouting combine to watch something as unwatchable as potential draft picks running and lifting -- will fade over the coming years.
Maybe to extinction.
That's the hypothesis, and listen, it's not my hypothesis. Let me duck away from that one right now and put the blame for this story where it belongs, which is to say, with someone else. In January and then again earlier this month, an ESPN website ran stories suggesting the death of football. Hyperbolic -- that was my thought. In mid-February a Yahoo website ran a similar story, this one suggesting the death of youth football. More hyperbole. But I was starting to wonder.
Four days later, the NFL trotted out commissioner Roger Goodell, put him on one of the biggest sports-talk radio stations in the biggest city in America to say that we wouldn't see less football in the future; we would see more. Goodell told WEPN-AM 1050 in New York that he hears it "from the fans consistently -- people want more football." And then he said the NFL was open to increasing the regular-season schedule to 18 games in 2013 or '14.
Now that Goodell was doing damage control, I was really interested in the hypothesis -- not mine, mind you -- that football is entering its most dangerous era. And then five days after Goodell's comments, NFL analyst Troy Aikman went on HBO's Real Sports and said football in this country "is at a real crossroads.
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"If I had a 10-year-old boy," Aikman said, "I don't know that I'd be real inclined to encourage him to go play football, in light of what we're learning from head injuries. And so what is the sport going to look like 20 years from now? I believe, and this is my opinion, that at some point football is not going to be the No. 1 sport."
Now I'm sold. This hypothesis is no longer their hypothesis -- it's mine. Now I'm starting to think, you know, there's something to this. At the very least, there's something to the possibility that football's popularity, if not its outright existence, could become endangered thanks to mounting head injuries.
Troy Aikman makes his money from football, yet he's telling the world he isn't sure he would let his kid play. Aikman suffered a series of concussions with the Dallas Cowboys, so he knows what he's talking about. If he stays on TV long enough, we'll know as well. Anecdotal evidence suggests Aikman's cognitive function -- his ability to think quickly, even to speak clearly -- has been compromised by all those concussions. It's a matter of time.
But anyway, this story isn't about Troy Aikman. It's about the future of football in this country. Football's barbarism has been debated for decades, but not so long ago the central issue was death. I don't want to sound callous, because that's not the intention here, but not enough players have died to seriously threaten the sport.
Death is no longer the outcome people discuss. Now it's concussions, which can be the same thing. A series of concussions isn't an instant death -- not like a broken neck or dehydration or heart attack -- but it can be a death sentence. It's a living death, when the brain has been repeatedly battered and the football player morphs into someone unrecognizable to friends and family. Those stories are mounting.
Hall of Fame center Mike Webster going homeless before dying at 50. Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey moving into an assisted-living center at 65 with dementia. Star safeties Dave Duerson and Andre Waters committing suicide, neither older than 50, both ruined by concussions.
Earl Campbell. Al Toon.
Players are getting bigger, faster. Helmets are getting better, but it's more effective at protecting the skull than the brain inside. A high-speed impact jostles the brain, and a helmet won't stop it from slamming into the skull.
And this isn't just the NFL. If it was, we wouldn't be having this discussion, or this hypothesis. People in this country, me included, are willing to watch the biggest, strongest, fastest football players bash their skulls to their heart's content. It's their risk, not ours, and they're compensated fabulously.
But this is happening in college, in high school, in youth leagues. This is our risk, or our children's risk. And they're not compensated at all. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, high school athletes report nearly 4 million concussions every year -- and the CDC fears 80 percent of the concussions suffered by athletes at that age go unrecognized, unreported. Which is why the National Center for Biotechnology Information refers to concussions as "the silent epidemic."
As more years pass, the volume will go up. More NFL players -- guys we're watching today -- will end up homeless, in nursing homes, suicidal, dead. This story is only going to get more gruesome, and parents are going to take note, more than they already are.
Today it's Troy Aikman saying he's not sure he would let his son play football. Soon it'll be the young parent down the street. Then more of them. And more.
You can't play football without football players.
What would be the tipping point? I can imagine it. A popular player -- I'm thinking of a particular guy, but don't want to name him -- gets destroyed by a hit to the head and has to retire, then lives his death right before our eyes. You think it can't happen? It already has, with Webster and Mackey and more, too many more. And it will happen again.
I can imagine the day when a U.S. politician makes like John McCain in 1996, when McCain took on the UFC, only this time the politician decries football as "human cockfighting." I can imagine the day when a handful of high schools stop offering football for safety reasons, liability reasons, even lack-of-interest reasons.
I can't imagine the death of football, no.
But give me another decade or two. Ask me again.