Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: 'All signs point to the NBA replacing the NFL' as America's league
The Lakers legend details why the NBA popularity will continue to rise
The NFL is no stranger to controversy. Between concussions, protests and questionable officiating, the league has had to endure a lot over recent years. With that in mind, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a piece for The Guardian entitled "The NBA, and not the NFL, is the league of America's future." In the piece, Abdul-Jabbar lays out the reasons why the NBA is the league for the "modern" sports fan.
Abdul-Jabbar admits that this shift hasn't happened yet. The NFL is still by far the most popular league in the country. "The 2017 NBA finals averaged 20.4 million viewers (a 20-year record), which is roughly the same as the NFL's regular Sunday night audience of 20.3 million, and nowhere near the 2016 Super Bowl uber-audience of 111 million," he writes. However, there is disillusionment there, as he explains, "America can be fickle. And the Magic 8-Ball of our cultural zeitgeist says, 'All signs point to the NBA replacing the NFL as the league of America's future.'"
The main force behind Abdul-Jabbar's argument is that a culture shift is causing the NBA to more reflect current societal norms. In a time where sports ratings are falling, he writes, basketball is thriving.
But America has changed and with that change we are seeing a shifting away from hoisting football on our collective shoulders. Although football remains our most popular professional sport, that popularity has been declining over the past five years, from 67% saying they were fans in 2012, to 57% in 2017. Professional baseball has also fallen 2% during that time. However, professional basketball has risen 3%. Before anyone starts blaming Colin Kaepernick, let's remember that he first took a knee in 2016 and that the fan base erosion had already been strong several years before that.
Another reason, beyond culture, is the dangerous nature of the NFL. Fans are getting to peer behind the veil of concussions and their effects -- and what they're seeing isn't pretty.
One major reason Americans are stepping back from football is the danger. Physical risk has always been one of the attractions of the sport – a rite of manhood. But recent studies showing just how severe the brain damage is to the players shocked us. A 2017 study published in the Journal of American Medical Association discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in 110 out of 111 brains of former NFL players.
He goes on to mention that injuries like torn ACLs or cracked ribs are a bit different. A big hit is a big hit, it's part of the appeal of the game. But "there is nothing sexy about depression and dementia," he writes.
Then, of course, Abdul-Jabbar thinks of the children. He writes that the future simply isn't that into the NFL right now. "Another loose thread being pulled to unravel football's dominant status is the fact that it's less popular among children, who are the future fan base," he writes. "According to ESPN, basketball is the most popular sport among American youth, both boys and girls, while football has dropped to third place."
All of this makes sense, to a degree. The NFL as a league seems to be one big misstep, and although the product itself is premium and fun, it tends to get lost in the shuffle. The NBA, meanwhile, has some of the most marketable stars in sports. LeBron James stands chief among them, of course, but others such as Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Anthony Davis -- and the list goes on -- have commercial appeal (both literally and figuratively) and are seen regularly on the floor.
In no other sport can one player make the difference they can in a basketball game. Being one of 10 people on the floor, a star has the potential to take over a game. Moments like Tracy McGrady's 13 points in 35 seconds or Reggie Miller's eight points in nine seconds can't be replicated in any other sport. We see the faces of these franchises more than we see them in any other game, outside of maybe quarterbacks in the NFL.
Finally, Abdul-Jabbar gets to a topic that's always dicey: Player protests. To say that players protesting in the NFL hasn't been received well would be like saying that the Star Wars Christmas Special was a minor disappointment. The NFL has constantly oscillated on the matter of free speech but, Abdul-Jabbar writes, the NBA has been more compliant.
The NBA has been more tolerant of its players' freedom of speech. Players and coaches from many teams have silently protested and spoken out to the press. LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Jarrett Jack, Alan Anderson, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett and others wore "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts during warm-ups in 2014 to protest the death of unarmed Eric Garner by police. Steph Curry and Kevin Durant continue to speak out. Detroit Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy has said that protesting athletes are "models of American patriotism". Spurs coach Gregg Popovich echoed that sentiment when he said that his players have "the organization's full support to speak their minds". Has speaking out affected ratings? This year the NBA, despite its protests, has increased its TV ratings by 32%, while the NFL's viewership dropped from 16.5m viewers last year to 15m this year.
Things aren't perfect. There is still pressure to silence players. But the NBA has a chance to seize this moment and boldly lead by promoting the values and freedoms of the US Constitution. To be not just sports heroes, but also social heroes who reflect the kind of engaged Americans who won't tolerate anyone stepping on our values, just for the price of a ticket, a hot dog and a beer.
Even though these issues may be uncomfortable, Abdul-Jabbar has a point regarding this. If an NFL coach said half of the things that Popovich or Kerr do, they'd be sitting in the owners' office pretty quickly.
The NBA is in the midst of a fun season. Kyrie Irving is playing out of this crazy flat planet of ours, the Rockets are putting up a historically good offensive season, and the Bucks' fun young core is finally coming to fruition, not to mention the upstart 76ers. It's a good time to tune in, and Abdul-Jabbar seems to believe that more and more people will moving forward.
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