By Tom Krattenmaker
Like the players on the field every Sunday (and Monday, and Thursday), pro-football is taking hit after hit.
Its television ratings, which seemed capable of going only higher, were down in the season’s first half and again in the divisional playoffs relative to a year ago. Injuries are plaguing the quality of play, overexposure is outpacing interest, and stories continue to circulate about retired players’ premature dementia.
Nonetheless, don’t weep for the National Football League, which will own Sunday as the country re-enacts the annual Super Bowl extravaganza. The game’s hold on the popular culture, even if it has slipped a tad, remains unparalleled.
Having sworn off pro football, I allowed my curiosity to lure me back to the televised action on the Sunday of the conference championships. What did I notice?
Endless commercials, some of them mildly entertaining but all of them disruptive to the games having any flow. The upside? While the two conference title games yielded no last-minute drama, they did offer plenty of the athleticism, strategy and complexity that can make football hard to resist. Also conspicuous were the violent collisions, of course, which are as central to football as water to swimming.
It’s this unavoidable facet of football that has onetime football (and baseball) great Bo Jackson saying he wished he had never played the sport. The former Auburn University and Los Angeles Raiders running back confessed last month to USA TODAY: “If I knew back then what I know now, I would have never played football. … The game has gotten so violent, so rough. We’re so much more educated on this CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) stuff, there’s no way I would ever allow my kids to play football today.”
As if to punctuate Jackson’s headline grabber, Mark Gastineau, a quarterback-sacking New York Jets star in the 1980s, revealed a week later that he suffers from dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Polling data show more parents nowadays are thinking like Jackson and saying they would not let their sons play football — a figure that jumped from 22% in 2015 to 31% in 2016 between 2015 and 2016, according to polling by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI). In step with rising awareness of football causing brain injuries, youth football participation rates nosedived earlier this decade.
All of these factors must be a headache for the men who run the NFL. So, too, must be the growing popularity of other sports and entertainments on a cultural landscape that is ever more scattered and ever less conducive to any single, widely shared interest.
For instance, soccer — the other “football” — has risen in popularity both as a youth participation sport and spectator experience. Among those ages 18-29, it now tops the list of sports most played while growing up, according to a new study from PRRI. Football comes fourth, with just 10% of young adults naming that as the sport they played most often as kids, behind soccer (24%), basketball (22%) and baseball or softball (14%). Even when we allow for the fact that football is almost always boys-only, it’s still behind soccer and basketball.
You might be bothered by these trend lines if you’re part of the large subset of Americans who worry that the country has grown too soft, too “feminine.” This narrative resonates strongly with those who supported Donald Trump in the election. Same for football’s promoters and defenders, who praise the sport for building character and providing a last bastion of rugged masculinity.
Having played as a youth, I agree that football can be a character-building experience, not to mention fun. But does it build character to watch large, fast men smash into each other? That’s the more relevant question, given the yawning gap between the number of people who participate and the number who watch. If anything, our character is called into question if we get our entertainment thrills from a game that few of us play, and whose gladiators often limp into retirement with debilitating injuries to their bodies and brains.
These problems, combined with football’s association with sexual aggression against women, are why a friend who was formerly a big fan has come to see the NFL not only as damaged goods, but also as damaging goods. He won’t be watching on Sunday.
But a huge number of people will be (more than 110 million if this year’s Super Bowl can match last year’s.) Nearly four in 10 of us name football as our favorite sport, the PRRI survey finds, a figure more than three times that of any other sport. Our culture has too much invested in football — too much emotion, memory, myth and money — to imagine a sudden change in its status.
Its recently acquired dings and scratches notwithstanding, “The Shield,” as the league calls its brand, will still glitter on Super Bowl Sunday. The manliest of American sports is likely to remain a huge part of our culture for a long time to come.
Tom Krattenmaker, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, is communications director at Yale Divinity School and author of Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. Follow him on Twitter: @TKrattenmaker.