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Forever Football?
August 30, 2012 8:44 AM   Subscribe

J.R. Moehringer's essay discusses the end of football, the immortality of football, head injuries, and why what the sport means to America and to him.
posted by sendai sleep master (50 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
I don't understand why the paragraphs are numbered. Is this convention with EPSN The Magazine?
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 8:54 AM on August 30, 2012


What will happen first: Stephen Hawking's warning that robots will rule the world comes true, or football dies?

Better question: When robots come to rule the world, will robots play football for sport, or will human slaves play football to entertain the robot overlords.
posted by etc. at 8:56 AM on August 30, 2012


will robots play football for sport

Yes, but baseball will be first, of course.
posted by curious nu at 8:59 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


It looks like we missed this recent article on Grantland Neuropathologist Dr. Ann McKee has been accused of killing football, but she may be the sport's only hope about the Brain Bank at the Bedford Veterans Administration Medical Center in Bedford, Massachusetts where the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy specializes in analysis of the brains of former football players. The article also covers Dr.McKee's deeply held love for football, and the Green Bay Packers.
posted by Prince_of_Cups at 9:03 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


ESPN the Magazine makes Newsweek look like the Economist.
posted by beukeboom at 9:05 AM on August 30, 2012


1. Yes, the paragraph numbers are pretty distracting.

2. Yes, football will survive just as boxing survives. There is too much money in it, at all levels, for it not to survive.

3. What football has going for it: (a) the potential for a lot more strategic surprises than baseball, basketball, hockey or soccer; (b) as an episodic game (in contrast to soccer, especially), the opportunity for more relaxed viewing at home or at the stadium, with lots of breaks for conversation, refreshment and peeing.

4. What bothers me about football, besides the brain injury angle in this essay, is (a) its strong contributions to an overly macho culture, which America needs less of, not more; (b) the fact that as in basketball, only individuals with extreme body types can succeed (with the exception of quarterbacks and kickers, I suppose). Games like baseball, soccer and hockey require exceptional physical strength and skill just like all sports, but they don't put a premium on weighing 350 pounds or being 7 feet tall.

5. What would it take for Americans to become less focused on a few mega-sports and more interested in a wide range of sports? (They demonstrate the potential to do so, every few years during the Olympics.)
posted by beagle at 9:06 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


We should probably tally up all the industries that inevitably maim their workforces and decide whether or not we actually need* what they produce.
posted by notyou at 9:12 AM on August 30, 2012


*Or want enough to need.
posted by notyou at 9:13 AM on August 30, 2012


I heard a throwaway comment onetime that as America moved from being largely rural to largely urban, baseball became popular as evoking a mythical lost pastoral childhood. Now that life in America is so amazingly safe (for most of us) from physical confrontation we love football as romanticizing a mythical time when strength and willingness to tolerate pain mapped well onto success.

I wonder current aspect of life we take for granted people in 20 or 40 years will feel nostalgia for and how it will play out in sports.
posted by shothotbot at 9:15 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


5. What would it take for Americans to become less focused on a few mega-sports and more interested in a wide range of sports? (They demonstrate the potential to do so, every few years during the Olympics.)

Are there any countries were this is really the case? If anything American sports is more diverse than other countries, since we care about the four major professional leagues, college football and basketball, and in some cases high school football. In a lot of countries the list of sports people care about is basically just soccer at different levels.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:15 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, football will survive just as boxing survives.

If football survives "just as boxing survives" that will, effectively, mean the worst imaginable case scenario for football fans will come true. Boxing used to be pretty much the biggest sport in the US. Now it's largely an irrelevant freakshow.

If football follows boxing's trajectory that's an end to college football altogether, and NFL matches will be lucky to get something like the attendance and press coverage of the WNBA.
posted by yoink at 9:19 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Football won't die, but it will change, just as it always has. The changes will start with the kids' leagues and gradually trickle up. The same thing is happening with hockey, where all junior leagues have severe penalties for hitting from behind and no tolerance for fighting. Most house leagues have even eliminated body checking. The game is still enjoyable to play and to watch, though.
posted by rocket88 at 9:24 AM on August 30, 2012


(b) as an episodic game (in contrast to soccer, especially), the opportunity for more relaxed viewing at home or at the stadium, with lots of breaks for conversation, refreshment and peeing.

Yes! This is nicely said! This is the reason I can watch football but pretty much no other sports! I went to a hockey game once with a friend and I wanted to like it (I liked The Mighty Ducks as a kid), but it was impossible to follow, with no story. Football has nifty rising and falling tensions. And yeah, pee breaks.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:25 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes, football will survive just as boxing survives.

Nobody watches boxing any more. Boxing has been replaced by the UFC. If the same holds true for football, then the XFL was just ahead of its time.
posted by nushustu at 9:27 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nobody watches boxing any more. Boxing has been replaced by the UFC. If the same holds true for football, then the XFL was just ahead of its time.

The thing about MMA is that because it has fewer blows to the head and no padding to increase the amount of damage a fighter can inflict, it's probably safer than boxing. That's not an argument for more XFL-style "extremeness," it's an argument for football to be replaced by rugby. Both UFC and rugby are pretty dangerous, but probably better in terms of head injuries than the boxing and football.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:31 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Boston Globe-Herald

Dateline: Jan 1, 2084, Ann Arbor, MI

One Last Clash

Today Alabama and Michigan will meet to decide the national collegiate football championship. I know what you are thinking, the playoffs aren't even over yet, but in this case we are talking about the "Heavy Pad Football" championship. Once the predominant form of the sport, now only a handful of schools field teams in this game, mostly in the Southeast. Unlike their regular football brethren and sistren, players in Heavy Pad wear almost complete exoskeletons of rigid plastic and foam, enabling them to barrel into each other with a speed and reckless abandon that is almost never seen in the sport anymore. Ever since the NFL announced the Rock Steady Plan For Safer Football way back in 2015, Heavy Pad football has been in rapid decline. Because of the false sense of security provided by the padding, players suffered from serious injuries -- especially to the brain -- caused by impacts transmitted to the head through the rigid suits the players wear. Now seen as an archaic violence-based sport, like boxing or bullfighting, it seems likely that the NCAA will soon drop the game from its ranks of endorsed leagues, meaning this might be the final Heavy Pad Football championship ever contested...
posted by Rock Steady at 9:31 AM on August 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


5. What would it take for Americans to become less focused on a few mega-sports and more interested in a wide range of sports? (They demonstrate the potential to do so, every few years during the Olympics.)

Are there any countries were this is really the case?

Yes. Look at the medal distribution in the most recent Olympics. The US collected 104 medals in 18 sports, but 66 of those medals — two-thirds — came in three sports (swimming, track & field, and gymnastics). For the other top medal-winning countries, the distribution is much less lopsided. China had 88 medals in 19 sports, but only 32 in their top 3 sports (diving, gymnastics, swimming). Great Britain was next with 65 medals in 17 sports, of which 27 were in their top 3 (cycling, rowing, athletics). Russia had 82 medals in 18 sports, of which 41 were in their top 3 (athletics, wresting, gymnastics).
posted by beagle at 9:33 AM on August 30, 2012


I went to a hockey game once with a friend and I wanted to like it (I liked The Mighty Ducks as a kid), but it was impossible to follow, with no story

As a life long fan, I will say that hockey has story. To lift a point from the article, though, football is a big tent - the story in football is likely more accessible because of the breaks, the pauses, the moments to process what just happened. Newcomers to the game can be more easily accommodated and involved. Hockey is a smaller tent, I think.

The story in hockey is harder to read and see for newcomers to the game. It's there (ok, maybe not much in a meaningless game in late January), but it's more buried. I've tried to explain it to newcomers at games, but the quickness of the action means I can't explain fast enough. I've had more knowledgeable fans than I try to show me more of the nuance of the stories, but again it moves too fast and I can't always follow.

As for why the paragraphs in the article are numbered: He notes, at the beginning, that the average football game has 120 plays. Hence, he has 120 paragraphs to talk about the game and the issues facing it.
posted by never used baby shoes at 9:38 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Look at the medal distribution in the most recent Olympics.

I don't think this is a particularly meaningful metric for what you're trying to demonstrate, because the most popular sports are team sports which either have two medals available (e.g. soccer, basketball) or zero (American football, cricket, rugby for now). No one would point to the UK winning 12 cycling medals and say this means much of anything for its popularity vs. soccer.
posted by dsfan at 9:55 AM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


And yeah, pee breaks.

Decadent is the country that doesn't know about rolled up newspapers.
posted by MartinWisse at 9:55 AM on August 30, 2012


I've tried to explain it to newcomers at games, but the quickness of the action means I can't explain fast enough.

Yeah, it was mostly just too fast for me, whereas football is paced almost like a movie--with the tension rising palpably but gradually during a play.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:58 AM on August 30, 2012


Yes. Look at the medal distribution in the most recent Olympics.

A red herring I think.

There are two levels of popular sports:

1) truly mass participation/spectator sports like most kinds of football, basketball, bicycling and such
2) those sports popular because we're good at them, for different values of we. Gymnastics, swimming, skating, everything up to roughly tennis, can all be quite popular but not a monday morning water cooler feature unless a special event is on; Olympics or something.

In the US, American football, baseball and basketball are truly popular, with everything down from hockey being at level two at best. In Europe it's mostly proper football, with everything else a niche sport.
posted by MartinWisse at 10:03 AM on August 30, 2012


In NHL playoff hockey you can tell when shit's getting deep. The pace escalates, everything speeds up, there's a flurry in front of the net, bodies are flying around. You know sometimes that the puck is going to go in, or one of the goalies is going to save the game, in these little 2-minute bursts that happen in the close, meaningful games.
posted by Mister_A at 10:04 AM on August 30, 2012


So you don't pee right then.
posted by Mister_A at 10:05 AM on August 30, 2012


I think it's interesting that a few football fans I know advocate for the players to not wear helmets so they can't use them as a weapon to inflict damage on other players -- so they aren't endangering their own heads as well. These few say it would be safer. Especially in the light of what the article said about football deaths before WWI (and before modern football padding).

[slight derail: It's interesting that these same people I know advocate for looser or no gun restrictions so everyone can weaponize themselves. These few say it would be safer.]

4. What bothers me about football, besides the brain injury angle in this essay, is (a) its strong contributions to an overly macho culture, which America needs less of, not more; (b) the fact that as in basketball, only individuals with extreme body types can succeed (with the exception of quarterbacks and kickers, I suppose). Games like baseball, soccer and hockey require exceptional physical strength and skill just like all sports, but they don't put a premium on weighing 350 pounds or being 7 feet tall.

This is why I've started to think that there should be weight limits for NFL players by position. There are 300+ pound high-school football players in Texas, which feels disconcerting.

It could work something like this:

Linemen: 300 lbs. max
Linebackers, Tightends, Full/Half backs, Quarterbacks: 250 lbs. max
Everone else: 200 lbs. max.

You may have to adjust the rules so that there is an equivilent max weight for both sides of the ball, but it would be interesting to look at. These numbers are more of a conversation starter though... not scientifically arrived at.
posted by Groundhog Week at 10:08 AM on August 30, 2012


Groundhog Week: "This is why I've started to think that there should be weight limits for NFL players by position."

Hey there, football! Welcome to the Sports-Induced Eating Disorder Club! I'm the current President, Horse Racing. Over there is Wrestling, and I think Gymnastics just stepped out to use the bathroom.
posted by Rock Steady at 10:13 AM on August 30, 2012 [6 favorites]



Decadent is the country that doesn't know about rolled up newspapers.
posted by MartinWisse at 12:55 on August 30 [+] [!] Other [1/2]: ·≡»


Rolled up what?
posted by pjern at 10:16 AM on August 30, 2012


Harder to do with an ipad, true
posted by MartinWisse at 10:18 AM on August 30, 2012


a few football fans I know advocate for the players to not wear helmets so they can't use them as a weapon to inflict damage on other players

Beginning at 1:10, here's Don Cherry, notorious defender of fighting in hockey, arguing that modern hockey shoulder pads are weapons that need to be outlawed.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 10:18 AM on August 30, 2012


Hockey elbow pads need to be softened, too.
posted by notyou at 10:21 AM on August 30, 2012


This is why I've started to think that there should be weight limits for NFL players by position.

That would just lead to weight cutting. See wrestling, and any other sport with same-day weigh-ins.
posted by Dark Messiah at 10:25 AM on August 30, 2012


(b) as an episodic game (in contrast to soccer, especially), the opportunity for more relaxed viewing at home or at the stadium, with lots of breaks for conversation, refreshment and peeing.

>Yes! This is nicely said! This is the reason I can watch football but pretty much no other sports! I went to a hockey game once with a friend and I wanted to like it (I liked The Mighty Ducks as a kid), but it was impossible to follow, with no story. Football has nifty rising and falling tensions. And yeah, pee breaks.


Nooooo. This is why I hate football, besides all the brain injury and the poor high school kids dying of heatstroke every year -- the last minute on the clock will last forever as they stop every second or two.

Soccer, I can watch a game and then actually get other things done that day.
posted by fiercecupcake at 10:30 AM on August 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Nooooo. This is why I hate football, besides all the brain injury and the poor high school kids dying of heatstroke every year -- the last minute on the clock will last forever as they stop every second or two.

I advise that you never, under any circumstances, watch basketball.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 10:34 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yes. Look at the medal distribution in the most recent Olympics. The US collected 104 medals in 18 sports, but 66 of those medals — two-thirds — came in three sports (swimming, track & field, and gymnastics). For the other top medal-winning countries, the distribution is much less lopsided.

I was going to suggest this might be a red herring for reasons other than what people have said. Namely, that there are a hell of a lot of medals on offer in swimming, track and gymnastics. If you happen to be a country that wins medals in those events, you're going to get a lot of medals from them sort of automatically. They're pretty much the only events where one person is going to have like six chances to win a medal. The thing to look at is probably the number of distinct sports in which a country won a medal, rather than the distribution across sports.

(b) as an episodic game (in contrast to soccer, especially), the opportunity for more relaxed viewing at home or at the stadium, with lots of breaks for conversation, refreshment and peeing.

I'm pretty sure the average person can wait 45 minutes to pee. I like baseball and I think football's too slow. If baseball takes four hours, that's because enough has happened for it to take four hours (or Steve Trachsel was pitching). Football somehow manages to magnify an hour into three.
posted by hoyland at 10:38 AM on August 30, 2012


> Football somehow manages to magnify an hour into three.

The Super Bowl commercial-thon is almost as pointless a waste of time as watching Jerry Springer. The 120 plays @ six seconds per play gives you 12 minutes of actual action over a 3.75 hour time period, i. e. the viewer spends 95% of the time waiting for something to happen or looking at a replay if something worth looking at again just happened.

And yet we watch.
posted by bukvich at 10:50 AM on August 30, 2012


If you seriously need to go to the bathroom more than once every 45 minutes (the length of a soccer half) you should probably see a doctor about that.

Oh, sorry, you were just doing your average American "Hurr durr, soccer sucks" routine? My apologies, carry on.
posted by Inkoate at 11:21 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nooooo. This is why I hate football, besides all the brain injury and the poor high school kids dying of heatstroke every year -- the last minute on the clock will last forever as they stop every second or two.

I advise that you never, under any circumstances, watch basketball.


Like I've said before, if you want to live forever, live using NBA Playoff seconds. They last twelve to twenty times as long as regular seconds.
posted by grubi at 11:28 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I wonder current aspect of life we take for granted people in 20 or 40 years will feel nostalgia for and how it will play out in sports.

Anything that doesn't involve being hunted by our corporate overlords from their hovercraft.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:28 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hurt durr! Soccer sucks!
posted by sendai sleep master at 11:43 AM on August 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Games like baseball, soccer and hockey require exceptional physical strength and skill just like all sports, but they don't put a premium on weighing 350 pounds or being 7 feet tall.

Well... I would say most sports do put a premium on size, hockey and tennis lately for sure player sizes are exploding, 7 footers outliers in both and TONS of 6'5" guys.

Also, for football, it's really just a couple positions where 350lb guys are valued.
posted by Cosine at 11:53 AM on August 30, 2012


Great article. Re football without pads, see the amazing paragraph in the piece about pre-WWI football:

People forget during this current safety crisis that football players once died. In bunches. Eighteen of them in 1905. Another 11 in 1906, 11 more in 1907 and 13 in 1908. The number shot up to 26 in 1909, dropped to 14 the following year, then stayed in double digits each year until the eve of America's entry into World War I....This means that from 1905 to 1916 the number of football deaths was greater than the number of U.S. casualties in Iraq during the past three years.

Wow...on a smaller population base too
posted by zipadee at 12:29 PM on August 30, 2012


"This is why I've started to think that there should be weight limits for NFL players by position. There are 300+ pound high-school football players in Texas, which feels disconcerting."

After seeing Murderball, I thought maybe the way to do it would be to put a weight limit on the LINE (or the entire side). Your seven defensive linemen can come to 1800 lbs. (an average of just over 250). So you can have a couple 300-pound guys, but you're going to have to offset them with smaller guys. Having really heavy guys would become strategically "expensive" by forcing you to have small guys to offset them; a line of athletic 250-lb players could probably outplay a line with 4 big slow guys weighing in at 300 and 3 tiny guys at 200.

Obviously this would institute all kinds of distortions as teams began gaming the rules, but they're gaming the current rules, and the really really heavy players hurt themselves and hurt other players, so maybe on balance it would be a good thing, even though it led to a different set of problematic rule-gaming.

Some Ivy League schools play "Sprint Football" which caps player weight at 172 lbs (and 5% body fat minimum). I've never seen it, but I've heard it's fun to watch because it's very fast. Probably they don't have a lot of trouble with eating disorders because it's not a very big sport and it's a "little brother" to "real" football, where more serious players may be more interested in playing.

"Are there any countries were this is really the case? If anything American sports is more diverse than other countries, since we care about the four major professional leagues, college football and basketball, and in some cases high school football. In a lot of countries the list of sports people care about is basically just soccer at different levels."

Maybe also throw in tennis and golf, which maintain profitable pro tours that support a fair number of players, on both the men's and women's sides. NASCAR and figure skating also are very widely-watched on national network TV; (non-Olympic) figure skating competitions used to be the second-most watched televised sport after football in the U.S., but NASCAR may have overtaken it.

posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:56 PM on August 30, 2012


Holy crap - I love this guy. I haven't even read the post yet and I know that I will love it. Cause I read The Tender Bar out of the blue and know virtually nothing about the guy, but I love the way he writes.
posted by PuppyCat at 1:00 PM on August 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


Murderball, btw, was the documentary about wheelchair rugby, where players are giving classification numbers according to their level of disability: "Players are classified according to their functional level and assigned a point value ranging from 0.5 (the lowest functional level) to 3.5 (the highest). The total classification value of all players on the court for a team at one time cannot exceed eight points." (Four players are on the court at once.) That way players with a wide variety of disabilities can play, and teams can't "stack" by seeking out the least-disabled players, removing the opportunity for the most disabled to play.

Anyway, that's what made me ponder whether it would be better to limit the TEAM'S weight, rather than the individual players' weights. Sorry, that was a long train of thought from one station to the other that I didn't bother to connect in my first comment. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:02 PM on August 30, 2012


Maybe also throw in tennis and golf, which maintain profitable pro tours that support a fair number of players, on both the men's and women's sides. NASCAR and figure skating also are very widely-watched on national network TV; (non-Olympic) figure skating competitions used to be the second-most watched televised sport after football in the U.S., but NASCAR may have overtaken it.

Yeah, somehow despite growing in a state that loves both, I forgot golf and NASCAR. We're a country of diverse sporting interests; I think we just tend to assume other countries are more diverse because they like sports we don't.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:16 PM on August 30, 2012


I don't have any solid numbers to back this up, but I think that blaming the "350 lb players" is a misstep. Those are the guys pounding each other on the line, or who are cover five yards or so before nailing someone in the backfield. Lord knows that the linemen have a propensity to target each others' knees, of course, and that can end a career in a hurry.

No, I believe it's the 250 pound linebackers who can run 40 yards in 4.5 seconds. A fellow like James Harrison (of the Pittsburgh Steelers) is a bit lighter than 250, but he squats something like 450 pounds and is known to have a mean streak. In the summer of 2011 (if memory serves) he commented that every time he hits a person he intends to hurt them -- in order to "make them hear the footsteps," as it were -- but not to injure them. But, you know, if one is attempting to land a brutal (but clean) tackle at high speed against an opposing fellow also moving at high speed then injury-causing tackles are inevitable.
posted by mr. digits at 2:37 PM on August 30, 2012


Anyway, that's what made me ponder whether it would be better to limit the TEAM'S weight

Not to be a broken record, but how would you accomplish this? Weight fluctuates throughout the day, and depending on how much you care about your kidneys, you can do a lot to skew what the scales say, provided you have advance notice of when you need to weigh-in.

MMA fighters and collegiate / Olympic wrestlers routinely cut extreme amounts of weight in very short time periods. Just yesterday, Phil Baroni cut 22 lbs. in 24 hours and made weight for a fight at 170 lbs.
posted by Dark Messiah at 3:20 PM on August 30, 2012


"Not to be a broken record, but how would you accomplish this? Weight fluctuates throughout the day, and depending on how much you care about your kidneys, you can do a lot to skew what the scales say, provided you have advance notice of when you need to weigh-in."

Sure, but the current system is damaging the heck out of people. Whatever rules you put in place will be gamed, and in sports they will be gamed in ways that damage athletes. The question is just whether a different set of rules would result in less damage, both as rules and as people try to game them.

If you follow the link above, Sprint Football uses a urine sedimentation test and does two weigh-ins leading up to games, which helps prevent rapid weight loss like that. Maybe that would be a system to think about starting with.

I'm not suggesting it as a serious cure-all reform, I'm just noodling around ideas. Maybe with a team having to make a total weight, you couldn't do as much screwing around with individual weights because if one guy doesn't make weight, that throws off the whole game strategy. I don't know. Maybe not. I love football, but what we know about the damage it does to players now really compels some kind of action. If I knew what kind I'd be getting the NFL to hire me. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:03 PM on August 30, 2012


You make some good points there; I was genuinely curious because I follow a lot of combat sports, and weight cutting is a big part of them. So any time weight limitations are imposed, I tend to think of scenarios like in MMA where guys cut in excess of 10% of their total body weight in extremely short periods of time.

I like the idea, provided you can stifle weight cutting, otherwise I think it would make things more dangerous if guys are competing while extremely dehydrated. Because, as you say, the system will be gamed; really all you can do is try and limit the extent to which it can be done.
posted by Dark Messiah at 6:35 PM on August 30, 2012


Suppose the weight restriction guideline read that "The mean weight of any given eleven-man offensive or defensive squad must not exceed 240 pounds"?

Typical large linemen might then tend toward 300 pounds, with lighter fellows among running back, receiver, and defensive back corps tending toward 180 pounds. That would essentially restrict the current top range by thirty to fifty pounds.

I noted above that I believe that fleet bruisers such as 250 pound linebackers are perhaps the likeliest to cause injuries (leaving linemen who roll up on legs aside, but then that is not likely to cause a concussion), so maybe there ought to be specific restrictions for specific groups. Cutting back on halfbacks exceeding 210 pounds might also help, for example, where helmet-inflicted casualties are concerned.
posted by mr. digits at 7:35 PM on August 30, 2012


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