It would seem that the National Football League has no problems. The league's television ratings are huge and many cable networks are trying hard to win broadcasting rights for future games. Plus, every stadium is nearly filled to capacity week after week. Yes, business is booming everywhere for America's most popular sport.
But don't fool yourself. There is trouble in paradise. As anybody who follows the NFL knows well, the epidemic of serious head injuries has jeopardized the safety and health of the players. If you worked in an office building or a factory, you wouldn't want to feel that your life was in danger simply by going to work.
The NFL is between a rock and a hard place. The threat of violence is one of the league's calling cards and a central reason why the sport has thrived for decades. As much as Americans pride themselves on being sophisticated people, we love the NFL's big hits, and the rougher the better, too.
The NFL must feel as if it can't win for losing. Struck by the price tag and bad publicity associated with the players' long-lasting problems stemming from head injuries, the referees are diligently enforcing rules against players using their helmets to inflict damage above the shoulders. The NFL agreed in August to pay $765 million to players who had suffered concussions.
At the same time, the defensive players get paid well to stop quarterbacks, runners, and receivers by tackling them as hard as they can. So, if the players are prohibited from hitting opponents in the head, they have to aim lower and target players' knees. This presents big problems, too, though, as players are suffering debilitating knee injuries.
The way things are going, the injury-obsessed NFL is heading toward a crossroads. It wants to discourage injuries but it doesn't want to curb the violence in the game. The NFL is heading toward something like flag football, in which the players are prohibited from hitting one another. Of course, the fans want to see the players belting one another around.
Is it possible that football could someday fade away from our TV screens? Sure. Look at boxing. In the heydays of the likes of Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, boxing thrived. It was so popular that there seemed to be a big fight on TV every Saturday or Sunday. Today, boxing is a ghost of what it was in those salad days.
Violence is one of two main reasons that the NFL has become such a successful enterprise. The other is the popularity of people gambling on the outcomes of the games, thanks to the explosion of NFL fantasy leagues and knockout pools. The NFL had better pray that there will be no scandals involving gambling. This is the nightmare of all of the sports commissioners.
The NFL has to figure out what to do. It may be next to impossible for the powers that be to strike a balance between the fans' desire for violence and the league's desire to keep the game safe for the players.
Jon Friedman writes the Media Matrix blog for Indiewire.com. He is also the author of "Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)Invention, Shunning the Naysayers, and Creating a Personal Revolution." Read more reports from Jon Friedman — Click Here Now.
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