It's hard to imagine the possibility that the NFL might someday not have an Andre the Giant chokehold on America. Right now, no other sport even comes close. Football is a big, violent, unapologetic Wal-Mart. All other sports are mom-and-pop outfits trying to exist in football's shadow.
But is this dominance temporary? Could things fall apart? Could football be something that kids stop doing, and we only get to watch on ESPN2 between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m.?
Four different people bring up this possibility:
"Football is going to turn in to the Army," he said. "It'll be one of those things that middle class parents don't want their kids doing."
• Patrick Hruby on ESPN.com brings up the boxing example and makes the point that even with new enforcement of head-protecting rules, football is always going to be dangerous, and eventually, it will cause people to tune out.
• Howard Bryant, again on ESPN.com, writes this excellent column (and again brings up boxing) including quotes from athletes in other sports who won't allow their kids to play football.
• Recent comments from Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison(notes), himself accused of headhunting, indicating that he knows that his mental health might someday be compromised, and his long-term goal in football is to make sure that his kids don't have to play football:
"To be honest with you, I'm not too concerned with it," he said. "If that happens, you know, it's gonna suck.
"But hopefully I'll (have) made enough money and put in enough time that my kids don't have to worry about it. And if I got to go through a little bit of hell so that they don't have to, I'm fine with it."
Gladwell's one of the smartest and most thoughtful writers out there, the Bryant and Hruby columns are must reads, and the comments from Harrison are the most sobering of all.
Think about the other things that people say that they do so their kids won't have to. Fight wars? Strip? Work two or three jobs? Is that what football is now? Some vile, yet well-paying task that people endure, so that their kids can have a less violent future?
Obviously, football morphing into boxing is not a foregone conclusion, and this is only one side of the argument. Everyone already knows that football is dangerous and that it's wrecked the lives of former players. People still watch. And I tend to think that as long as Troy Polamalu(notes), Ray Lewis(notes) or Peyton Manning(notes) are featured on every other commercial on your television, guys become millionaires immediately upon being drafted, and football players are held up as gladiators and heroes and gods, the sport will still remain an attractive option for the youngsters.
If you care about football, though, it's an interesting and important thing to think about. Popular sports have become unpopular before. Things change. Empires crash. Could this current issue of violence and head trauma be the moment that an empire started to crumble?