Although football has long been America’s favorite child among professional sports, there are clear indicators that the ole pigskin is starting to deflate in fans’ eyes. Football fanatics need not panic: polls show it’s still far ahead of both baseball and basketball in popularity. The 2017 NBA finals averaged 20.4m viewers (a 20-year record), which is roughly the same as the NFL’s regular Sunday night audience of 20.3m, and nowhere near the 2016 Super Bowl über-audience of 111m. Based on just those numbers, football is still kicking professional basketball, baseball and hockey through the goal posts. But 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.”
This prediction has nothing to do with the athletes themselves, their level of skill, their heart, or their commitment to their sport. Professional athletes are generally the highest expression of what the human body is capable of doing and therefore inspiring to the fans to reach higher and strive harder. In that way, no sport is superior to any other sport. But when it comes to professional sports, some are more inspirational, more exciting and more entertaining to the general public than others and those sports take on a symbolic meaning for Americans. They come to represent our core values. They represent not just who we are, but who we want be.
Baseball once ruled all other sports as America’s pastime because it reflected the laid-back, less confrontational mood of America in the 1920s and 1930s. It was highly strategic, required precision teamwork, but moved at a pace reflective of hot summers in rural towns across the country. Football’s popularity rose with the increasing aggression of the America at home and abroad. Football embodied an America who faced all challenges head on, forcing its will on opponents through skill, guile and brute force. We were a country taking bold risks in order to succeed and football was the riskiest of team sports.
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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.
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. A broken arm or cracked rib is one thing, the scars that prompt bragging rights, but widespread permanent brain damage that affects players for the rest of their lives is beyond entertainment. There is nothing sexy about depression and dementia.
What makes it worse is that studies are finding the same problems with high school and college players. The same study found CTE in the brains of three of 14 high school players (21%) and 48 of 53 college players (91%). Dr Bennet Omalu, who is credited with discovering CTE (and who Will Smith portrayed in the 2015 movie Concussion), said that allowing kids to play football was equal to child abuse: “It is the definition of child abuse. If you play football, and if your child plays football, there is a 100% risk exposure.” This harsh reality prompted several former NFL players – including Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw and Troy Aikman – to admit that they would not want their sons to play football. LeBron James and then-President Obama agreed. Knowing all that, Americans can’t help but feel a little complicit in cheering for a sport that is so destructive to its players, especially kids. According to a Washington Post-University of Massachusetts Lowell poll, 90% of sports fans agree that head injuries represent a problem in the sport.
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. According to ESPN, basketball is the most popular sport among American youth, both boys and girls, while football has dropped to third place. Yet, football is responsible for more injuries than any of the other sports. Football accounts for 28% of injuries among athletes 5 to 14, while basketball is responsible for only 15%.
America’s sport isn’t about who we were in the past but about who we want to be going forwardKareem Abdul-Jabbar
Those are just numbers and we know that numbers can fluctuate based on a lot of factors. More important to the future of football than the injuries and declining popularity among youth is the symbolic nature of the sport as it relates to representing America. America’s sport isn’t about who we were in the past but about who we want to be going forward. We no longer see ourselves as Friday Night Lights warriors who send our best and brightest into combat on the field, needlessly risking their brains and futures for the sake of 11 minutes of actual play (out of the average three hours and 12 minutes of an NFL game), which is the same as baseball. In contrast, basketball is a perpetual motion machine in which players face muscular opposition, yet don’t conquer with brute force but rather with graceful maneuvers and intense teamwork. Each game is an example of athletic alchemy, producing astounding physical displays of leaping, spinning, passing and shooting. And it does this every few minutes.
America’s sport also has to represent America’s spirit, and right now that spirit is not one of complacency or complicity. Many athletes are no longer satisfied with taking the money and running home to hide out in their mansions. They want to fully embrace their responsibility as role models to children and representatives of their communities to speak out whenever America veers off the road paved by the US Constitution. With the Trump Administration’s overt racism, misogyny, xenophobia and anti-LGBTQ policies, we haven’t just veered off the road, we’re hanging over the cliff.
NFL players have been pioneers in expressing their patriotism through silent protest at a time when there is so much to protest. Colin Kaepernick has been a leader in this movement and he has paid a personal and professional price for not caving into pressure. Dozens of other players, coaches and even owners have joined the protest, though most of them have since backed off once there was fear that the NFL’s slipping ticket sales and TV ratings might be related to such demonstrations. Sadly, there is a racial component to this policy. It is the players of color who are being denied their freedom to protest because they are the ones who are part of the oppressed social group. White owners and white fans don’t experience this same oppression, so speaking out about racial disparity in the US is not a priority to them. However, when owners honor military groups at games, or even play the national anthem, they are expressing their political opinions. This means that they aren’t against expressing political opinions, just dissenting ones, even though the country was founded on celebrating dissent.
It’s disheartening to see some owners cowering in fear rather than further embracing this just expression. In the long run, pandering to their conservative fan base rather than acting out of conscience does more harm than good—to the sport and to the country.
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.
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