Not For Long: The Future of the NFL?

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One of the staple clips from NFL Films features outlandish former Houston Oilers and Atlanta Falcons head coach Jerry Glanville. Besides dressing all in black and leaving “will call” game tickets for dead celebrities like Elvis, Glanville possessed a rollicking sense of humor that spared no one, especially league referees who did not see the game his way. In admonishing a rookie ref over what he perceived as a series of blown flags, Glanville memorably shouted: “This is the NFL, which stand for ‘Not For Long’ when you make them freakin’ calls!” Only Glanville used a more descriptive word than “freakin’”!

Funny then; funny now, but is it possible Glanville’s quip will, in the foreseeable future, become the epitaph of the most popular sport in the United States? Before you scoff, remember that many of today’s senior citizens grew up in a world where pro football scrambled with basketball, NASCAR, and hockey for the #4 spot on the American sporting landscape, behind the national pastime of baseball, then boxing and horseracing. Today, just a generation or so from their high-water marks, the latter two are now irrelevant afterthoughts.

Horseracing fell from the pantheon with the proliferation of legal gambling.

Boxing’s downfall was different; while horseracing’s flounder was financial, boxing’s was personal.

It is hard to recall boxing versus professional football as television events from the 1950s through the 1970s. In the Golden Age of Television, the NFL and later the AFL, with whom it would merge with in 1970, played 12 Sundays a year at 1 p.m., with an occasional West Coast contest at 4, then a sprinkling of playoff games culminating in the embryotic Super Bowl. And that was the entire pro football calendar.

Boxing however was everywhere. Friday Night Fights with the legendary Don Dunfee was a radio and television staple, broadcast continuously from 1939 through 1981. Episodic programs like “Wide World of Sports” regularly featured professional and amateur bouts, and Howard Cosell became a household name as Muhammad Ali’s foil and a great boxing announcer before ever calling his first Monday Night Football game in 1970. Title fights appeared regularly on Thursday and Saturday nights, as well as Sunday afternoons, and millions watched historic duels such as Larry Holmes winning the heavyweight title from Ken Norton, or Leon Spinks stunning upset over Ali, from the comfort of their homes on network TV.

The biggest, though, were on closed-circuit television, where you actually paid big bucks to go to your local sports arena to watch whatever was The Fight of The Century at that time, on grainy huge screens, many in black & white. Imagine doing that to see the Super Bowl!

How big was boxing? On October 2, 1975, Ali fought his nemesis, Smokin’ Joe Frazier, for the third and final time in their epic trilogy, winning what many consider one of the greatest fights of all time, The Thrilla in Manila. A struggling cable company, HBO, bought the broadcast rights. Prior to that evening, HBO, less than 3-years-old, was fighting for survival, with just a few tens of thousands of customers; within a month after The Thrilla in Manila, it skyrocketed into tens of millions of homes, jump-starting the cable revolution.

The highest-ever rating for Monday Night Football was when it was still on ABC, with the Miami Dolphins beating the previously undefeated Chicago Bears on December 2, 1985, when over 30 million viewers tuned in to the game. When Ali regained his title from Spinks in the New Orleans Superdome on September 15, 1978, also on ABC, the viewing audience exceeded 90 million people!

Notice a common thread? Muhammad Ali became the best-known person on the planet. From winning Olympic Gold in 1960 through the late 1970s, The Mouth That Roared would predict his fights in poetry and prose, and boxing proliferated like never before. It is no coincidence the greatest US Olympic boxing team ever was in 1976, led by the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard, with Howard Davis Jr, and Leon and Michael Spinks. Thanks to Ali, practically every kid in American wanted to be him, and boxing was King!

Then Ali employed the Rope-a-Dope, letting the largest and meanest men on earth pound away mercilessly on him, and victories gave way inevitably to age and devastating beatings first from Holmes then finally by Trevor Burbick. Shortly after retiring, the glib Ali began to stammer and falter, then physically shake, and eventually lapse into near-total silence. The diagnosis was Parkinson’s, but we all saw almost every brutal punch he took in clearing out three generations of heavyweight boxers, and suddenly no one wanted to end up like Ali. He was such a constant in our lives, he and The Beatles being the first true mass-media global superstars, that witnessing his decline was like being in the middle of a family tragedy. As Ali sank increasingly downhill, boxing sank with him. Young athletes turned away, diving headfirst into basketball, baseball and particularly football.

Boxing’s end came swiftly; its peak was Ali’s peak, culminating in 1976 US Olympic boxing team; by 1981 ABC canceled Friday Night Fights after 42 years, and Ali retired, permanently bowed and bloodied; Cosell abandoned the sport the following year due to its uncontrolled brutality. Within 5 years, boxing hit the canvas and the American public counted it out.

Antwaan Randle El is 36 years old. The former Indiana University star enjoyed an 8-year NFL career as a wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Washington Redskins, including being one of the stars in the Steelers Super Bowl XL victory. How young is Randle El in NFL terms? Three of the four starting quarterbacks in this season’s Conference Championship Games – Peyton Manning (39), Tom Brady (37) and Carson Palmer (36) are his age or older. In short, with a bit of luck, Randle El could still be playing.

Except that Randle El already has severe memory issues, and often needs to walk up-&-down stairs in a sideway shuffle due to intense pain from football. An excellent high school baseball and basketball player, he now wonders if he chose the wrong tract, with football over baseball.

Randle El is now one of the modern players who may struggle with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease exacerbated by concussions like those from football. While this devastation struck other well-known players like the late Junior Seau, the late Dave Duerson, and the late Mike Webster, among many others, none yet is the critical mass star to football as Ali was to boxing. What if, however, 20 years from now Tom Brady cannot remember his name and Peyton Manning is in a wheelchair from his four neck surgeries? Is the NFL strong enough to retain its All-American appeal, or will images like that tomorrow of our heroes from today seal its decline.

Cracks already show. Youth league and high school football participation is down 30% over the past decade. In Southwest Florida, it is common for high schools to have many more members not only in the marching band but also on their cheerleading units than on the team.

This downturn cuts across the board; while you have 30% fewer benchwarmers, you also have 30% less stars. The NFL lives on star power, with none shining brighter than the quarterback. Yet the league has an Age Issue at this crucial position, the quality backup QB is as extinct as the dodo, with a dearth of great, good or even competent signal callers, and little help on the horizon. Eight current quarterbacks are Super Bowl winners, and six of those generally rank as the league’s top half-dozen QBs. But Peyton Manning (1 ring/age 39), Tom Brady (4/37), Drew Brees (1/37), Eli Manning (2/35), Ben Roethlisberger (2/33) and Aaron Rodgers (1/32) average a combined 35.3 years of age – oddly enough, almost exactly that of Randle El – and when you throw in the other two big game victors of Joe Flacco at 31 and Russell Wilson, the only one under 30, at 27, that figure barely drops to 33.7-years-old. What will the league look like in just 5 years, with almost certainly Brady, Brees, both Mannings, and very likely Roethlisberger all in retirement? Will the Wilsons and Cam Newtons and Andrew Lucks and Andy Daltons and Jameis Winstons be able to fill that gap, or will the game take a gigantic leap backward?

The NFL egg cracked a little more on January 31st, when Calvin “Megatron” Johnson of the Detroit Lions and greatest wide receiver of the past decade – abruptly announced his retirement after nine seasons, at the age of 30. The 2nd overall 2007 draft pick, he is the Lions all-time leading receiver with 731 catches for 11,619 yards and 83 touchdowns. Prior to 2015, Megatron confided to a few close family and friends that his lingering ankle injuries and general body soreness reached the point where he had to give up the game. As the 5-time Pro Bowler said: “Like many players at this stage in their career, I am currently evaluating options for my future.” Apparently Johnson values his tomorrows over his todays, and is not alone: he is the 19th NFL player in 2015 age 30 or under to voluntarily retire – that rose from 5 in 2012 to 12 in 2013, then 14 in 2014, and now 19 this past season.

Despite the NFL’s recent emphasis on player safety and eliminating dangerous hits, more players than ever suffer concussions and related injuries, and more ex-players than ever survive in misery and agony. Many feel this is because current players are so big, strong, and fast. Thirty years ago, NFL teams typically had just one or two players over 300 pounds, and many of those were out-of-shape plodders. Today every squad has a dozen or more who exceed that weight, and most of those can run 40 yards in under 5 seconds. Due to player size and speed, pro football has never been more violent. Little wonder the average NFL career barely lasts three seasons.

What will the National Football League look like in another generation or two? Will it morph into a larger version of Arena Football, where the hugest men and greatest collisions are obsolete, the focus being a pitch & catch, 7-on-7 game dominated by quarterbacks, kickers, obscenely-fast receivers and defensive backs and little else? Will it remain at the top of the American mountaintop, or be an irrelevant curiosity like modern-day boxing and horseracing? Will it literally become too fast and too big for its own good? Will today’s football gladiators be the nursing home residents of tomorrow? How long will we have to wait for the answers to these and other important questions concerning the future of the NFL – Not For Long!

Gary Mooney