In 2012, trying to envision an America without football seems impossible. Just the notion is downright laughable, especially for those of us living in Nashville, Tennessee: SEC country, where football is king and basketball is that funny sport people play when football season is over. But Economics professors Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier think a combination of litigation and an emerging medical awareness of the long-term effects of concussions could very well lead to the “End of Football.”

The Centers for Disease Control estimate that between 1.6 and 3.8 million teenage athletes sustain brain injuries each year, with high school football causing 3 times as many concussions as the second most dangerous sport–girls’ soccer, if you’re interested. Jonah Lehrer has written of recent research into the long-term effects of concussions: “football players with multiple concussions were 7.7 times more likely to experience a ‘major drop in memory performance.’” Further, the students with concussions had significantly lower GPAs than athletes who had not sustained concussions. More alarmingly, both ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and CTE (another progressive degenerative disease) have been linked to concussions, with one CTE-suffering football player tragically committing suicide.

This new awareness of the consequences of concussions has led to litigation. Much litigation. Just this last Friday (Feb. 17, 2012), two concussion-related lawsuits were filed against the NFL, one by a group of 49 players and the other as a class action purporting to represent every NFL player or spouse of a player who had ever suffered a concussion. There are currently 31 concussion suits pending against the NFL.

Cowen and Grier’s theory goes something like this: as litigation continues, just one or two major payouts could signifantly raise insurance costs for the NFL, its franchises, college football teams, and high school teams. That cost may not be worth it for some schools, especially high schools. At the same time, the publicity from the sales may lead parents to start not allowing their sons to play football, especially at wealthier private schools. There might then be what Cowen and Grier term a “contagion” effect where parents follow each other’s lead in being good parents and not letting their sons participate in such a dangerous sport. Fewer players means fewer college teams and eventually fewer pro teams. The feeder system runs dry. The sport will no longer get the top talent, so even the remaining teams aren’t as fun to watch. And the domino effect goes on.

Outlandish? Crazy? Probably.  But maybe not. After all, in 1912, the three top sports in America were baseball, horse racing, and boxing. Times change.

– Joel Slater

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2 Responses to Could litigation kill football?

  1. Shane Valenzi says:

    “the publicity from the sales may lead parents to start not allowing their sons to play football, especially at wealthier private schools.”

    The inference here is exactly why the concussion problem won’t ever destroy the popularity of the sport; the fact is, the vast majority of football players don’t come from wealthy private schools. While an occasional prospect comes along rich in both money and talent (Chris Long of the St. Louis Rams, for example), teenagers from lower or working class households with even a slim chance of earning the sort of money playing professional football provides will continue to take the risk. NFL players already make considerably less, on average, than their NBA and especially MLB brethren, yet the allure of the almighty dollar and the feelings of invincibility that seduce teenagers into making bad decisions since the beginning of time will prevent medical data from taking down the NFL Goliath with a slingshot.

    • Joel Slater says:

      Thanks for the comment, Shane. If you don’t like the bottom up theory, there’s also the top down theory that jury awards/rising insurance premiums will make the sport unprofitable. I didn’t like that theory as much because you would think something as simple as a waiver would fix that problem, so long as the waiver was respected in court.