If Football Ended…

This piece, from Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier, speculates on how football could end, and I would predict — with no claims to anything other than speculation — that football will end. It is dangerous physically and lawsuits are on the rise, and at some point high schools are going to say the jig is up and pull the sport.

Anyway, what do you think?

The NFL is done for the year, but it is not pure fantasy to suggest that it may be done for good in the not-too-distant future. How might such a doomsday scenario play out and what would be the economic and social consequences?…

The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits. Precollegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society. If you are coaching a high school football team, or refereeing a game as a volunteer, it is sobering to think that you could be hit with a $2 million lawsuit at any point in time. A lot of people will see it as easier to just stay away. More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a “contagion effect” with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit. We have seen such domino effects with the risks of smoking or driving without seatbelts, two unsafe practices that were common in the 1960s but are much rarer today. The end result is that the NFL’s feeder system would dry up and advertisers and networks would shy away from associating with the league, owing to adverse publicity and some chance of being named as co-defendants in future lawsuits….

Despite its undeniable popularity — and the sense that the game is everywhere — the aggregate economic effect of losing the NFL would not actually be that large. League revenues are around $10 billion per year while U.S. GDP is around $15,300 billion. But that doesn’t mean everyone would be fine….

Outside of sports, American human capital and productivity probably rise. No football Saturdays on college campuses means less binge drinking, more studying, better grades, smarter future adults. Losing thousands of college players and hundreds of pro players might produce a few more doctors or engineers. Plus, talented coaches and general managers would gravitate toward management positions in American industry. Heck, just getting rid of fantasy football probably saves American companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually….

This outcome may sound ridiculous, but the collapse of football is more likely than you might think. If recent history has shown anything, it is that observers cannot easily imagine the big changes in advance. Very few people were predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, or the rise of China as an economic power. Once you start thinking through how the status quo might unravel, a sports universe without the NFL at its center no longer seems absurd.

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  • phil_style

    I can see the professional game undergoing major changes in order to deal with the issues identified in that piece, but I can’t see the whole sport dying. It’s too much of a cultural institution now.

    On the other hand, maybe Football (TM) will collapse when everyone in the US finally wakes up to the awesome beauty that is proper football. 😉

  • Fred

    Outside of the U.S., soccer reigns. Next is olympic-style weightlifting. Now there’s a real test of athleticism. But I digress.

    It would be deemed too big to fail, money would change hands and the whole thing would be swept under the rug. Besides, the real danger to societal health is the selling of raw milk across state lines by Amish farmers.

  • Deets

    I played football in high school. I enjoyed it even though it was dangerous then. But now days, I look at how the game is played. Defenders no longer tackle. They try to kill the guy with the ball, shoulder down. In my day, my coach benched us for hits like that. He’d say that all we are going to do is get someone hurt, wrap up when you tackle.

    I watched the Rugby World Cup this year because my daughter likes it. (Something to do we a cute boy from NZ.) It too is a though game, but the players had respect for the game, and the refs use the “sin bin” if necessary. Football could use a penalty box kind of rule. I don’t know of any other sport where the penalty for intentionally destroying the other player illegally doesn’t take the guilty player off the field. Personal fouls need to be punished with a time off the field.

    I think you are right. The game going to find trouble. It will survive, but it will have to change.

  • BLASPHEMY! I will rent my jersey and throw burnt tortilla chips in the air! And there’s no way that removing Saturday college football will reduce binge drinking on weekends (it will just give them more time to drink). Plus, as long as football is big business (both professional and collegiate), there will always be football. Too much money to be lost to bow to the god of litigation.

  • Mike

    Goodbye football. I won’t miss you.

  • Kenton

    While I’m trying to come up with a thoughtful response, let me just say that Fred (#2) just won comment of the year.

  • Joe Canner

    Ray Lewis said during the lockout that losing the football season would *increase* crime, what with so many people at loose ends all Sunday afternoon and evening.

    Deets #3: I like your idea of a penalty box for football. Taking the player off the field for several minutes of game clock time would be a significant disincentive. Making the offender’s team play short-handed (as in hockey) would make the game even more interesting. Alternatively (or additionally), lesser infractions could accumulate and result in ejection as in soccer and basketball.

  • dopderbeck

    Never gonna happen. If the liability issues the author mentions start to cause serious problems, you’ll see some legislation limiting that liability. It’s way too big a cultural icon.

    If anything, I could see American culture become increasingly tolerant of violent sports over the next 20 years — witness the fast-growing popularity of MMA.

  • DB

    Everybody who has spent much time with me knows I have been a solid Pittsburgh Steeler and Penn State Nittany Lions fan. Even before the scandal at Penn State this past fall though, I have struggled over the inconsistent safety standards in the game, the pseudo-religious nature of the game, and the supplanting of educational enrichment of that sport in particular in this culture.

    I am almost at the point of forsaking it all as a silent witness against the popularized idolatry it has become. Maybe by fall I will have turned my back on it for good after more than 30 years of cheering on my favorite teams.

  • The safer they make the players by increasing safety equipment, the more serious the injuries become because they hit each other harder. The answer is to remove the padding. Rugby, for instance, has less equipment and fewer serious injuries.

    The idea that ending college football would increase the smartness of our country is about the stupidest thing I’ve heard since 3:46 yesterday afternoon.

  • I’ve wondered about the demise of football, too. This past season of the college game really was galling, and some of the post-season shenanigans can hardly be less than felonious: witness yesterday’s arrest of TCU players in a drug sting.

    I had also complained mid-season about the coach of my alma mater because we were losing close games, and then the whole thing over in Penn State broke, and I just thought: wow. I cannot complain ever again about our coach or the team. It’s just nothing compared to what is happening elsewhere.

    I would miss the game if it were gone, but I am presently rejecting false identities and wrong allegiances. It’s just a game, fun to watch, but not at the expense of the players’ lives or in facilitating the corruption of others.

  • R Hampton

    It’s only with the advent of situational players and much better padding that tremendous gains in size and speed were seen in just about every position. But if teams had to adopt smaller rosters (forcing most players into full-time rolls, some into dual-positions) and the players had to wore simpler protection (circa 1960) then the number of injuries would drop substantially.

    Unfortunately smaller players built for an endurance game rather than a power game would likely hurt viewership and thus revenues.

  • Kenton

    I love football. And I also see the footbacoplyse that the writers are predicting. Football needs another council like the one Roosevelt called to save the game. Everything should be “on the table.” Game expulsions, equipment revamping, rules about stances, even number of downs and yards for a first down should be open to discussion.

  • Randy Gabrielse

    I have said for several years that as the NFL investigates head injuries they will eventually find that they cannot keep the game as is and know about head injuries. The hockey/penalty box rule might provide a way around that.

    OTOH: I don’t know what to do about those outlaw Amish Farmers.

  • Karl

    The rules of the game will continue to change and evolve, but I think football is way too embedded in American culture for it to actually go away during any of our lifetimes. If anything, its popularity has increased in recent years (college football especially).

  • Amos Paul

    The United States of America will die before American Football dies.

  • Barb

    Sounds good for Baseball!

  • TJJ

    I too think it is the beginning of the end of Football. Younger folk will not know this, but believe it or not boxing used to be huge in this country and was on regularly on evening network TV. But the vilence and injury and brutality of that sport finally caught up with it and cultural taste changed.

    I predict the same will happen to football. Yes, you can change the rules, but at some point rule change will take out the things that make Football interesting in the first place. The violence, the injury, and the brutality will end it as we know it, and then it will go the way of arena football.

    Look, 100 years ago it barely even existed. 100 years from now it will barely exist. The NFL and sponsors will try and hold on and squeeze as much money as it can for as long as it can, but I think the last year or two will be seen as the beginning of the end.

  • Well, if football ends here then it will give rise to the ultimate sport of bowling to take its rightful place as the true American sport. Bowling is the more athletic and skill needed sport. The ball also weighs 14-16 pounds and football’s are so light compared that. So the good news would be the rightful rise of bowling once again into the American psyche and youth would then become more healthy, intelligent and socially skilled. In football you don’t talk to each other as you play. Bowling you speak, interact and learn as you bowl. It would solve a lot of our most problematic issues today in our culture.

  • DRT

    Even if the HS and College morph their game into a sissy sport, the Pro’s will keep full impact.

  • Rick

    Yes Fred, #2! I raise my cup of raw milk to you. And I would love it if our best athletes began investing in soccer and we could get on board with the rest of the world in the greatest game ever. And I am not taking away from our current men’s (or women’s) national teams – they are the best in our country and competing in the top levels of international club play as it is.

  • scotmcknight

    Dan Kimball, my only memories of bowling are in smoke-filled and cigarette-smelling joints. Come again on the athletic side? What’s really going to rise is the great sport called Golf. Now that takes some coordination, strength, skill… I could go on but you get the point.

    To adjust a line from the immortal words of John Kruk: “Lady, I ain’t an athlete, I’m a golfer.”

  • Mitch

    No I don’t football is going away soon although some of the things you say in the article are true, people will always spend tons of money on Sports, it’s like the Romans in the Colosseum it gives them entertainment and puts money into the pockets into the hands of those behind it.

  • DRT

    One of my favorite Far Side cartoons is of some, well, round, guys on the green saying “Golf is a sport, therefore we are athletes.”

    Bowling rocks.

  • Jeremy

    “it is sobering to think that you could be hit with a $2 million lawsuit at any point in time.” This can’t happen. If you are a parent who allows your kid to play football or a football player yourself, no one is forcing you to play therefore you can’t sue anyone.

    I’ve heard some intelligent sports commentators say that with multiple studies documenting how dangerous football is and how concussions affect people later in life, football might turn into something like the military – the majority of people who are involved only play to get out of poverty with the hope of getting a college scholarship or employment in the NFL.

  • Jeremy

    TJJ, I think boxing became less popular in America not because of its inherent violence, but because there aren’t the big name heavyweights that we used to know. There are no Alis, Foremans, Fraziers, and Tysons today. Look at MMA. It is more popular than ever and it is more violent than boxing.

  • @TJJ: Yeah, I thought about boxing too. And, for those who think the equipment is the problem, making the equipment less protective will hardly make the game safer; President Roosevelt (Teddy, that would be) is supposed to have threatened to ban football because of its violence and because of deaths and injuries back when helmets were just leather caps.

  • JohnM

    DRT #20 – I’d like to think so too, but I don’t know. If anything turns out to be the death of the NFL it’ll be very rule changes designed to make the game safer. Eventually they’ll eliminate tackling altogether and it’ll become tag football – of course with pentalties for tagging too hard.

    But don’t anybody hold your breath for “more studying, better grades, smarter future adults” just because football goes away. Not as long as the kids are still texting, twitting, twerping or whatever it’s called nowdays.

  • crawfish


  • Tim Marsh

    I write this as a huge Alabama football fan and a huge college football fan in general. I am not sure that football will end, in the way suggested above. First, football has always been dangerous. It has survived numerous rule changes, equipment changes, and tactics in response to concerns for players’ health. The NFL is on the right track by eliminating hits on vulnerable players on kickoffs, passes over the middle, and players leading with their helmets to hit.

    Second, it is a great sport that incorporates athletes of all sizes and abilities. Each position incorporates different techniques as opposed to other sports mentioned above.

    Finally, in college athletics it is the sport that drives conference alignment decisions, etc. As someone pointed out, “When you go to a basketball game, you are going to a game. When you go to a football game, it is an event.” He meant that a football game is an all-day event. It’s popularity is at an all-time high in this country. And, it is a thoroughly American sport. It’s interesting that soccer did not catch hold in this young nation, but sports that were invented and evolved in our country have risen to high popularity.

    I am not saying that such a scenario is not plausible. I see two other factors leading to the decline of football – if it is to happen. First, American individualism. As Bobby Bowden once put it. When he started coaching, you did not have sell a player on what they had to do to be a great team player. They would run through a brick wall just because the coach said so. Now, you have to sell a player on what they are to do and why they are to do it.

    Second, eventually the sport could become one in which the average Joe can no longer afford a ticket. That, and Pay-Per-View, killed boxing, which was arguably the most popular sport in the 1960’s and 70’s. If only the elite can get tickets, then the average fan may balk.

    Nevertheless, this is an interesting article that serves as a reminder that even the most powerful institutions and the most popular parts of any culture will eventually decline. When I think of the Greek and Roman ruins, it is a sobering reminder that those once were that culture’s Cowboy Stadium.

  • Tim Marsh

    One other thought, though: Why is there so little Christian Ethical Reflection on sports and entertainment? Sports, music and movies impact our lives as Americans and Christians living in America. Yet, I see very little reflection on the amount of money, time and energy that goes into these arenas, and what they do to our own personal thought lives.

    Is it because that we Christians are just as adicted? (And that especially includes me!)

  • Amos Paul


    Entertainment and hobbies are conducive to a healthy lifestyle and rest and a good work ethic. I don’t really see the problem.

    Nor do I have an issue respecting the liberty of others to pursue their own interests as they please. I don’t see the point in furthering a culture of judgement towards those in society who invest themselves in harmless activities of entertainment. The church can teach moderation as conducive towards health and Christ as our focus. I don’t see a reason to assert further.

  • Fish

    Football has many bad side effects:
    – The injuries, obviously.
    – Continued glorification of a violence-based culture.
    – Students attend colleges based on the strength of the team rather than an academic fit.
    – Large amounts of society’s finite resources are expended on a non-value-added activity.
    – A highly successful football team decreases the learning on campus by pulling students away from their studies.

  • Rick Hamil

    I remember as a boy watching Larry Holmes pummell some buy I can’t remember in a boxing match. Howard Cosell kept talking about how he felt the game needed to protect the heads of boxers. What would the end result be? Yet, boxing has continued and now we have the MMA which is even more violent. I suspect that football will hang around. America will become more tolerant of violence, and people will starting having to sign legal waivers just to play. Lawyers will determine at what age a child is able to decide to play or not. My guess is that you will see an end to Junior High Full Contact Football, but they will decide that a 15 or 16 year old can understand the risks. High School football will continue.