Thought Experiment: The End of the NFL

The NFL season may be over, but the conversation on the growing phenomenon of head injuries and cognitive problems among football players will continue. Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier contemplate a thought experiment on the demise of the NFL:

Before you say that football is far too big to ever disappear, consider the history: If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist. The original version of Napster no longer exists, largely because of lawsuits. No matter how well a business matches economic conditions at one point in time, it’s not a lock to be a leader in the future, and that is true for the NFL too. Sports are not immune to these pressures. In the first half of the 20th century, the three big sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, and today only one of those is still a marquee attraction.

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.

They contemplate it might take some time, at least ten years:

Imagine the timeline. A couple more college players — or worse, high schoolers — commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, the NFL keeps changing its rules, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn’t worth it. The Ivy League quits football, then California shuts down its participation, busting up the Pac-12. Then the Big Ten calls it quits, followed by the East Coast schools. Now it’s mainly a regional sport in the southeast and Texas/Oklahoma. The socioeconomic picture of a football player becomes more homogeneous: poor, weak home life, poorly educated. Ford and Chevy pull their advertising, as does IBM and eventually the beer companies.

Very interesting read. Will the day ever come when Americans refer to soccer when they say football?

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