Flowers for Football

Last week, Leonard Fournette decided to skip his team’s bowl game to avoid risking injury prior to starting his highly anticipated NFL career. From the perspective of his future, this is an absolute no brainer. Fournette has been a top NFL prospect well before he even began playing for LSU. Fournette has also already had his entire junior year derailed by a lingering high ankle sprain he sustained in the first game of the year so injury risks are acutely real.

Fournette right now is ESPNs highest rated NFL prospect for 2017. Almost assuredly a top ten pick in the upcoming draft, Fournette will probably bring in somewhere between 15 and 25 million with his rookie contract. Nothing he could do in the final game against Lousiville was going to dramatically improve his draft position. At this point, his performance in the combine would be much more likely place for him to put a final stamp on his draft status. Playing in this bowl game he only stood to lose money with a potential injury, and in a worst case scenario could completely negate a lifetime of hard work.

Shortly after Fournette announced his decision, Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey followed suit and declared his intention to sit the final game and prepare for the draft. McCaffrey has not had any issues with injuries this season, has already shown himself incredibly reliable, putting up nearly identical numbers two seasons in a row for the Cardinal. 

The Concern

These decisions have led to a wider discussion about the relevance of bowl games in the era of the college football playoff. With only 4 teams having an opportunity to bring home a meaningful trophy, what’s the point of the other 38 games? I feel like the impact of the college football playoff is overblown in this line of reasoning. I think the bigger issue is that the number of bowls has jumped from 16 to 41 in the past 20 years. This has completely watered down the level of play in the bowl games, and by having so many meaningless bowls, I feel it takes away from the interest in the top 10 games. I feel like the NCAA would be better off cutting back on the proliferation of bowl games moving forward.

While this decision is certainly best for the player, I suspect people are overlooking just how devastating this is for the game of football. Players are quickly starting to recognize that each game of football played is one less game of football you’ll ever be able to play, as well as significantly increasing the risk of dying young. This general realization flies in the face of one of the most important factors in excelling in any skill, that the way you become great at something is by taking advantage of almost any opportunity to participate.

Beyond that, if you wish to be an elite competitor, you need to have the desire to compete and win in every scenario. Steve Kerr, arguably the most successful individual in modern basketball, continually points out that the reason the common theme among those teams was how they have treated practice. The effort put forth each day on the floor, no matter the stakes, is what allowed them to be so dominate. Those teams also drew in record viewership because people love to watch greatness in action. While the biggest markets will obviously draw higher ratings, the games between two of the smaller NBA markets in Golden State and Oklahoma City drew the largest audiences of all time for a non-finals playoff series in the NBA. The 1996 NBA basketball season had almost twice the average audience per televised game and it was because the greatest team of all time was playing in a huge portion of those games.

Fall of an Empire

Football has built quite an empire for itself in the United States over the past 40 years. Comparing viewership between sports is always tricky since there are so few NFL games compared to the other big 4 sports, and they all occur when almost nothing else is on, Sundays and Monday and Thursday nights. Still the NFL pre game shows drew a larger audience than actual NBA games this past week. Even more impressive, only Super Bowl II in 1968 drew fewer viewers than this years game 7 between the Cubs and Indians. That game 7 was the culmination of a combined 176 years of futility and was easily one of the most exciting in baseball history. There was such a huge base of thirsty Cub fans that when the celebrated the victory, it was estimated to be the 7th largest gathering of humanity in history.

These statistics show that the NFL has an long way to fall from grace. Yet if you go around and ask young couples if they are willing to allow their son to play football the answer is increasingly no. A 2013 survey of 1204 adults showed 85% would be willing to let their son play. Another study of 1001 adults in 2014 found a staggering 50% of parents would not allow their son to play. A study of 412 adults conducted in Arizona this year is less bleak, but still a full third of parents stated they would ban football for their sons. Perhaps most telling, a Washington Post survey in 2013 of retired NFL players showed fewer than half would recommend high schoolers playing football. Considering that in 2008 there had already been a 158 NFL players whose fathers had also played in the league, it’s clear that few things predict football success better than your family tree.

Some people have pointed out that it might not just take parents barring their kids from playing to destroy the sport. Fundamentally, the sport is reliant on high schools to provide the opportunity for young kids to explore the sport and practice on a regular basis. Research continues to mount showing that the average high school football player receives over 1,000 blows to the head per season, and that even if none of these result in a concussion, severe damage is being done. In 2013, 7 high schoolers died from football related injuries.

At some point, it stands to reason that a class action lawsuit could be extended against a high school for promoting the sport. If that ever comes to pass, it will likely mean the immediate shuttering of virtually every high school football program in the country, as high schools absolutely do not have anywhere near the budget to be able to risk any sort of multi-million dollar penalty for offering an extracurricular activity.

I point all of this out not because no one else has, but because I think its interesting to watch a falling empire. At minimum, it will likely take decades for another sport to draw more viewers than the NFL. During that whole time it would be impossible to argue that the NFL is not the preeminent sport in the US. Despite this, I personally think its obvious the writing is on the wall, and barring some miraculous advancement textiles allowing for helmets to completely negate the effect of head blows we are just watching the draining of a Great Lake. It will take ages, but in the end there is a finite amount of water and it will eventually run dry. I think this is a useful case study in understanding the fall of an empire. We often think of things in our lives as infallible, and imagining their demise is nigh impossible. Rarely are the signs of death so obvious, and so I recommend taking advantage of this scenario and paying close attention to how this plays out.