Bubble Times – Is it going to pop?


Continuing with my analogy from my last post, “Brain injuries and pro contact sports: Bubble times” , in which I compared the concussion issue in pro sports with the financial crisis, I thought I’d try to complete the comparison without, hopefully, forecasting the end of contact sports, notably the NFL and football in general.

In my previous post I said that fans, teams, and leagues play the same role in the concussion issue as the banks/financial institutions did in the recent financial crisis; interested only in their short term benefit, making them unintentionally complicit in the looming collapse. Players are like the borrowers; they want to play the sport they love and make lots of money doing it. Consequences be damned. Just like people wanted to buy houses and a bunch of other stuff, not thinking, wishing away the potentially negative long term consequences. It’s about the looming collapse that I will write.

Since my last post, I have listened to Malcolm Gladwell talk about the undesirable, yet inevitable decline of football. Then I read an article on the Oxford University Press blog Why football cannot last’ discussing Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) – a neurological disorder resulting from repetitive blows to the head. It got me thinking about the optimism shown at the end of my last post – had I not considered the situation fully? Was it simply wishful thinking?

Gladwell makes a convincing case for the demise of football (NFL) as we know it. He’s a big football fan, and he’s not encouraged  by his conclusions, but he thinks that in the not-too-distant future the NFL and football is likely to go the way of sports like boxing today – still watched by many fans, still lots of money, but not in the mainstream as it once was. When reading about boxing, you’ll read one article using words like “pure” and “artful”, while the next will use words like “undignified” and “barbaric”. This seems to be the way reporting on football is going. How long can the money keep the NFL (and CFL for that matter) prominent?

I live in a city, a province, even a timezone, without a pro football team. Without high school teams. Without any sanctioned contact football leagues. Still, from September to February, every Sunday friends and I sit in front of my TV with food, with beer, watching every game and every snap. It’s a lot of fun. Side note: My favourite team is the San Francisco 49ers. You cannot live in North America and live farther away from your favourite team (unless you root for the Chargers).

When I watch games, I see the receivers make incredible, sideline, toe-tapping catches, running backs perform amazing cuts and spin moves, and quarterbacks throw passes at finger-breaking speed just before being tackled by a big, powerful, yet somehow graceful, 250 lb  linebacker. It’s a spectacle to be sure, and I love watching all of it. Problem is, it’s not sustainable. We don’t know how many hits are too many. We don’t know how big a hit is too big. We don’t know a lot. The big hits are the worst obviously. Right? Maybe not. The offensive and defensive linemen are big, and not 6’1″, 225 lb big either. More like 6’4″, 300 lb. Large men. They run into each other, receiving sub-concussive hits on almost every play. These hits aren’t big enough to knock anybody out, but their frequency is enough to cause major disruptions in brain functioning.

There are millions of football fans, it’s the sport in many Canadian and American cities, and there are billions of dollars in TV contracts to support it, so it’s got to go on forever. Not if no one’s playing it doesn’t. We know much more about the effects concussive and sub-concussive hits have on long-term brain functioning now than ever before. That said, we know very little. We know enough to say that knocking your brain around your skull isn’t good, that it will do damage, but not enough to say who is most likely to be effected, or how many hits a player can take.

There is mounting evidence of the effects playing football and taking all those hits has on mental health, and it’s not good. To choose only the famous players and well-documented cases as examples has been done and those extreme cases gloss over the more common, but still debilitating brain injuries that many former players deal with everyday. When these brain injuries were first truly noticed, the question was, at what age should children begin contact football? Now it’s, should we introduce contact at all? 

Back to my analogy: The financial crisis began as interest rates went up and borrowers (players borrowing from their future) began defaulting on their mortgages (loans from banks, i.e. fans, teams, leagues) – granted, there were more financial shenanigans going on that made it more of a mess than it needed to be. The interest rate is simply the cost of borrowing. As players realize the devastatingly high cost of borrowing from their future they will; demand more money up front, seek a lower interest rate (i.e. less contact), or not borrow at all (i.e. not play contact). None of these are conducive to hard hitting football.

In the last paragraph of my last post I wrote, I think there’s hope, then I wrote, If attitudes can change quickly in a large society in which rules, regulations and ‘socially acceptable norms’ are more difficult to enforce, then surely attitudes towards brain injury in pro sports – a smaller society in which rules and regulations can be relatively easily enforced – can quickly adapt. While I think/hope this is true, after reading, listening and thinking about it more, I believe that the attitude that needs to change is our attitude toward contact. Fortunately, though there will be a lot of kicking and screaming from fans, players, media as changes are gradually applied, the general attitude shift should occur gradually. If leagues like the NFL and CFL are to last, it will depend on the innovative ways in which they foster and accept the new reality. I agree with Anthony Scioli, author of ‘Why football cannot last’ that pro football as we know it is coming to an eventual end. How long it will take to reach this end depends on how quickly, or if, fans accept it.

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