The National Football League's current popularity and profitability make it the envy of other professional team sports. In the America of today, pro football is king.
But what of tomorrow? Is there to be a continuation of this unbridled success? I think not.
The emergence of an unsolvable problem places the NFL's future in doubt. That problem is the recently-increased awareness of, and the deepening concern over, the danger to those who play the game.
The problem is not a new one. The risk of injury in a game of aggressive physical contact and violent collisions is something that has long troubled the public In general, and parents in particular. And efforts over the years to make the game safer by way of more protective equipment and rules have been offset by a basic fact of life. Football players are becoming year by year bigger and faster and stronger -- making the contact, the collisions, ever more violent.
What is new about this problem is undeniable evidence of the risk being taken by those who p[ay football for a living. And that evidence could have a profound effect on the popularity and profitability of the NFL in the not-too-distant future.
The writing is on the proverbial wall, with news in recent weeks of the confirmed relationship between playing football and brain damage -- and player reaction to this revelation.
In writing at ESPN.com, November 7, William Weinbaum and Steve Delsohn reported that doctors at UCLA had diagnosed former NFL players -- including Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Joe Delamielleure -- with chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) -- a degenerative brain condition that is widely thought to be caused by head trauma, and linked to depression and dementia. And earlier this year the National Institute of Health released the findings of five independent brain specialists that NFL Hall of Famer Junior Seau had suffered from CTE at the time of his suicide.
As more is learned about CTE and its link to football, occasional cries of alarm are becoming a chorus of concern. Researchers seem to have confirmed an awful truth -- NFL retirees are more likely than the general population to have problems with memory loss and depression that includes thoughts of suicide.
At present, a class-action law suit by more than 4,000 former players against the National Football League is in the process of being settled. The players claim that the league knew about, but covered up, a link between playing football and brain damage.
It could be argued that confirmation of the danger in playing football will have little effect on the popularity and profitability of the National Football League. That thinking is based on the belief that there will always be those willing to risk life or limb for monetary reward.
But those who are especially gifted with the physical attributes to play professional football at a high level might well choose in future to apply those gifts, instead, to baseball or basketball or other sports which are also financially rewarding, while a lot less risky.
And as for those of lesser ability, who would be willing to chance health issues for the opportunity to play for pay -- they would be akin to the replacement players tried by the NFL during past labor disputes.
But employing less than top-rate talent didn't work back then, and it wouldn't work now -- or ever. The public won't buy it. It was the public's resistance to less than the best that forced the NFL to settle those previous labor disputes. The appeal of the NFL comes in great part from the performance of fantastic feats of derring-do by its super stars.
The appeal of the NFL comes also from its aggressive physicality. Fans love the hard hits, and any major rule changes designed to make the sport safer would likely make the sport dramatically less appealing.
Even before the recent disclosures linking the playing of football to later-in-life brain problems, there was evidence of a trend away from football by American youth.
A Sports and Fitness Industry Association study earlier this year found a nearly five percent decline in tackle football participation by boys since 2007. Tackle football has suffered the largest decline in participation of any team sport, and an ESPN poll conducted in 2012 found 57 percent of parents surveyed less likely to allow children to play football since the increased frequency of stories about football-related concussions.
The bad publicity for the NFL isn't just about retirees with brain damage linked to football, and the apparent decline in participation in football by the next generation. Perhaps the most damning news is the announcement by a current NFL player, John Moffitt, a lineman for the Denver Broncos, who suddenly retired this mid-season because he had become "afraid of the long-term consequences of an NFL career."
Tyler Conway reported in the November 6 Bleacher Report that Moffitt told the Associated Press, "I think it's really madness to risk your body, risk your well being, and risk your happiness for money."
Moffitt reportedly said that the possibility of long-term brain injury did play a factor in his decision. Walking away as he did will Cost Moffitt up to $1 million.
The popularity and profitability of the National Football League is based on aggressive, hard-hitting tackle football -- the only kind of football fans want to see, and the kind of football that leaves former players subject to memory loss and depression. That's an unsolvable problem that places the NFL's future in doubt.