This year’s Super Bowl was filled with juicy storylines, but one was far better than the rest.
Think you can guess which one it was?
No, it wasn’t the insufferable Harbaugh love fest, the Ray Lewis possible performance enhancing drug use use, or New Orleans forgetting to pay its light bill.
Here’s a hint: It didn’t even happen during the game.
That’s right. The most interesting thing to come out of this year’s Super Bowl was a statement about the future of the NFL made by Baltimore Ravens safety Bernard Pollard to CBSSports.com.
“Thirty years from now, I don’t think it will be in existence. I could be wrong. It’s just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going — where [NFL rules makers] want to lighten up, and they’re throwing flags and everything else — there’s going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it,” he told the website.
“Guys are getting fined, and they’re talking about, ‘Let’s take away the strike zone’ and ‘Take the pads off’ or ‘Take the helmets off.’ It’s going to be a thing where fans aren’t going to want to watch it anymore.”
It’s easy to scoff at this statement. The country’s fastest growing and most popular sport gone before the children of today can have a mid-life crisis? C’mon man!
And yet, when we really take the time to consider Pollard’s statement, the idea seems a lot less far-fetched.
The Path to Extinction
Clearly, Pollard envisions football coming to an end because of a loss of fans. While he certainly overstates the NFL’s attempts to make the game safer, his connection between the new legislation bound to occur in the league and the effect it will have on the game’s popularity is a logical one.
With the dark cloud of concussions hanging over the game, the NFL is scrambling to make the game safer. It has already instituted new rules including moving kickoffs up to the 35-yard line, prohibiting hitting a “defenseless” player, and hitting a quarterback below the knees. Reports are that Commissioner Roger Goodell is even considering eliminating kickoffs entirely in favor of essentially having teams punt from their own 30-yard line after a touchdown or field goal.
As Pollard points out, the NFL is walking a fine line with every new rule it puts into place. With each step to make the game safer, the defense suffers while the offense benefits from the changes. According to Pro-Football-Reference.com, the league scored more points in 2012 than it had in any other season and the point totals have gone up in each of the past three seasons. With even more new rules added for safety on the horizon, this trend isn’t likely to stop anytime soon. The continuation of the trend benefits the NFL in the short run. If it continues for an extended amount of time, though, the NFL won’t survive.
The NFL simply cannot risk becoming the Arena Football League, where final scores end up being 71-57 or 75-70. But the fans love offense, you say. Well, according the Arena Football League’s attendance numbers, fans don’t love offense as much as we think they do. The league’s average attendance total in 2012 was only 7,841.
Whether you agree with the types of changes that the NFL has already put in place or is considering, it is obvious that the NFL has to do something to make the game safer. The recent string of deaths of former players Dave Duerson, Junior Seau and Ray Easterling, as well as the horrific injury to former Rutgers defensive tackle Eric LeGrand, are not only terrible for the game’s image, but also an evident sign that the league has inherent problems that won’t go away by themselves.
So, the NFL is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Implement the wrong rule changes and the game becomes a shell of itself and fans will stop watching. Do nothing and fans may begin to turn away as they start to consider what it is they are watching and cheering for.
A Plethora of Problems
Creating the right type of rule changes isn’t the NFL’s only major issue either. Even if it makes every right move in regard to rule changes, it could still cease to exist if its talent pool evaporates. People from President Obama to former Dallas Cowboys Pro Bowl linebacker Dexter Coakley have expressed reservations about letting their children play the game in light of the concussion risks and complications that have recently been exposed. Increasing numbers of parents simply don’t want their children exposed to the hits that are an inherent part of the game.
Of course, children won’t be playing against Pollard. However, there is no reason that that play doesn’t happen on a smaller scale with increasing intensity for every level that a child advances in the game. Without addressing the serious concussion problem hanging over the league, the NFL may begin to see its future talent pool dwindle over time as parents choose to have their kids play lower impact sports such as baseball or basketball.
The problems simply don’t stop here either. The NFL is facing a number of other issues, including performance enhancing drugs, drug abuse and addiction. It truly is only a matter of time before people begin to question the morality of the game they love. How will they react when this inevitably begins to happen?
No Easy Solution
Although it seems that Pollard is on to something, it is hard to imagine the NFL completely gone from the American sports landscape. The league’s popularity is still on the upswing, and Goodell believes that one day soon there could be a division entirely based in Europe.
For the goodwill to continue and the European vision to come true, though, the league will have to find some way to solve the innumerable hurdles on the horizon. The decisions that the NFL makes about these pressing issues in the upcoming years will not only directly impact the league and its brand, but will also indirectly decide the fate of every other tier of football in America, from college to high school all the way to Pop Warner. If ever there was a league built to overcome these deep issues, it is the money-soaked and hugely popular NFL. Whether it does so or not is still up for debate.
What’s clear at this time is the powers that be need to get to work quickly. Otherwise, Super Bowl XLVII won’t go down in history as the Harbaugh bowl or the end to Ray Lewis’ legendary career, it will be remembered for Bernard Pollard predicting the beginning of the end.
Previously from Charlie Crespo:
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