News·4 min read

Football and concussions: The future of the sport

Aug 19, 2019

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The Story

Paging Coach Taylor. It’s time to talk football. 

I miss Coach Taylor.

Us too. While we're feeling sentimental, let's take a walk down football history lane. Football – that is, American football because this is not a guide about soccer – got its start in the late 19th century on college campuses. Back then it was a mashup of soccer and rugby. Until Walter Camp aka the “Father of American Football” showed up and made a few crucial changes. Camp played the game while he was a student at Yale and is credited with things like getting rid of the rugby-style “scrum,” coming up with the quarterback position, and making teams give up the ball if they don’t advance a certain number of yards within a certain number of tries (read: downs). 

So it was a college game. How’d it go pro? 

The first pro football player was a guy named William “Pudge” Heffelfinger. Say Pudge Heffelfinger five times fast. He was paid $500 to play a game in 1892. You could say the rest is history but we’re here precisely not to gloss over this stuff. 

Appreciate it.

Oh thanks. Professional teams started forming over the years but it was a bit chaotic – players playing for multiple teams, college players taking on pseudonyms in order to make money in pro games. But in 1920, a group of team reps got together and established the American Professional Football Association, putting uniform rules in place. It was later renamed the National Football League. Nearly 100 years later, here we are.

How did the sport get so big though?

There are a range of thoughts about that. Here are a few:

  • Football is the ultimate team sport. The players on the field may have more equal influence over the game than say, in basketball, where a few individual players may dominate. This can help solidify fans’ attachment to teams more so than individual players and foster a sense of community around the game.

  • In the 90s and early 2000s, a series of changes helped increase interest in pro football: 1. The NFL expanded to include more teams in more markets. And 2. Rule changes like adding more wild card teams to the playoffs made for a more exciting game.

  • TV and fantasy football. Football is dramatic, strategic, and intense. It makes for great TV. Bonus: these qualities also mean that football can be entertaining even for casual viewers. See: the Super Bowl, which in recent years has been the most-watched TV event in the US. Also, the NFL has a more limited schedule with fewer games to keep up with than other professional sports, making it more accessible. Then there’s the multi-billion dollar fantasy sports industry, which guarantees that fans not only care about their own teams, but about how players on other teams are doing too. 

Today, pro football is a $9 billion industry. And it has consistently ranked as Americans’ favorite sport to watch for decades. But there’s trouble in paradise and we don’t just mean with Blake and Hannah G.

What do you mean then?

A few years ago, viewership started to go down. The sport has dealt with its share of scandals – related to alleged violent behavior by players, alleged poor treatment of NFL cheerleaders, and the controversy surrounding players kneeling during the national anthem.

I remember.

All of this could’ve factored in to popularity taking a hit. Although last season, viewership was on the up and up again. But every year, a larger issue grabs headlines, and could threaten the future of the sport. That brings us to the big issue: injuries. Football’s a contact sport – and for years, that’s led to concerns about players’ safety, especially related to head injuries. In the past few years, a growing body of research has linked football with CTE, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Well that sounds unsafe.

Correct. We get into that, and how injuries could change both the game and football’s role in society, in theSkimm app. Every week, the app goes deep on a different news topic to give you the context you need to understand what's going on in the world. Download the app now and you get the first week free.

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