The End of Football
I learned hard truths about pro football much earlier, when I was covering the Oakland Raiders for The Chronicle, 1967-71. When a player was injured, he kept playing because he knew he’d just be replaced otherwise. Both Kent McCloughan and Dan Birdwell saw their careers end abruptly because they tried to continue playing on knees which already had torn ligaments.
Meanwhile, the Raiders trainer and his assistant would put out large Tupperware containers of pills, so they couldn’t be accused of giving them to players, some of whom would take large amounts of them. I never knew what was in those pills but I knew they weren’t jelly beans.
The practice of playing injured players slowed after Charlie Krueger successfully sued the 49ers for playing him when his knee ligaments were torn. Krueger was unable to walk in retirement.
Meanwhile, drug use accelerated. Steroids became popular in the ‘80s and they were not secret. The phrase ‘roids rage’ was common. But the NFL didn’t even recognize that there might be a problem.
The steroids use accelerated about the turn of the century. At one time, if a player was over 300 pounds, he would have fat overlapping his belt when he sat down. Usually, these were offensive linemen. Remember the Dallas Cowboys offensive line in the early ‘90s? Or the earlier Washington version called “The Hogs”?
But suddenly, when I went into the locker room, I wasn’t seeing fat linemen. I was seeing buffed linebackers who weighed close to 300 pounds but could run the 40 in 4.6 seconds. Now, the linemen, some weighing close to 350 pounds, had virtually no fat.
It didn’t take a genius to see that these players were getting chemical help, and a lot of it. But the NFL held only a few tests. The rare ones who got caught were suspended for four games. One linebacker so “punished” still made the Pro Bowl lineup.
We don’t even know how much damage steroids can do but we do know that the damage caused by two buffed-up 300-pounders colliding at full speed is infinitely more than if they were smaller and slower. The example I’ve used is the difference between two Volkswagen’s colliding and two SUVs.
But the NFL loves this image of super heroes. They want their players to look like warriors from another planet. They have helmets which experts think can cause head injuries in themselves because of the ricochet effect when players collide. Underneath their uniforms, they’re wearing equipment of hard plastic, similar to what’s used in building boats and which can cause injury in itself.
When I’ve forecast the ultimate demise of football, I’ve been told that football is too popular to fail. But a look at American sports history tells a different story.
In the early part of the 20th century, two of the most popular sports were horse racing and heavyweight prize fights. There were many historic horse races, including one by Seabiscuit which was immortalized in film. The big prize fights, especially for heavyweights, were held in the original Madison Square Garden in New York, and everybody in New York who wanted to be recognized, especially top politicians, made certain to be there.
Now? Horse racing makes headlines only for the Kentucky Derby and other races in the Triple Crown, if one horse has a chance to win all three, and the Breeders Cup. Otherwise, it survives because of the betting but only the most dedicated bother to go to the track.
Boxing? It’s largely a joke, with carnival events in Las Vegas.
So, just because the NFL is huge now doesn’t mean it will remain that way. More and more, you’re hearing men say they wouldn’t want their sons playing; Mike Ditka, a Pro Football Hall of Fame member, said that recently.
I believe the end will start with high school football, which will end everywhere but Texas; if a Texan has brain damage, how could you distinguish him from other Texans? Without high school talent coming in, college football will die out and the NFL will no longer have its free farm system.
Football has been the sport I’ve most enjoyed covering because I love dissecting the strategy. But the carnage that has come in its wake has turned me away from it.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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