If Not (American) Football, What?

I wonder what the concussion rates are among team sports with set plays that are played without pads? Are rugby or Australian Rules Football players as vulnerable to concussions as their American Football counterparts? The NFL recently conceded that about one third of its former players suffer long term brain damage from playing the sport. If that’s not as bad as professional boxing, it’s still surely the worst among professional team sports.

Football and basketball both have elite athletes running around at high speeds, but football expects collisions; basketball isn’t designed to have collisions, and that there are often result in fouls. They’re also not at such high speeds; if nothing else, the defender is supposed to “establish position,” which means being stopped, not moving.

Soccer (“real football”) players also don’t seem as prone to concussions, even when the head is a tool for directing the ball, but it’s fairly well concluded that soccer won’t replace gridiron in the American culture. Maybe it’s too slow or too low scoring, but it just isn’t catching on as a spectator sport. (And yet, baseball….)

If we were to convince 200 million Americans that football in pads and helmets is simply too violent of a game, with what could we replace it? Make no mistake, football won’t go away without a replacement. The broadcasting companies such as Disney (ESPN and ABC), Fox, CBS, and Comcast (NBC) find gridiron a very useful lure for advertising dollars; they need something for all those hours of programming in the fall. There’s also the matter of giving all those athletes an alternative outlet for their energy and as a way to pursue fame and fortune. Some might pursue baseball, basketball, or, yes, soccer (it happens, but it’s newsworthy when it does), but a non-armored team sport build around scrums or other starts of set plays for large squads might absorb all those linemen and linebackers better than the sports for lithe, fast athletes. Some would become forwards and centers in basketball, but not enough to satisfy the demand.

It’s a chicken-and-egg problem. While many universities and cities have rugby programs in place, for example, they don’t get the publicity that football gets. If ESPN and Fox Sports were to buy up rights for collegiate or club rugby, would they attract audiences, and could they attract sponsors? Maybe they could, if the position it as a moral replacement for football, but they might well simply be ceding the profits from the more dangerous sport to less scrupulous broadcasters, unless all the football broadcasters decided to (or were forced to) abandon the sport.

All of this is based on the assumption that there’s an alternative to football that includes some of its elements without the long term health effects on its players. That may be a tough assumption to validate. But I can’t help but wonder how to replace a professional sport that leaves a third of its veterans with brain injuries.

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