Why Football Will Never Die

Poll respondents, like many journalists and celebrities, think football is on its way out. Believe it when you see it.
Photographer: Scott Halleran/Getty Images

The results of a new survey conducted for Bloomberg Politics suggests that, due to its epidemic of concussions, football is in trouble. Well, that’s not quite right: The poll doesn’t claim that football is in trouble; large numbers the people questioned in the poll claim it is. That might sound like an obvious and rather pedantic differentiation, but it isn’t. Because I believe the poll—but I don’t believe the people who took it.

The poll's first semi-major finding shows that a third of the wealthy (those who make more than $100,000 a year) and the college-educated believe football will lose fans over the next 20 years. This is a common perception, particularly inside the world of the intelligentsia and journalism, the people who tend to drive the conversation on these topics. But those are precisely the type of people predisposed to be against football in the first place, or at least predisposed to believe football is perpetually in trouble. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue once famously called the league’s concussion issue a “journalist’s problem” rather than a fans’ one. Though this was taken as callous (and it sort of was), his point has been proven over and over again: You can write all the think-pieces about “the end of football” you want, and it won’t stop anybody from watching football. Ratings are up like they always are, Roger Goodell is still in power making billions for his owners and the Super Bowl will remain the central organizing principle in media as it is every year: More every year.

It usually doesn’t even stop those people from watching football. Go back and read all those pained “can I even watch this sport anymore?” editorials after the Frontline documentary last year, or after the Ray Rice scandal. Who would have thunk it: Those people are back writing about football again. (Believe me: I’m one of them.) The wealthy and the college-educated are the ones most likely to claim football is fading. They’re also the ones paying for everyone to watch—and likely watching themselves.

The second semi-major finding is more intriguing. To quote the poll's conclusions: Sixty-two percent of college-educated respondents said they don’t want their children playing the sport and 62 percent of those making more than $100,000 a year agree.

This is an increasingly common response, and you know who else falls into those college-educated respondents group? Football players. Hall of Famers (and future Hall of Famers) Kurt Warner, Brett Favre, Terry Bradshaw, Drew Brees and Troy Aikman have all said they don’t want their children to play the sport; even Adrian Peterson told TMZ that he won’t let his son play football, though perhaps he is not the best character witness.

It’s in this way, though, that the NFL’s ongoing obsession with all matters military finds another parallel. The thing all those players have in common, of course, is that their children will have options—or at least believe they have options—for another career, like all children of those making more than $100,000 a year. The thing is, of course, that not that many people make more than 100 grand. (And there will likely be a smaller percentage in the future, allowing for inflation.)

As with our military—another institution the wealthy tend to rather not have their children dabble in—football will have a perpetual renewable recruitment resource in the poor. Just as the wealthy will always have people to fight their wars for them, they will always have people to play football for them. (Tellingly, the survey shows the poor are less likely to have issues with their kids playing.) They might not want their own kids to play, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want someone else's kids to play.

The study confirms our preexisting biases, and that vague sense that something has to give when it comes to football. But you’ll have to forgive my skepticism. Wealthy smart people are constantly tsk-tsking about football, and not only has it not made a dent, it hasn’t really stopped them from watching either. It is one thing to answer a question in a survey. It is another thing to actually change one’s casual, recreational viewing habits in any meaningful way over a hazy concern of someone’s future, someone else’s future. People can fret and furrow their brow about the future all they want, but as usual, it’s talk rather than action. I’ll believe it when I see it.