Can you see it? Maybe a generation or a couple of decades down the road? Something that was once unthinkable, but is now within the realm of far-off possibility — the end of football as we know it.
Leaders of the sport are in denial about two issues: the increasingly unacceptable health risks for players and the unsustainable financial bubble that assumes massive revenues into perpetuity. Earlier today, Arizona and Nebraska agreed to a college game against each other in Tucson in 2031. It’s likely that by the time the schools get together — if they get together — the sport will look very different than it does now.
Regarding injuries, two news items just this week stand out.
Former Indiana quarterback and Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Antwaan Randle El told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that at the age of 36, he suffers from serious memory lapses and has trouble walking down stairs. Randle El, who threw the touchdown pass to Hines Ward that helped win Super Bowl XL, said he wishes he’d pursued baseball instead. He was a 14th round draft pick of the Chicago Cubs.
“I ask my wife things over and over again, and she’s like, ‘I just told you that,’ ” Randle El told the newspaper. “I’ll ask her three times the night before and get up in the morning and forget. Stuff like that. I try to chalk it up as I’m busy, I’m doing a lot, but I have to be on my knees praying about it, asking God to allow me to not have these issues and live a long life. I want to see my kids raised up. I want to see my grandkids.”
That’s heartbreaking. I’ve seen two of my three children reach adulthood and the third turns 18 in April. It’s an amazing thing. I want to be around for my grandkids, too. There’s no question that aging takes a toll on the memory. I’ve experienced it myself, and that’s without having suffered repeated blows to the head.
But there’s much more. It requires some reading between the lines, but is perhaps more compelling. Center Graham Shuler of Stanford announced he is leaving football with a year of eligibility remaining to pursue other opportunities. On track to graduate, he could have stayed one more season — since he redshirted as a freshman, become a fifth-year transfer or gone to the NFL.
Shuler is giving up what could have been a lucrative pro football career to become like you and me, because he thinks it’s a better option for him. Nowhere in his post did he mention the word concussion, or that he is suffering from ill health, but it’s not taking a leap to think it had to be part of his consideration.
The health risks go far beyond the concussion issue. Randle El isn’t having trouble descending staircases because he forgot how. As a receiver, how many times did he have to climb the ladder to snare a Ben Roethlisberger overthrow only to get blown up by a safety or linebacker? And only then to fall to the frozen turf in Pittsburgh, or on the road at New England or Cleveland?
Maxwell Smith, the quarterback who led San Diego State in an oddly magical 2015 season, is considering whether he will apply to the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility, which is granted in some cases of extreme medical hardship. Well into January, it’s yet to be reported whether he’s made a decision. Smith started at Kentucky as a freshman but his career was derailed by injuries in subsequent seasons.
After losing his starting job in Lexington, he graduated and transferred to SDSU, where he’s pursuing a Master’s in Homeland Security. He also won the starting QB job, guided the Aztecs through a rough September and helped them run the table in the Mountain West. In the regular season finale against Nevada, he suffered a bad knee injury in an ugly game that included several seemingly dirty hits.
For Smith to be wondering whether continuing his football career is worth it is completely understandable. With most of their starters returning, the Aztecs have a chance to be 2016’s Houston Cougars, and he hasn’t made up his mind. That future of defending our country probably looks pretty darn good every time Smith stands up. Shuler had to make similar calculations.
Together, they won’t start a landslide. But a snowball begins with only a few flakes, and it grows from there. High level athletes have always had to judge their future in the sport, relative to their health. The balance is tilting, however, and daily collisions with other mammoth human beings aren’t as appealing as they once were. The snowball created by Shuler and some others, and maybe Smith, is only going to expand over time, and that will have a massive impact on football as more and more young people decide their future lays someplace else.
Finances will be left for a future post, but we’re seeing warning signs all over the place, from weak bowl attendance and poor ratings, to cities no longer willing to gift NFL owners with palatial stadiums to ESPN’s sudden financial woes. Football’s final whistle is no longer unthinkable.