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After the death in the ring of a Wisconsin boxing standout named Charlie Mohr at the NCAA Championship, a coach glumly remarked, “College boxing is now finished.”  The NCAA had already put greater safeguards in place from padded headgear to softened gloves to canvas flooring.  Nonetheless, college after college slowly abandoned the sport and was ultimately banned in 1960. 

Now, it is worth wondering if football is headed down a slow, similar path.

Football may be in the last years of a golden age. Soon, football may go the way of boxing and horse racing before it: irrelevant and scorned.  From dwindling youth participation numbers to growing politicization to shifting demographics, football is slowly losing its place as the preeminent U.S. sport. 

With young stars such as Patrick Mahomes, Todd Gurley and Jalen Ramsey, the NFL may look secure to the causal onlooker. However, the data is telling. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, around 20,000 fewer athletes played high school football this year compared to the 2017 season. Football participation is down 6.6 percent in the last decade.  A recent Harris Poll found that 66% of parents would let their children play basketball and 57% would let their children play soccer, while only 16% of parents would let their children play football.  If kids are no longer playing football at the same rate, who will be the stars of the league after Mahomes and Gurley retire? 

Participation numbers are one thing, but interest in the current product is another. Once again, the numbers do not favor the NFL. This is mainly attributable to one main factor: the Kaepernick versus Donald Trump battle over the national anthem. With regards to the anthem protests, a Sporting News poll found that a third of past NFL viewers (TV) were less likely to watch games because of the anthem protests. If the league becomes political, it spells doom for its place as America’s top sport. 

Finally, changing demographics are more inclined to favor alternatives such as the NBA and European soccer leagues. The NBA has largely avoided a controversy over the national anthem despite having arguably more activist players. It had its most successful opening week in the last four years this year. European Soccer Leagues (EPL) are free from the burden of American politics. The EPL recently reported its most successful season in terms of viewership ever. 

Football’s position as king of American sports is being challenged in a way not seen since the days when some young Ivy Leaguers died of skull fractures after collegiate gridiron clashes.  As John Miller chronicles in the Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, TR would convene a White House meeting with key collegiate leaders that would lead to a set of rules changes such as the forward pass.  It would quell the public outcry and growing editorial calls for the game to be banned.   

But now we live in a time when new information is increasingly exposing the detrimental effects of brain injuries from football.  Drastic changes in the current rules will likely alienate an audience already angered by incessant commercials and political divisions being thrust into sports.  Roger Goodell and the owners clearly are moving to make subtle changes, but the gap between pleasing the fans and fixing football’s safety issue may be impossible to bridge.