Why is football the king of sports? Gregg Easterbrook gives us some answers in his new book, but also warns that football maybe be an emperor with no clothes—or at least vanishing ones.
Easterbrook credits football’s supremacy to television. Broadcasting rights have infused limitless riches into the sport, while introducing professional players as ambassadors of the sport and role models into households all over the country.
However, television is also central to Easterbrook’s thesis that the sport’s future is endangered by professional football being beamed into the households of amateur athletes who lack oversight.
Easterbrook likens the NFL to 32 feudal lords organized by the Illuminati. Pro football is treated by Congress like it’s 1983, not 2013, classified in the tax code as a “nonprofit.” Easterbrook also crushes the NFL for its slowness to embrace new research linking football injuries to long-term health troubles.
College football is becoming more profitable by the year for everyone connected to the sport except the players actually on the field. The call for compensating college athletes has never been louder. On top of that, the hyper-focus on football has most players neglecting their education with dreams of big NFL paydays, only to discover that 13 percent of athletes that come from the nation’s most prestigious football factories turn professional.
That doesn’t even touch the thousands of high school players who shrug off their academics for the unlikely chance of a full-ride scholarship, their parents blowing thousands of dollars on the equivalent of a lottery ticket. The high school game mimics the violence of the pro game without the sophistication of NFL safety: Mounting scientific evidence shows the dangers of playing football, with health risks beginning to show in high school students.
Easterbrook slams bowl executives who parade about as tax-exempt employees with million dollar paydays, and coaches like University of Alabama’s Nick Saban whose lavish contract rewards him despite his team’s poor graduation rate.
Many of Easterbrook’s criticisms are tied to football’s ethos of “next man up,” the idea that backups are just one injury away from being sent into a pressure-filled situation and are expected to replace the men ahead of him. That reliance builds a covenant between player and management, a fact that Easterbrook acknowledges.
Unfortunately for reformers like Easterbrook, football’s power brokers see no incentive to change. Money and enthusiasm remain strong and are not threatened. His criticisms are reduced to audience patronizing.
Out of all of the regulations and oversight Easterbrook proposes, his best submission is aimed at us, the football fan. He wants the country to put the sport into perspective, as no athletic endeavor garners hyperbole quite like football.
To his credit, Easterbrook takes great care to document the individuals that the television won’t ever broadcast. The path to the NFL is littered with athletes unable to step up as the next man, cautionary tales like those of Maurice Clarett and Vince Young.
While football doesn’t need to watch its throne just yet, the king could use some new threads.