The Alliance of American Football debuted Saturday to a round of polite applause. The XFL is scheduled for a 2020 return, and other alternative leagues are in the works.
It feels like we go through this exercise once or twice a decade, when some entrepreneur gets the bright idea (for a second time, in some cases) to try and provide football filler for the rest of the year. The NFL is surging towards being a $20 billion a year business; surely there’s room for alternate leagues looking just to generate a mere several hundred million.
In most sports, more opportunity for athletes to play and get paid is a good thing. One of the great under-covered stories in basketball is how many U.S. college players go on to wildly interesting and well-compensated careers in every corner of the world. But football is different. The barebones violence of the sport is enough to leave players damaged forever. Any attempts at expanding the sport should be undertaken with careful consideration of how the game has changed and needs to continue to change.
More to the point, those attempts must bypass the easiest path toward drawing hardcore, possibly disgruntled football fans: a return to the wanton violence that many of us grew up watching in the NFL.
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But let’s be honest: Allowing wide receivers to get blown up over the middle and QBs to be leveled with shots to the chin is almost certainly a viable short-term business approach.
Fans who tuned into AAF’s opening weekend loved this play, where Mike Bercovici’s helmet is removed by Shaan Washington launching himself at the QB’s head:
Aidan was not alone in his feeling about that hit. And that is not a surprise, at all: The NFL marketed those hits for decades as it built the league. This is what we think of when we think of football, and that’s on purpose. The incredible catches, sure. and insane cutbacks and all the intricate strategy that goes into the game — those are all part of the game, too. But the 20-second commercial meant to grab your attention when you were 10-years-old was punctuated by bodies colliding. That was the selling point.
We should not be going back there. It may be a cheap way to make the league stick but it’s not sustainable for the long-term future of the game. There’s still so much we don’t know about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). Further research, which was stymied by interests trying to protect football, is going to take years upon years, but we know it affects enough players that all reasonable precautions should be taken.
Like throwing a flag when a defensive player uses the crown of his helmet to try to give an opposing quarterback a concussion.
The NFL deserves credit for morphing the game so that many of the most egregious hits have been eliminated. The league still struggles to deal with its role in damaging players and hiding the true and lasting extent of that damage — as shown by ESPN’s reporting on Bob Costas being forced from NFL broadcasts because he wanted to discuss concussions — but the fact is, the NFL has risked alienating customers by making the game, in the derisive word of so many (including the president), soft.
Pro Football Talk wrote this fuzzy story last week about NFL Competition Committee members believing that their rule changes have trickled down to the high school level and helped make the sport safer than it has ever been. I seriously doubt there’s direct evidence to prove that claim but think there’s certainly validity in the premise: Kids are likely to play football the way they see it being played by professionals.
My 5-year-old has started looking at the TV when football is on, and I’m relieved that he’s seeing a different game than I saw when I first watched the NFL. If a new league takes the easy way out by offering a more violent alternative, it is only hastening its ultimate demise — and endangering the future of the game, no matter which league is playing it.