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The Future of Football (If It Has One)

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Tom discusses what the future of football may look like.

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

I had refused the free "Express" version of the Washington Post every single day since moving to DC.

For months, I walked briskly past the poor soul assigned to hand out these future cage-liners without even considering the possibility of extending my hand to take one.  Last Wednesday was different.

The image on the cover was an NFL logo literally unraveling.

The retirement of the 49ersChris Borland sent many NFL observers into Chicken Little Mode.  If they weren't saying "The sky is falling," they were at least asking "Is the sky falling?"

The title of the Express piece was "Simply not worth the risk," echoing certain sentiments expressed by Borland upon his retirement.  Borland joined a growing list of young players who have left the NFL recently, a group that includes teammate Patrick Willis and Titans quarterback Jake Locker.  Players deciding to end their careers early to concentrate on life after football may not be something entirely new, but it's a decision met with greater scrutiny in our current climate.

I've been predicting for a couple of years that football will be gone from most public school systems within a generation.  It doesn't take a vivid imagination to conjure the beats of how this will play out: Awareness of concussions is at an all-time high.  On the premise of "better safe than sorry," fewer kids will be allowed to participate in football.  But more important than a decline in participation will be the lawsuits.  All it will take will be one unfavorable ruling, a generous jury, and a frightened school district that will decide football just isn't worth it anymore.

As I said in that piece from '13, once that first domino falls, it will be much easier politically for other educational leaders to justify eliminating football in the name of safety.  Nobody wants to be the first to do it, but, once a colleague steps up and does so, that will be enough.

The aversion to risk is such a strong cultural component now that our default posture is to avoid danger---even remote danger---at nearly any cost.  The modern calculus turns the old premise on its head: A slight risk of injury is too steep a price to pay for whatever lessons or positive attributes one gleans from playing youth or prep football.  For educators, the risk-averse impulse compounds here because football implicates both a risk of crippling physical injury and a risk of financially crippling litigation.

Soon, those who are already saying (without saying) that football should be banned will be more explicit about it.  It won't take long for this to become another cause celebre for which opponents are deemed to be on the dreaded "wrong side of history."  They'll be told that being in favor of preserving football is an "indefensible" position, and that supporters should just accept that it will be gone soon.  We're perhaps five years from that trend beginning in earnest.  If that.

Sure, there will be holdouts in certain southern states and Pennsylvania and Ohio, but, for most of of the nation, youth football will probably disappear in another two decades or less.  Pro football is a different animal.  Even massive lawsuits don't throw much of a wrench in the league's money-printing machinery.  A rash of 30-and-under retirements might be alarming, but, as has been pointed out ad nauseum post-Borland, there are still scores of great athletes ready and willing to take the place of any NFL player who retires at a younger-than-expected age.

Taking all of that into consideration, I came up with an idea at another outlet two years ago about how football might be able to survive an assault at its foundation.  Namely, if people begin to believe in large numbers that the tremendous benefits that one gets from playing football at lower levels are outweighed by the small risk of injury, then is there any way to maintain football as we know it, while also mitigating the fears of those who would condemn or even ban it?

The idea that occurred to me was to shorten the NFL season to 12 games, plus playoffs.  The college season would drop back to nine or ten games, plus post-season.  In each case, the key is that games would only be played every other weekend.  The NFL would play on Saturday and Sunday each of its weeks, as would college football.

The big change for us as fans would be that, instead of having a day of college football and then a day of pro football each weekend, we would get two days of pro football one weekend, followed by two days of college football the next.

The basic premise behind the plan is simple: It would reduce the number of impacts to which players at the highest levels were exposed, and it would extend the number of days between games so that there would be more recovery time for players---for concussions as well as other types of injuries brought about by playing such a demanding version of the game.  The non-game weeks would also ideally have even fewer contact drills to reduce further the number of "small" impacts that quietly accumulate damage and can lead to CTE.

Under this scheme, the minimum number of days off between games in an NFL season would be 12, which would be Sunday of one week until the Saturday of the following schedule of games.  No team that plays on Monday night would play a Saturday game the following cycle.  Right now, the minimum number of days off is just three---Sunday to Thursday.  Oh, and, speaking of which, it goes without saying that the horrendous Thursday night games would be abolished under this new plan.

The playoffs would also be immediately expanded to eight from each conference so as to eliminate byes, which would become unworkable in an every-other-week system.  An expanded playoff format would also be a nod to the fact that a smaller sample size of regular-season games makes determining which teams "deserve" to make the playoffs less certain.

The pro season would start a bit earlier than college due to the greater number of games, but, eventually, it would mesh like a zipper with the NCAA season right on through into the playoffs.  As I said in the article I wrote two years ago, high school football, since it's played on Friday nights, could vary by state as far as whether it played on pro weekends or college weekends.

This isn't that dissimilar to what happened in boxing about 30 years ago.  It's possibly a helpful case-study.  Following the death of South Korean fighter Duk-Koo Kim after injuries sustained in the late stages of a title fight against lightweight champ Ray "Boom-Boom" Mancini, the major boxing organizations all eventually shortened the length of championship bouts from the previously standard 15 rounds to the 12-round limit used today.

Purists objected (and still do) to 12-round fights, but fans got used to it.  Today, younger, casual fans probably don't even notice.

Likewise, crusty old guys with autographed Mark Rypien mini-helmets like myself would probably complain about a 12-game schedule.  But we'd still be glued to the set every time our favorite team took the field.

The obvious downside to this arrangement would be that the NFL would lose a ton of money only playing three-fourths of the regular-season games it does now.  But consider that the damage might not be as severe as it seems at first blush for the following reasons:

1. The new version of the NFL schedule will lead to players having fewer long-term health issues. Fewer overall impacts.  A longer recovery time for injuries without having to miss games.  From a player safety standpoint, and, more callously, a PR and legal standpoint, those elements help the league financially.

2. There will be more showcase games every week. Right now, the NFL has two "primary" games on Sunday, plus three games with a national audience (Sunday night, Monday night, and the lamentable Thursday night game).  Under my regime, there would be four primary games (two on Saturday, two on Sunday), plus three games with a national audience (Saturday night, Sunday night, Monday night).

3. The playoffs expand. Some in the NFL already want to expand the playoffs to 14 teams from the current 12.  Bumping things up to 16 would add a bit of revenue on the back-end due to a greater number of postseason games.

4. It enables overseas expansion. One of the biggest hold-ups to the much-desired NFL expansion into Europe is the simple logistical hurdle of trans-Atlantic travel.  With 12 or 13 days off between games, this suddenly becomes much less of a headache.  Teams could easily arrive in time to practice in, say, London for a full week.  The idea of having a team or teams playing in Europe is much less problematic when games are only played every other week.  Opening up the European market would be a nice consolation prize for having to give up four regular-season contests.

5. It beats the alternative. Something is better than nothing.  While I'm definitely as pro-football as they come, it's silly not to have a fall-back position if the societal winds keep blowing the way they are at the moment.  As lame as a 12-game season might seem today to NFL die-hards, it beats the hell out of a zero-game season!

The last one is the most important.  I don't know when the media and other cultural taste-makers will come for football.  It might be five years.  It might be ten.  It might be two or three.  If there's an on-field injury that results in a death, it will be the following day.

Whenever it happens, we can fight all we want for keeping the entirety of the status quo.

But we also have to remember that a compromise might ultimately be necessary in the same way it is sometimes necessary to amputate a limb to save the life of a patient.