For all the controversy around race relations, concussions and mistreatment of college athletes, there’s still no denying that football is king in America. Eight of the top 10 highest-rated TV shows of 2020 were football games, and the NFL is the richest league on the planet (even though the sport doesn’t even make the top 10 in global interest). But the game still faces enormous challenges, from its talent pipeline to legal liability to improving how the game is played to the ongoing pandemic. With the NFL playoffs in high gear and the college football championship pitting “Roll Tide” against “O-H-I-O” tonight, today’s Daily Dose explores the future of football.
Joshua Eferighe, Reporter
the game has changed
1. Bowls Busted
Tonight’s college football title game spotlights a bigger problem with the system itself: Bowl games have lost significance. While the College Football Playoff games shatter cable TV ratings records, other bowl games that were once considered top-tier feel meaningless. Take this year’s Cotton Bowl: Oklahoma routed Florida 55-20 and put up 700 yards of offense, likely because the Gators were missing nine starters who opted not to play to avoid injury as they prepare to play professionally. After their loss to Alabama in the SEC Championship game, Florida head coach Dan Mullen admitted the locker room was somber. And if you’re not winning the big one, who cares, right? Historically, players have. But with the creation of the four-team playoff, even celebrated New Year’s Day bowls don’t carry the same punch, much less the dozens more that clog ESPN’s holiday schedule. Something has to give, because if players keep opting out, fans will too.
2. A Bowl Rebirth?
Starting this fall, the NCAA will allow student-athletes to make money from endorsements, which opens up all kinds of revenue opportunities. Under NCAA rules, bowls are allowed to give gifts of up to $550 per player (even as schools and conferences rake in tens of millions). But what if they could tie endorsement deals to bowl trips as an extra incentive to keep players from opting out? Another idea would be to move non-playoff bowl games to the beginning of the year: You still get a premier non-conference matchup in a destination city for fans, with all the excitement of a season kickoff bundled in.
3. Going for It
With analytics showing NFL play-calling had been too conservative, some coordinators have adjusted — and aggression is on the rise. Fourth-down conversion attempts are up 55 percent, and there was a 569 percent increase in two-point conversion attempts after touchdowns from 2010 through the 2019 season. Why the two-point spike? In 2015 the NFL moved back the extra point kick from the 2-yard line to the 15-yard line, meaning PAT conversions fell from 99.3 percent in 2014 to 93.9 percent in 2019. If a 1-point try is riskier, going for two becomes more enticing. The result of this and other trends has been more scoring: Seven of the top 10 seasons in points per game have come in the past decade — with an all-time high of 24.8 points per game per team this year.
4. COVID Football
The fact that college football has reached the finish line and the NFL barreled through to its playoffs is a remarkable feat. But it wasn’t a cakewalk. In college, teams canceled or postponed 139 games this year. The NFL had a host of teams reschedule games, introducing “Wednesday afternoon football” to the lexicon. Now that Commissioner Roger Goodell has rejected the idea of a playoff bubble, some question whether the Feb. 7 Super Bowl in Tampa could be derailed by the virus. But considering that the league plowed ahead with Sunday night’s Cleveland-Pittsburgh playoff matchup after a COVID-19 outbreak on the Browns, the NFL is making it clear that it will plow on, virus be damned.
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Youth leagues have been under siege and COVID-19 is only the latest of its troubles. Research showing that head injuries in youth sports increase the risk of developing the degenerative brain disease CTE has prompted parents to reevaluate their kids’ sports choices. The upshot? In 2018, 1.2 million children ages 6 to 12 participated in organized tackle football, down from 1.7 million in 2008, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Now, with COVID added to their list of concerns, parents must also navigate the unclear quarantine mandates that vary from state to state. Despite some who argue there’s almost no transmission risk among student-athletes, medical experts disagree, and there have been many clusters of cases connected to sports around the country. But without a federal mandate that lays out COVID-related restrictions on play, there’s a risk of uneven youth development.
2. Women in Football
Whether you want to look at Callie Brownson, who became the first female position coach for an NFL team as chief of staff for the Cleveland Browns, or Vanderbilt University’s kicker Sarah Fuller, who made history as the first woman to score a point in a Power Five college football game, women are increasingly on the march. Saturday’s Washington-Tampa Bay matchup was the first playoff game featuring female coaches — on both sidelines — including Washington full-year coaching intern Jennifer King.
Although the NFL agreed to an estimated $1 billion settlement in 2016 to compensate retired players with severe medical conditions linked to repeated head trauma, the agreement blocked further investigation into the NFL’s conduct and the league has yet to pay out a significant portion of the money. Now, Jason Luckasevic, who was the first lawyer to sue the NFL over head injuries, is leading a different class-action suit, this time against the NCAA. His first client? A 38-year-old former linebacker who played football for Division II California University of Pennsylvania from 1999 to 2003. Luckasevic says his client suffered more than 20 concussions during that time but didn’t report them because he didn’t know they “were an issue.” Today the former linebacker is paralyzed and forced to communicate through a device as he can no longer speak.
4. Finances of College Football
Legal liabilities are the last thing college football needs right now. The coronavirus pandemic pushed athletic programs to the brink this past year, leading schools to cut more than 230 college teams. Small-school football teams saw shorter schedules, limited attendance and fewer donations, leading some to pull the plug on the most expensive sport — given the number of players and equipment needs. Meanwhile, large programs were deemed too big to fail, given how they generate revenue for other corners of athletic departments.
5. Facing Down the Pirates
Could piracy burst the sports media rights bubble? That’s what Yousef Al-Obaidly, CEO of the Qatar-based beIN Media Group who has invested tens of billions in sports rights, told the Leaders Week Sport Business Summit in London. He says if pirating broadcasts like BeoutQ (NFLBite is another) aren’t taken seriously, rights values are going to dip. Sports viewership was down across the board in 2020 — possibly the result of a pandemic-inspired anomaly. Still, it’s an important question, given that NFL TV rights contracts are expiring in 2022 and the league reportedly wants $100 billion over 10 years for the package. With Amazon entering the game in a more forceful way, competing with giants like CBS and ESPN, will that kind of value hold up or will networks be looking to avoid taking a sack by overpaying?
6. Your Brain on Football
How the NFL remains popular is a puzzle in itself. From allegations of domestic violence, the shunning of protesting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the lack of Black coaches and CTE afflicting former players, it’s a wonder how we can still make peace with sitting in the stands or in front of the screen Sunday afternoon drinking a brew and rooting for our team. One hypothesis is that we’re hedonistic creatures who will choose pleasure despite the cost, explains one psychologist. Cognitive dissonance is something our brains do well, and because there is much to lose by giving up football — bonding with our kids, connecting to our friends, etc. — we don’t.
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After the killing of George Floyd, there was no better identifier of where major sports leagues stood than how they handled player protests. NBA players — led by high-profile stars like LeBron James and Steph Curry — spoke out in favor of Black Lives Matter, and when the league returned to play its coronavirus-delayed season, racial justice statements were a part of the game. Social justice, however, is not really part of the NFL brand. But the league did loosen up on kneeling during the national anthem this year, and even Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he changed his mind about kneeling and Goodell apologized to Kaepernick (after the QB settled his collusion suit for an undisclosed sum). But the scars remain. Every time a team puts a crappy quarterback under center, the big question is: Why can’t Kaepernick get a job?
2. Black Quarterback Success
Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Dak Prescott and Russell Wilson make up five of the top seven in QB rating this season. Ten years ago, Michael Vick and Josh Freeman were the only quarterbacks on such lists. With Mahomes and Jackson leading the way as the past two MVPs, there is no question that there has been a rise of Black quarterbacks in the NFL, a long time coming since Doug Williams, in 1978, became the first Black QB selected in the first round of the NFL draft and would go on to become the first Black QB to win a Super Bowl.
3. Black Coach Conundrum
In response to the lack of Black coaches, in 2003 the NFL implemented the Rooney Rule, requiring teams to interview ethnic-minority candidates for top jobs. At the time there were only three Black head coaches. Here we are, 18 years later, and there are still only three Black coaches. When coaches like Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy get passed over for head coaching jobs two years in a row, it’s time to ask hard questions. The Chiefs offense he runs has been the league’s most prolific in two of the past three years, with a Super Bowl win sandwiched in between. He should be the hottest coaching prospect in the game. And yet ...
1. Santia Deck
The first female football player to earn a multimillion-dollar contract, Deck is the face of the Women’s Football League Association (WFLA), which intends to debut this year. The 29-year-old South Carolina native was raised in a football-loving family with three brothers who also played the sport. She became a fitness instructor who built an Instagram following as the “Queen of Abs.” Football was a fun side gig, until the WFLA announced the big contract last year. Now, delayed by COVID-19 and struggling for investors, the league appears to be on shaky ground as it tries to launch.
On June 4, 2019, when Warren became the sixth commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, there was no way he knew what he was getting into. Of course, the 57-year-old former Minnesota Vikings chief operating officer understood the racial implications of becoming the first African American commissioner to lead a major conference, but navigating a pandemic? Making tough judgment calls balancing health and success? Getting a call from the president of the United States urging you to play football? His decision to cancel the season for the students’ safety — and then reverse course once a better testing regimen was in place — paid off by getting Ohio State to the championship stage.
3. Patrick Surtain II
Yes, Alabama’s offense is good. They are averaging 48 points per game, lead the country in touchdowns and boast Heisman winner DeVonta Smith at wide receiver. Yeah, yeah, yeah. But when you tune in tonight, keep an eye out for a star in the making on the Crimson Tide defense. The son of a three-time NFL Pro Bowler, Surtain II has cornerback greatness in his blood. And he’s in line to sweep every DB award on the table after his All-American junior season, in which he defended more passes than he allowed and allowed just one catch over 25 yards for the entire season. Those skills will be tested against Ohio State studs Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson.
4. Stefon Diggs
Wide receivers are often typecast as sideline divas, and Diggs played the part as his relationship soured with Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins near the end of his tenure in Minnesota. Even though Diggs delivered perhaps the greatest moment in Viking history in 2018, the team chose Cousins by giving the QB an extension — so Diggs set off for Buffalo. This year, instead of playing the role of selfish wideout who is a distraction, the 27-year-old is leading the NFL in receptions and receiving yards. He’s getting along swimmingly with QB Josh Allen, but winning will do that. Diggs caught six passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in Saturday’s playoff win, and the Bills look like Super Bowl contenders thanks to their new, not-so-unhappy star.