Football, Boxing, and Preordained Popularity

Originally posted at isportstimes.com on July 29, 2013

It’s over. Yes, our national nightmare is over.

NFL training camps have opened across the country, meaning football is now fully back in our lives for the next six months. It seems like eons ago that Ray Lewis and company out-gritted the 49ers to capture the Super Bowl title, and now that it’s August, players and fans alike can entertain thoughts of Super Bowl grandeur.

That is, unless you’re Jeremy Maclin. Or Dennis Pitta. Or Dan Koppen. The opening of training camps across the country also signals the last time any NFL players are completely healthy. For the unfortunate ones like Maclin, Pitta, and Koppen, their seasons are dead on arrival, and their respective teams must now scramble to find suitable replacements. Even more unfortunate is that this is only the beginning. As players are slowly reintroduced to physical contact, more and more injuries like the one suffered by Browns reserve lineman Ryan Miller will proliferate the football landscape. Keep in mind, all this is happening before even a single preseason snap is taken.

In another corner of the sporting world, this sport called boxing (Have you ever heard of it? Supposedly, it’s been around quite a while) had one of its most memorably nights in recent memory, featuring three incredible displays of pride and toughness. So much toughness that during the second fight there were constant pleas to end the fight for the sake of the combatants.

This was a night that showed why fans of boxing are so ardent in their love of the sport. This was also a night that showed why boxing has been losing its foothold in this country for the past 50-plus years.

Fans are, if not smarter, more aware than they were fifty years ago. Everyone now knows what the eventual outcome is for the men with the testicular fortitude required to subject themselves to twelve rounds of punishment at the hands of another fighter. Images of a shaking Muhammad Ali and the sight of a boxer with his eye “swollen like a water balloon”, as described in the linked ESPN article, are forever linked.

So what can the current state of boxing teach us about the future of the NFL? It’s impossible not to see the connection.

Football is a brutal game. Much of the recent focus has been on concussions and the brain damage they cause, but football is also a game of shredded knees, arthritic joints, and warped spines.  Not only that, but, much like boxing, the brutality of the sport is one of its main calling cards. It wasn’t too long ago that fans had to watch Tom Jackson’s ironically concussed mug tell us about how some players during the week had gotten Jacked UP.

The times, as they say, are a-changin’. Fans no longer wish to be accomplices to the destruction football imposes on its participants. It’s difficult to see how the NFL in its current state, as popular as it is now, will maintain its place at the zenith of the sporting universe. As was the case with boxing, just because something is popular now does not mean it will be popular ten, twenty, or fifty years from now. Popularity is not preordained.

It won’t be enough to change how the game is played. Right now in boxing, the biggest name in the sport is Floyd Mayweather Jr. How did Mayweather become the preeminent boxer in the world? He did it by following the 5 D’s of Dodgeball. Mayweather’s game is to move around, land a few jabs, not get hit in his pretty face (his nickname is Pretty Boy Floyd after all), collect his $40 million paycheck, thank you so much for coming and see you again in six months. In other words, it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing type of boxing.

Mayweather shows why football can’t just change how the game is played and expect to maintain its popularity. Want to eliminate training camps? Ban hitting during practices? Cut down on preseason games? That’s fine, but not practicing the game the way it’s played on Sundays will invariably have an impact on the field. If players don’t practice tackling and blocking, how can they reasonable be expected to do so in a game. It will turn every Sunday into a series of Pro Bowls.

So is football on its way out? Not necessarily. Just as boxing hasn’t completely disappeared, football has a long road to travel to irrelevancy. The fall from the peak is huge, but it tends to be gradual as well.

But twenty years from now? What if parents dissuade their kids from football the way they currently do from boxing? What if the best athletes gravitate towards basketball, or baseball, or, dare I say, soccer, so they can avoid the fate that has befallen the likes of Junior Seau and Dave Duerson? Will athletes really want to play a sport where players’ hands end up looking like this? Only time will tell.

But for now, it’s August, and optimism is running wild throughout the country. Just hope that your team wins a Super Bowl sooner rather than later, because it’s unclear just how many more Super Bowls there will be.

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About PapaBearJere

Jeremy Klein is an unabashed Cleveland Sports fan who only wants to see a Cleveland team win a title. You can follow him on twitter @PapaBearJere or email him at thenarrativeblog@gmail.com.

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