"The greatness and the genuine trait of your thought and writings lie on the fact that you positively and interestingly make use of philosophical thoughts and thoughtfulness in order to deeply and concretely cogitate about America's social issues. . . . This does not mean that your thought is reducible to your era: your thought, being inspired by issues characterizing your era . . . , overcomes your era and will still likely be up to date even after your era, for future generations." Bruno Valentin

Friday, June 27, 2014

World Cup Soccer Frenzy in the U.S.: A Threat to the NFL?

First, 19 out of 20 brains of former NFL football-players showed lethal brain damage in autopsies. Then, it was 45 out of 46 brains.[1] Missed at first from the initial assumption that concussions from the occasional hard-hits—which make good television—have been the cause of the dementia-causing protein in the damaged brains, was the impact of the more subtle mini-concussions from regular play. A 21 year-old with dementia (CTE) had not had a concussion from a major hit.  Nor had a high-school senior football player with chronic (CTE) brain damage in the front lobe, and thus severe short-term memory loss, difficulty thinking, personality changes, and fits of rage. Suicides are not uncommon, not to mention an abbreviated life-span.[2] Meanwhile, the violence of the sport ironically continued to be the main draw to an American audience, with cheers at the most jarring clashes. What is going on here, and is there light at the end of this tunnel?

The NFL is a wealthy organization, shielded from tax by its non-profit status. From taking in $10 billion a year as of 2014, and that figure expected to go to $25 billion by 2027, a lot is on the line in maintaining the status quo in terms of American culture and sport.[3] The NFL continued for a long time to deny any link between the CTE dementia and football even though the wealthy non-profit organization’s own sponsored study had already admitted to a link—the league kept the result secret for years.

Blinded by the astonishingly high pay, the players too have been complicit, even self-destructive, as they have ignored the incoming scientific evidence culled from the dead brains of former colleagues. The illusion of immortality that typically runs out of steam by age 40 is alive and well in many young athletes. Together with the monetary high, the illusion can feed the denial.

Perhaps even more astonishing, given the huge amount of money on the line for the NFL as well as that league’s players (and the team owners) is the propensity of masses of people to continue right ahead as if nothing had changed, even with the new knowledge. During the 2013-2014 season, two years after PBS’s Frontline exposition of the scientific evidence of “brown matter” in the brains of ex-pro-football players not yet elderly and Frontline’s investigation of the NFL’s cover-up and subsequent damage-control, I discerned no shift away from the huge interest in NFL games among the American public. Sunday afternoons still turned residential neighborhoods into temporary ghost-towns.

Do we not understand the concept of a sport in which head-bashing is a staple as being inherently dangerous? I think we do. Cognitive dissidence, the holding of contradictory beliefs simultaneously, is in all likelihood enabling the denial. This lapse so happens to be in line with the moneyed status quo and popular culture writ large. Change in the sport’s popularity is likely to be long in coming, and so the dollars are likely to keep coming to the NFL, the team owners, and the players. Powerful interests being highly invested in perpetuating the status quo while seeming to adequately address destabilizing news is nothing new.

American fans at the World Cup 2014 in Brazil, cheering on their team. Could the leap in numbers and enthusiasm be a game changer in terms of American sports? If so, will the most dangerous game bear the brunt of the squeeze? (Image Source: Frederic Brown via Getty Images)

The axis of change can come from unexpected places, however, with an earthquake far away setting in motion a sea-change of change eventually from the subtle shifts of subterranean tectonic plates under the sea. The frenzy intensifying at huge viewing parties in major American cities as team USA made its way through the World Cup in 2014, and the increased American viewership up 44 percent over the previous Cup in 2010 may evince such an earthquake, with any subsequent gradual shift under American sports being much less visible.[4]
In the 2014 tournament, a record-breaking 18.2 million viewers in the U.S.—a record American viewership at that point for a soccer game—saw the U.S. game with the E.U. state of Portugal.[5] For the game between the U.S. and the E.U. state of Germany, 1.7 million concurrent viewers were logged on to ESPN—more than the number that had signed in to watch Super Bowl less than five months earlier.[6] For the final, the record broke again, with 26.5 million people in the U.S. watching, according to the Nielson company, with over 750,000 more people watching the game online at any given minute.[7] Generally speaking, the average viewership in the U.S. for all of the 2014 World Cup matches was up nearly 40 percent over the previous Cup in 2010.[8]

Such a leap in popularity raises the possibility that soccer, which is known more accurately to the rest of the world as football, could act as a sort of pressure-release value on the inherently dangerous sport of head-clashes and body collisions. Even though the two sports are played in different seasons, the people over at the danger-plagued NFL must have noticed the dramatically increased popularity of soccer in the summer of 2014.

To be sure, soccer still had a distance to go before triumphing over American football’s major feast-day. After all, American football is, well, American, while taking up soccer means getting in bed with the rest of the world--something anathema to American isolationists and the "City on a Hill" pilgrims. Additionally, as some pundits observed, a low-scoring soccer game can be pretty boring (like baseball?). That's actually a fair point, which is why I advocate the heresy of making the goals wider. Lest too much scoring occur, the economic law of declining marginal returns suggests that the width be brought in a bit, though still wider than was the case for all those low-scoring World Cup games in 2010. Lest the statistics-obsessed traditionalist lose it over this suggestion, those little factoids are merely means, rather then ends in themselves.

Whether or not soccer is spruced up, the huge bump in both fan enthusiasm and numbers of Americans watching the World Cup games may point to a opening void in American sports, festering just under the surface since the bad news for American football Fans from that sport may one day be up for grabs, with the healthier, more athletic sport hopefully scoring more and reaping the benefits.

[1] Frontline, “League of Denial,” PBS, 2012.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Brent Schotenboer, “NFL Takes Aim at $25 Billion, But at What Price?USA Today, February 5, 2014.
[4] Kim Bellware, “USA vs. Belgium World Cup Match Breaks Another Ratings Record,” The Huffington Post, July 2, 2014.
[5] Kim Bellware, “It’s Official: The United States As a Nation Has Gone World Cup Crazy,” The Huffington Post, June 27, 2014.
[6] Ibid.
[7]David Bauder, "The World Cup Final Was the Most Watched Soccer Game in U.S. History," Associated Press, July 14, 2014.
[8] Ibid.