Sunday, February 3, 2013

Are You Ready For No Football?

It's once again Super Bowl Sunday, and time for this post I wrote a couple years ago, but forgot to post on the big day. So, in honor of this Packerless Super Bowl, I can finally post it. In it, I wonder just how much of a shelf life professional football has due to a combination of economic contraction and lawsuits from concussions.

During the height of the Roman Empire, you could find an arena in almost any major Roman city putting on gladiatorial contests. It was a major business, as depicted in the movie Gladiator (not entirely historically accurate, but evocative nonetheless). As Rome foundered, gladiatorial contests faded into obscurity, as cities became more preoccupied with survival than sitting around and watching gladiators fight each other. Plus, daily life itself was more and more like a contest as civil wars and invasions roiled the empire. Money to put on such games dried up, and stadia were dismantled to put the marble to better use.

Today, there is a clear connection between American sports, Christianity, militarism and commercialism, which all coalesce in a quintissentially American milieu. It's no exaggeration when people conflate Packers fandom with a religion. Prayer is recited before high school games in many parts of the country, and many players trumpet their religious faith and get religious tattoos. Sports, sublimating yourself to a team and obeying rules, is a great preperation for military service, something the British too realized during the heyday of their empire.

I've often noted that very religious people tend to be the most fanatic about sports (and are most amenable to right wing ideas - before AM radio became political, it was, and still is, sports talk). Most higher-up corporate people I've known are absolutely obsessed with professional spectator sports. It's suits the tribal and "winning" mentality of such people. One-third of Americans believe God decides the outcome of sporting events.

Commercials are as big a deal as the game now, and one has to wonder at not only the mental state of the people these commercials appeal to, but the tremendous waste in a society that can't even keep it's infrastructure sound or it's basic public services funded. How much of our economy is dedicated to this essentially useless and unproductive activity? How much economic "growth" has it been responsible for?

In a previous post, I pointed out that the Dallas Cowboys attendance is down, and the Green Bay Packers are raising their ticket prices. Economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier have an interesting post speculating about, of all things, the death of American football. Their culprit isn't high ticket prices or economic decay, it's lawsuits over the brain damage caused by concussions. They then speculate about the economic impact this would cause:
By now we're all familiar with the growing phenomenon of head injuries and cognitive problems among football players, even at the high school level. In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell asked whether football might someday come to an end, a concern seconded recently by Jonah Lehrer.
Before you say that football is far too big to ever disappear, consider the history: If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist. The original version of Napster no longer exists, largely because of lawsuits. No matter how well a business matches economic conditions at one point in time, it's not a lock to be a leader in the future, and that is true for the NFL too. Sports are not immune to these pressures. In the first half of the 20th century, the three big sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, and today only one of those is still a marquee attraction.
The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits.1 Precollegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society. If you are coaching a high school football team, or refereeing a game as a volunteer, it is sobering to think that you could be hit with a $2 million lawsuit at any point in time. A lot of people will see it as easier to just stay away. More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a "contagion effect" with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit. We have seen such domino effects with the risks of smoking or driving without seatbelts, two unsafe practices that were common in the 1960s but are much rarer today. The end result is that the NFL's feeder system would dry up and advertisers and networks would shy away from associating with the league, owing to adverse publicity and some chance of being named as co-defendants in future lawsuits.
What Would the End of Football Look Like? An economic perspective on CTE and the concussion crisis.

Since that post was written, the family of linebacker Junior Seau has decided to sue the NFL, claiming that brain injuries sustained during his career caused his suicide.

I often point out to people that football players are essentially mecenaries. They play for whoever pays them the going rate, regardless of any other loyalty. No major league sports team has players actually from the city whose name is splashed on their uniforms (except by coincidence); the only connection to, say, Baltimore is the name of the franchise, which can easily be changed. This is made obvious whenever franchise owners threaten to leave a city if they don't get a new luxury stadium built, and in fact, teams have moved around frequently (our baseball team left for Atlanta, we pirated one from Seattle). And, of course, our new stadiums seperate the elites from the hoi polloi better than Rome's ever could. Yet local people constantly refer to "our" team (the Packers are the sole exception that I know of). Such is the power of perception.

Similarly, the Romans were very proud of "their" army, even though in the end it was mostly mercenaries too. People have a hard time understanding that, but I think the NFL is a perfect analogy. Players train to play, and soldiers train to fight. There's no way to earn better money than professional football, and Roman soldiers had guaranteed food, a warm place to sleep, a regular salary, and perhaps even a pension of land, the best deal going in ancient times. Sure it's dangerous, but if you managed to survive it was a hell of a lot better and more exciting than being a farmer, especially if the weather was bad. Plus, just as we idolize professional athletes today, those tribes lionized warriors as part of their culture. So if you want that deal, whoever pays your salary is who you work for, whether it's the Roman army or the NFL. Rome had gold and land but needed manpower, and the tribes had excess manpower but no land or money. So it was a mutually beneficial arrangement to pay some Germans to hold back the others. And Rome, like the New York Yankees, paid the highest salaries of all.

What most confuses people about the late Roman Empire is how, if Germanic tribes were the enemy Rome was holding back, they could staff their army from the same Germanic tribes? The first point is that "Germanic" is a label we have tacked on them centruries later. There were no nation-states, and loyalty was to your family, your bloodline, your village, and your tribe. Simply speaking a related language meant nothing; an Ostagoth would not think himself as being in any way related to a Visigoth any more than a German and an Englishman today. One's social sphere was a lot smaller.

And just like NFL players who face off against their friends and college buddies, it didn't matter anyway, what mattered was who paid your salary. Now, you may be thinking that there's a big difference between a game where players go home at the end of the day, and a battle where the objective is to kill your opponent. But things were a lot different back then. Life was short and cheap - battles were sports, and sports were battle - gladiators met their end in the arena, too. We fall into the trap of seeing the world through our tender modern eyes; to the ancients there was probably little distinction between fighting as a mercenary and playing for a sports team.  The Germanic warriors were the free agents of the ancient world. 49'ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick was actually born here in Wisconsin, not in San Francisco. By contrast, Aaron Rodgers was born in Northern California. Heck, the two opposing coaches are brothers.

Asa final note, Bill Maher pointed out several years back that what makes the NFL competitive is a socialistic structure that levels the playing field. This BBC article makes the same point:

How the Green Bay Packers compete with the NFL big boys (BBC)
The Packers, though, like to do things differently. They are unique in that they are 100% owned by the fans - more than 112,000 people are listed as shareholders. Strict rules prevent any one individual from taking over - they are run instead by a 45-strong board of elected directors.

Two thirds of those directors have to be from the local area, and they in turn keep an executive committee of seven in check.

Chief executive Mark Murphy has been in charge for the last four years, a period of spectacular success for the Packers which culminated in them winning the Super Bowl in February - a record 13th championship.

The only reason why they are able to win, though, is largely because of the sport's structure.

According to analysts at Harvard University , around 60% of all the money made by the league is generated centrally and then distributed equally between the 32 clubs. In 2009, that equated to $147m of the Packers' total revenue of $248m coming directly from NFL headquarters.

It essentially means that teams from the bigger cities subsidise the smaller clubs. When a fan buys a Dallas Cowboys shirt, for example, Green Bay get a cut of the profits.

Murphy said: "Without the revenue-sharing system we would not be competitive. It's part of what makes the NFL so popular, that on any given Sunday one team can beat another."

Competition is also helped by the fact that teams are forced to operate under a salary cap - they are limited in how much they can collectively pay their players. If they want to spend a fortune on a star quarterback, they have less to spend on other positions.

1 comment:

  1. I hope my post Hipcrime Vocab on the Super Bowl brings you traffic!

    Also, if you were watching the game, I bet you found the power outage during the third quarter symbolic.


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