It happens every year — air cools, leaves change, Americans talk about the demise of football. This year there may be more talk than usual, for several reasons, such as:
Both the NCAA and the NFL are under siege because of concussion lawsuits. The economic costs — and negative PR — could reshape the game.
Rules are changing to protect players — and to protect the organizations from further lawsuits. New regulations will alter the way the game is played, and may rankle some players and fans.
The NFL is thinking of beginning to talk about maybe perhaps initiating tests for human growth hormone, which — if there ever is testing — could make a difference in the specimens that spectators see on the fields.
At the youth level, parents and coaches are more concerned about safety.
Recently, NFL Hall of Famer Lem Barney even suggested that American society will turn against football in the next decade or so. And last year, ESPN presented a scenario titled "What Would the End of Football Look Like?"
The game America loves to hate has been part of the national landscape for more than a century. And for more than a century, people have been trying to abolish it. Will they succeed this time? Let's hie to the history books.
One of the near-successful attempts to wipe out football came around the turn of the 20th century. Charles W. Eliot, president of Harvard University, blasted the newborn sport from many angles. "The game of football grows worse and worse as regards foul and violent play and the number and gravity of the injuries which the players suffer. It has become perfectly clear that the game as now played is unfit for college use," according to his 1895 report. At one point, Harvard did not field a team.
Fourth And Long
The anti-football climate got so bad that other universities, including Stanford and Northwestern, suspended their programs, according to historian John J. Miller. The state of Georgia almost abolished football altogether after a player was killed.
The Hail Mary Pass
Many people rushed to the defense of the game — including Harvard alum and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. He huddled with several key coaches in the White House and, according to Miller, author of The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football, the group came up with new rules — including the forward pass — that made the game safer. Injuries were reduced, and the game flourished.
So rather than seeing the end of football this year, we may be seeing a renaissance — along with new rule changes making the game even safer — that could spiral the sport well into the coming decades.
The Postgame Interview
And what would Roosevelt think of today's debates over football? "My guess is that Theodore Roosevelt would be a fan of football in general and of the New York Giants in particular," Miller tells NPR. "Rather than attacking football, he'd defend it because he'd continue to recognize the social value of a great game that teaches important lessons that don't come from classrooms and textbooks."