MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's talk football for a few minutes. If you are like millions of other Americans, then football is a part of your weekend. Whether you're catching a game or jumping on the computer to check on your fantasy team, you are the reason football remains the most watched sport in the country and the most profitable sports enterprise in the world. So you might not have noticed that the sport is actually facing some stress. There's more attention to the health effects than ever before. The number of kids participating is dropping, and this season ratings have actually dropped.
But the NFL is not taking this lying down. The league is fighting back with a massive effort to replenish its fan base by focusing on drawing kids into the game and reassuring their parents it is safe. But according to our next guest, they're doing that by sometimes using questionable tactics, including fuzzy facts. Our guest is Pulitzer Prize-winning sportswriter George Dohrmann. He wrote a lengthy piece about this for Huffington Post. It's called "Hooked For Life." And he's going to tell us more about it. Joining us from Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Ore. George, thanks so much for joining us.
GEORGE DOHRMANN: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So just to set the stage here, you know - I talked a little bit about this in the introduction. What place does football hold in America compared to other forms of entertainment, other sports?
DOHRMANN: It just doesn't compare. It is the most popular sport by, you know, a measure of 10. With the exception of when the Cubs are in the World Series, usually a throwaway NFL game will outdraw a World Series game. It just has such penetration. It is such a part of the American fabric. We call baseball America's pastime, and it's just not true. Football is America's pastime.
MARTIN: And yet you say in your piece - and it's been reported in a number of places - that Americans are starting to get a little skeptical about the sport, that the number of young people participating is actually on the decline, a number of high-profile public figures - I'm thinking Terry Bradshaw, for example, of the great, you know, Pittsburgh Steelers has said that he wouldn't let his children play. Do you think that that is what is behind the fact that people are turning away from the sport even a little bit?
DOHRMANN: Yeah. It's playing a big role. I mean, the participation in football is down, you know, 17, 20 percent over the last five years. These are the young kids that are playing. And even more important - young people 18 to 34 are not watching football as they used to. These are two bright, red flags that the NFL has known about for a few years now and then has started reacting to.
MARTIN: So what is the NFL doing in response?
DOHRMANN: Oh, my. So, you know, in the article, we compare it to, you know, the - sort of the tactics by Big Tobacco. What the NFL is doing is they're doing everything. And what they're doing is they are going after your kids. I mean, they've even talked publicly - executives there talked about trying to get to kids and really that, you know, 6 to 12 year olds - they have put together so many initiatives to try to get kids. They created a fantasy football league game which was essentially gambling for kids. They created all these digital properties, including a virtual world to get after kids. And they've infiltrated schools. They've put together sponsored education materials that are just a joke, and they're getting those into classrooms.
MARTIN: What about that, though? I mean, American sports have always been marketed to kids - I mean, like baseball cards. So why is that so terrible?
DOHRMANN: You know, on the face of it, you know, marketing your product - and if you think of football as just a product, you know, that's OK. That's what corporations do. But I think most people would say, number one, this is not something that professional sports enterprise has ever done before. We have not seen things like the NFL is doing like that fantasy game that I talked about where, you know, there were cash prizes for kids if they picked the right team and it scored the most points each week. That's not something that we've ever seen before from the NBA or Major League Baseball...
MARTIN: Wait a minute - so they actually - tell me about this game - that they actually created a kid's version of fantasy football and that they actually gave kids cash?
DOHRMANN: Yes. It was a fantasy game marketed directly to kids between 6 and 12. They went on, and they would pick a team each week just like I do in my fantasy team, just like so many millions of Americans do. And if they happen to pick the best team that week, if they picked the right quarterback and it scored the most points and down the line with each position, they could win an X-Box. They could win a thousand dollars. If they were the best kid over the course of a season to do that, they could win $10,000. They could win tickets to a game. I don't know how this isn't gambling. And I think they drew a lot of criticism for this. And just recently changed the rules, but it went on for years and years where they were incentivizing football.
MARTIN: You also make the point that they're focusing on parents, like these kind of clinics for parents to educate them about the steps that they're taking to make the game safer. What's so terrible about that?
DOHRMANN: So, you know, what they do is they have these clinics. They're called mom's clinics or they're called family football clinics, and they bring people in to talk about the game. And what they really do is they bring them in to talk about how football is safer. And they tout a program called Heads Up Football that they claim is making football safer.
The data does not suggest that at all. It is not making the game safer at least in terms of head trauma. They say things at these clinics like you're as likely to get a concussion riding a bike as you are playing football if you're a kid. Well, that's true if you include girls and only up until age 10. If you exclude girls, it's football. After the age of 10 overall, it's football.
So they do these little things where they sort of muddy the waters when it comes to what we know about football and about head trauma, and then they make an emotional play to moms. They bring in famous football moms, you know, whose husband played in the NFL, and they talk about all that football did for their family. They make an emotional sort of plea to these moms. And so it just feels like, you know, to me - and when I witnessed it, it feels a little bit dirty.
MARTIN: Well, because you are a good reporter, you presumably approached the NFL about your findings. What did they say?
DOHRMANN: You know, they didn't really say much. They gave us a couple of statements that just said, you know, essentially we're concerned about the health and safety of people, and, you know, we're a responsible organization, I guess. I mean, that's not their exact words, but that's essentially what they conveyed, so they didn't say much.
MARTIN: What should they be doing in your view? As you've pointed out, this is a multibillion dollar industry. They have an enormous foothold on American culture and millions of people legitimately love it, and they want to participate. So what should they do?
DOHRMANN: Well, I think they're doing one thing that I - in the story I sort of applaud them for which is they're emphasizing flag football more. They're growing flag football nationally, incentivizing it by giving footballs and really reduced gear to recreation departments. So that's a good thing because we know the reality is is that the NFL at some point is going to have to acknowledge that this game is not safe for young kids, and it is not a good idea for 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 year olds to be playing that kind of a contact sport. High school on that may be a different argument, but at some point here, the NFL is going to have to admit that, you know, maybe we shouldn't be in the youth football business, and maybe we should encourage flag and non-contact football over, you know, collisions amongst 6 and 8 year olds.
MARTIN: That's George Dohrmann. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. He focuses on sports. His latest article "Hooked For Life" is on the Huffington Post's Highline website now. He was kind enough to join us from Jefferson Public Radio in Ashland, Ore. George Dohrmann, thanks so much for speaking with us.
DOHRMANN: Thank you.
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