During the early part of the 20th century, professional boxing was the most popular sport in American and the heavyweight champion was the king of the sports world. Even the great Babe Ruth took a backseat when Jack Dempsey was in the room. Nowadays, however, most sports fans probably can’t even name the titleholder.
There are lots of reasons for the decline of boxing. Demographics, economics, and even politics play a role in many intriguing theories, but one factor, in particular, is reoccurring: the impact of violence on participation. Once the refuge of an immigrant class with fewer opportunities at the American dream, boxing slowly began to experience a decline in the quantity and quality of participants as the general population moved up in class and other employment alternatives became available. As a result, the sweet science stopped attracting the country’s best athletes, contributing to an overall decline in popularity that has left it on the margins of the nation’s sports consciousness.
Like boxing was at the beginning of the last century, football is widely considered to be the most popular sport in America (although, I would argue, baseball is still the national pastime). However, like boxing then, pro-football has increasingly become an even more violent endeavor. Concussions alone have reached epidemic proportions, but other life altering injuries have also become more frequent, making the tradeoff for playing the game a costly one.
Considering the NFL’s immense popularity, not to mention football’s integration with modern culture, it seems absurd to suggest that participation could be deterred by the game’s violent environment. However, many close to the sport are taking the possibility very seriously. Just this past week, Tom Brady Sr. stated that he would be “very hesitant” to allow his son to play football knowing what he now does about the potential for injury. Brady’s comments came on the heels of similar sentiments expressed by former Super Bowl champion quarter back Kurt Warner, who stated that he would prefer his sons not play the sport. Finally, over the weekend, Jets’ linebacker Bart Scott, a defensive player with a reputation for being tough, echoed the theme, stating, “I play football so he won’t have to”. Judging from those comments, you’d think the NFL was a coal mine, and the modern players are the canaries.
He can play baseball. I really don’t want him boxing, either, even though he wants to box. I won’t let him box. It’s not worth it. The most important thing for me is him being around and me being able to spend a long time with him and I’m sure, at the end of the day, all the things I’m able to buy him from playing football, he’d much rather have me.” – New York Jets lineback Bart Scott, quoted by the New York Daily News, May 26, 2012
Not surprisingly, the reaction to these comments from the macho NFL crowd has been disdain. Former players like Amani Toomer and Merril Hoge blasted Warner for making his comments, implying that he betrayed the game by offering an opinion he had no right to give. Meanwhile, the NFL-coddled media has also rallied to the game’s defense, justifying, excusing, and even glorifying the sport’s increasing violence, even while acknowledging it comes at the expense of its players’ long-term health. If this sentiment is the one that prevails, maybe the NFL will wind up just like boxing. After all, those who ignore history are condemned to repeat it, or something like that.
While the NFL tries to sort through what is a very serious problem, Major League Baseball should be more than just a spectator. Although concussions and catastrophic injuries are not as serious of a problem, the sport is not immune to them. From better equipment to finally outlawing the unnecessarily violent collision at home plate, baseball can makes itself even safer and, as a result, an even more attractive alternative to potential athletes like Bart Scott’s son.
What’s more, baseball should be actively promoting its game on the amateur level by not only providing more opportunities to play, but also educating parents about the relative advantages to participating in the sport. Not only are there fewer life altering injuries, but there is also greater job security as well as the potential for employment beyond playing on the pro level. Baseball does have fallbacks, and the sport should make sure that every top athlete in the world is aware of that.
Professional football isn’t going to disappear overnight, but if the sport continues to bury its head in the sand, there’s no guarantee that everyone else will too. Meanwhile, baseball continues to chug along. Although other sports have taken turns on top of the heap, there is only one true national pastime that has withstood the test of time.