Published May 15, 2012 - 11:09am
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Junior Seau’s May 2 suicide prompted another round of media hand-wringing over the future of football. Less than a week after Seau’s death, journalists Malcolm Gladwell and Buzz Bissinger—the latter author of the famous “Friday Night Lights” book that spawned a feature film and television series—took to microphones in New York to argue for an outright ban on college football. Other columnists wouldn’t go that far while simultaneously worrying their own fandom was at risk as they confronted the reality of football’s long-term impact on player health.
That reality is now quantifiable. More than 70 lawsuits encompassing over 1,800 former players are now pending before various courts. The gist of these suits is that the NFL committed negligence. One lawsuit, headlined by former Utah and Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson, claims the NFL failed to perform its duty as “purveyors of safety rules” by “failing to adequately study, warn and/or implement reasonable rules and regulations to minimize traumatic brain injuries to its players.”
These lawsuits won’t simply go away. But they’re not an immediate threat to the existence of the NFL or college football. Litigation won’t bankrupt the sport. It will just make it more risky and expensive for NFL owners and colleges. So how will these stakeholders respond?
We’ve already seen the short-term response. The NFL, under Roger Goodell’s control, employs scapegoating as the first line of defense: increased fines against defensive players, a “bounty” scandal against the New Orleans Saints, and above all, further consolidation of Goodell’s power to impose discipline. But this isn’t a long-term strategy to address the threat posed by concussion litigation.
Traditionally, when an entrenched industry faces a serious threat to its continuing dominance, its first reaction is to seek protection from the government. The NFL already does this when it comes to stadiums. It’s logical to assume the league—and by necessary extension, college football—will at some point seek similar protections from concussion-related liability. And the government’s response to such pleas will likely be to place the entire sport under federal control.
There is political precedent. Sen. John McCain has pushed for years to federalize the sport of boxing. He’s proposed a United States Boxing Commission that would license boxers and set mandatory safety standards. It’s not much of a leap for McCain or some other member of Congress to suggest a similar scheme for football.
Superficially, a United States Football Commission might strongly appeal to the sport’s current stakeholders. The NFL and colleges would receive legal immunity from future negligence lawsuits in exchange for letting the USFC regulate safety standards. Pro players could gain an independent authority over Goodell with respect to fines and suspensions, while college players obtain relief from the NCAA’s “amateurism” restrictions. The media would get some relief from its uneasiness over football’s violence—after all, government regulation is a universal cure for all that ails you. And of course, the government would gain a new bureaucracy.
Remember, the government is already heavily integrated into football’s DNA. The NCAA owes its existence to former president Teddy Roosevelt’s threats to ban college football if the colleges didn’t impose new safety rules. Today, the NFL steals billions in local tax revenues to subsidize its incompetent ownership. Obviously the major college football powers—the exclusive source of new NFL talent—are government-controlled institutions. Add to that the NFL’s special antitrust privileges and intellectual property rights, and football is already well on the road to outright government control.
If we follow Sen. McCain’s proposed boxing model, a USFC would assume all rule-making functions from the NFL and NCAA. The USFC would also approve all equipment and even license individual players for the “right” to play the game. The USFC might also displace the NFL Players Association’s role in setting player contract terms through collective bargaining.
Again, this no doubt sounds appealing to many folks. Nobody likes the NCAA, and even NFL apologists would acknowledge the league’s conflicting rules as both promoter and regulator of the sport. The government seems like a logical savior.
But as experience teaches us, government regulation is the first step towards stagnation and decline. The additional costs, most of which are hidden, would make it harder for players to develop and flourish. Consider how the government regulates other “licensed” professions like law and medicine. The tendency is to impose high entry barriers, usually an unnecessarily long formal education requirement followed by licensing exams, which have little to do with a person’s abilities. Given that football players naturally have short careers, such barriers would only reduce their ultimate earning power while eroding the overall quality of the sport.
And as anyone who has paid a lawyer or doctor’s bill knows, government regulation means higher prices for the consumer. Football would become a more expensive product featuring less talented, less trained players operating under rules designed by federal bureaucrats to minimize any safety risk. If anything kills football in the United States, that would do it.