Football is the king of professional sports. The Dallas Cowboys alone have a current value of $5.5 billion. The next four most valuable teams all stand at $3.5 billion or more each. The NFL is fueled by revenue.
Elite college teams can earn impressive profits as well. At the top of the heap, according to Forbes, is Texas A&M, with a three-year average profit of $94 million annually.
Recently the NCAA also voted to allow college athletes to benefit financially from the use of their name, image or likeness. This is the first step toward allowing some college athletes to get paid for their services, potentially further clouding the true goal of college sports, if anyone even knows what that might be anymore. Regardless, football reigns supreme at the professional, college and prep levels. The number of NCAA football teams has grown from 484 in 1978 to 669 in 2018, according to the National Football Foundation.
Still, for all the success football has experienced in the last century, times are changing. Not only have other sports gained in popularity in the last decade, think soccer and lacrosse, but the number of options and distractions available to youth and potential fans have never been greater. That may be the greatest threat to legacy sports like football, coupled with an even more fickle fan base as millennials analyze where and how “not” to spend their time and money.
Other chinks in the armor that will continue to dog the sport have been around for a while. Football is inherently violent. Collisions occur on every play and there is a potential for injury with every snap. There have been improvements in equipment, and rules have been modified to reduce helmet-to-helmet impacts, acknowledging the concussion issue, but safety will always be a concern. The NCAA’s most recent compensation decision may also prove detrimental to the long-term health of the sport if it cannot maintain a steady hand devoted to developing the student before the athlete.
There is also a sub-level issue that receives little attention and erodes the long-term health of the sport: cheating.
NFL offensive players were caught holding 708 times and defensive players were flagged 238 times last year. There isn’t a player in the game who does not understand what holding is, yet it happens every Sunday with regularity because players know they can get away with it, sometimes affecting the outcome of a game.
The same can be said of pass interference. How many times have you heard an analyst comment on a deliberate pass interference call that saved a touchdown? That apparently rationalizes cheating in the name of winning. We’ve all seen faked or exaggerated injuries to stop a clock during a drive or players who intentionally seek to injure others with cheap shots. Chemicals applied to jerseys to make them slippery, performance enhancing drugs, twisting of rules, video recording opponents’ signals, it all serves just one purpose: winning. Every time infractions like these occur it reinforces the flawed foundation of what is acceptable within the framework of a game. When players ignore rules they cheapen the game, but also fail themselves, teammates, competitors and fans. The NFL has inadvertently created an environment where lucrative contracts and the pursuit of personal records seem to be the golden goose for many players, even though that’s not what propelled them when they were much younger. Certainly we all need money to survive, but it cannot be the driving motivation for a healthy NFL.
And that is exactly where college and high school teams must be sure to part ways with the NFL. High school programs are more committed to the rules and the concept of fair play, mostly because the extreme financial stakes don’t exist. Players are also still in the learning phase, hence more impressionable. But good high school coaches also know their critical role in helping shape young people is as important as the games they play. Lessons taught and learned help develop people who become valuable contributors outside of football. And isn’t that the ultimate goal of any educational institution? As long as money does not become the driving factor at the high school level, coaches can play a necessary development role.
Many college programs have long had one foot equally in the student development arena and one in the business of creating powerhouse programs that generate additional revenue. With the NCAA’s most recent decision, many college boards may now be forced to analyze the true purpose of their football programs.
The NFL is entertainment partially funded by spectator spending. We love our NFL football. High school and college programs are still funded in part by our tax dollars. Let’s make sure those programs develop the student first and the athlete second. If not, we are failing our kids and wasting money.
Keith Anderson is director of news for APG of East Central Minnesota.