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Dayton Daily News (Ohio)
 

 

In 2017, football is the undisputed king of American sports.

The NFL, despite many missteps in the Roger Good-ell era, remains the country's most popular professional sports league. Locally, high school football still brings communities together on Friday nights. And the Ohio State Buckeyes are the closest thing the state has to a unifying force in sports, and perhaps outside of it.

But storm clouds are gathering around football. Participation numbers are declining. Kids today have many more options, almost all of them much less taxing on the body. Concussions and the issue of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) hover ominously over the sport.

Predicting 20 years into the future about anything is usually a fool's proposition. That might be particularly true about football.

It is highly unlikely that the sport disappears from the landscape; it is too ingrained and popular to expect its demise. But it also is true that football must evolve and that there there's no guarantee that it will retain the preeminent status it enjoys now.

About college ball

Let's start with some easy predictions about 2037. Urban Meyer will be 73 and will no longer be Ohio State's coach. Meyer has said that he has no intention of becoming another Joe Paterno in longevity.

Gene Smith won't be Ohio State's director of athletics, either.

"I know that for sure," said Smith, 60. "I will not be. I hope to be alive.

"I doubt if any of us will be around doing what we're doing. We might be fans in the stands drinking beer, but that will be about it."

OSU games, though, will still be played in Ohio Stadium. The Horseshoe, which opened in 1922, should outlive most of us. A major renovation at the turn of this century and continual upgrades and maintenance are designed to keep the stadium standing until at least around 2075, according to Don Patko, OSU's assistant athletic director for facilities.

"It's exciting to be a part of such a historic structure," Patko said. "Every five to seven, we do a structural analysis of the stadium to make sure we have things on our list to repair and fix.

"Mainly, that's the 1922 structure. When they built it back then, they built it to last."

The site at which Ohio State will play in 2037 might be all but certain, but college football's landscape isn't.

There's every reason to think that the Big Ten will exist in 20 years, but its form could change. Who in 1997 thought Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers would be league members 20 years later?

Looking ahead, it's likely the conference will expand as college football continues the gap among the haves and have-nots. Already, there's almost an expectation that we're headed toward four "super-conferences" of 16 teams apiece, and Smith and others believe there could be even larger conferences down the line.

Those changes will be driven largely by economics but also by travel considerations. Smith is troubled by the demands on players, who sometimes arrive home after road games in the middle of the night and are then expected to be in an 8 a.m. class.

"I think that will be an emerging topic over time," he said.

Safety and technology

Realignment and travel issues are important, but they are dwarfed by one that could be an existential threat to football. Medical research into concussions and CTE is no longer in its infancy, but it could not yet be called conclusive. CTE is the degenerative brain disease in which protein clumps called tau form from repeated head trauma and results in erratic behavior and dementia.

It is undeniable that the evidence so far presents plenty of red flags. The Journal of the American Medical Association in July released a study showing that of 111 deceased NFL players examined, all but one had evidence of CTE.

Those wishing to downplay the study say it was skewed because the players whose brains were examined were already suspected of having CTE. The disease can now be diagnosed conclusively only after death.

But after years in which the risk of CTE was ignored or downplayed, particularly by the NFL, a dwindling few dismiss the threat of it now.

"For (football) to survive in another generation, changes have to be made," said Beau Rugg, director of officiating and sport management for the Ohio High School Athletic Association. "It's going down that path where if changes aren't made, we'll see the attrition of football. But changes have been made, and I'm confident they will be made."

Those come in many forms - from the age in which kids begin to play tackle football, to changes in equipment technology, particularly helmets, to rules changes.

Despite a slight increase in 2015, a survey by the Sport and Fitness Industry showed that participation in tackle football by boys ages 6 to 12 has decreased by 20 percent since 2009.

A driving force in the decline is the fear that tackle football is too dangerous for the developing brains of younger players, and evidence points in that direction. A Boston University study indicated that athletes who began playing tackle football before the age of 12 had more behavioral and cognitive issues than those who started later.

"I think we will see almost no tackle football below the seventh grade," said Rugg, who serves on the national rules committee of the National Federation of State High School Associations. "I believe that will happen in the next 10 years."

Expect a shift to a different version of football among youth.

"I can see traction around the emergence of flag football being more prevalent and more organized, because you still learn the same skills by playing flag football with no contact," OSU's Smith said.

Even tackle football likely will be altered. Many expect kickoffs to be eliminated because that play features the most full-speed collisions of any play. Other measures have already been taken, such as penalties and ejections for targeting - deliberate helmet-to-helmet hits.

"A lot of our fans have an issue with the targeting rule and how it's being applied," Smith said. "I really don't. Might an official make a mistake here or there? No doubt. But I really don't care. I care about the safety."

There has been a concerted push at all levels of the game to minimize the use of the helmet in tackling. Ohio State is among the many teams that practices rugby-style tackling, using shoulders and wrapping up ball-carriers with their arms.

But football is too fast-moving and inherently violent to eliminate helmet hits. Helmet manufacturers already are immersed in making the next generation of protective headgear.

"All the data we've collected on-field over the past decade, it's going to allow us to create helmets that are position-specific and skill-level specific in the future," said Thad Ide, senior vice president for research and product development at Rid-dell.

For example, Ide said, an offensive lineman faces a different type of contact than a receiver. And the impact a junior high player takes is much different than that of an NFL player.

For the past decade, Ide added, Riddell has invested in helmet impact sensor research, which shows the nature and degree of helmet impacts - "transformational technology for helmets," he said.

Within 20 years, he expects helmets to be so technologically advanced that information from contact will be shared instantaneously to the sideline, alerting medical personnel to potential injury.

"Think of it as another set of eyes on the field," Ide said. "Not everybody sees every particular incident that happens on the field. ... The pace of technology is accelerating all the time. You'll see things in five, seven or 10 years that aren't even a twinkle in someone's eye right now."

Ultimate team sport

All of these changes are designed to make football safer. But what if, despite rules changes and advances in equipment technology, a consensus forms that the sport can't be made safe enough? What if its very nature - it's a collision sport, not just a contact one - will scare away players, their parents, their programs and even fans?

"That's a great question and one that will affect this level more than others," said the OHSAA's Rugg. "If that's the case, it's going to be the high school level that's affected greatly. They're not 18 years old - most of them. With college or professional players, they're adults making a choice. It's tougher to say that here."

A doomsday scenario could unfold in a number of ways. What if a player is fatally injured on the field and that tragedy becomes a line of demarcation? What if a death or serious injuries cause insurance companies to stop issuing liability policies or raise premiums so much that they are increasingly unaffordable?

Riddell is facing at least 95 personal-injury lawsuits after a federal judge this spring refused to dismiss them.

"Once it becomes a business issue for an organization or institution, that's the tipping point," said Lee Igel, a professor and co-director of the Sports & Society Program at New York University.

But most involved with football, including Igel, don't believe the worst-case scenario will occur.

"You're laying out the Armageddon," Smith said. "You're assuming all the studies and all the tweaks to the sport, be it in equipment or how the game is played, takes it to the point where studies quantifyingly show there's no way to make it safe.

"I don't see that. I think there are so many more things that ultimately can be done - things that we don't even know yet what they are."

The sport's proponents espouse the beneficial aspects of football, that it demands teamwork, sacrifice, selflessness, toughness.

"I think the lessons you learn in football outweigh the risks from injury," Kilbourne's Trombetti said. "I look at the kids I've seen over 37-plus years coaching football and the confidence they've gained in themselves and the way they carry themselves. Like (Vince) Lombardi said, 'When you get knocked down, pick yourself up.'"

That's among the appeals of the sport that makes Rugg believe, despite his concerns, that football can thrive in 20 years if the right changes are made and the medical research shows the sport can be safe.

"One of the great things about the sport of football is it is the ultimate team sport," Rugg said. "There are so many moving parts, so many people doing things that aren't directly related to the ball.

"You really do learn if you do work together you can be good. It's the only way you can reach your potential. That ultimate team sport is critical in why people love it and enjoy it and see the value in it ... and not just the risk."

 

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October 29, 2017