The Briar Patch of Fame and Fortune
The sports writing of Bill Simmons leaves me cold. Simmons' career as an entrepreneur of sports commentary leaves me breathless with admiration, never more so than this morning.
Simmons managed to turn a podcast with a respectable audience in which he offered the very ordinary opinion that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is lying about the Ray Rice mess into a national news story by provoking ESPN into giving him a three week suspension for his words, specifically the words challenging his bosses to punish him for his opinion. This has transformed Simmons from one of thousands of sports talkers talking about the same thing into a martyr for the First Amendment, a pigskin John Peter Zenger calling 'em as he sees 'em. Millions more Americans know that Bill Simmons disapproves of Goodell than did had ESPN ignored his little diatribe. Millions more Americans know who the hell Bill Simmons is than did yesterday and do so in a story in which he looks good -- at least compared to its other parties.
Don't misunderstand. I don't believe Simmons made his remarks with publicity aforethought. He spoke in the heat of his belief in his opinion. The ancillary benefits he will draw from expressing that opinion were the result of an unconscious gift for enterprising self-promotion, an instinct for his game that, as the cliche goes, can't be coached.
As in many stories, Simmons vs. ESPN has a much more interesting villain than hero. Why did Simmons' employer martyr him in the first place? Why generate an incident that even the dimmest boss's nephew intern could perceive as making the network look just awful?
The obvious possible motive, the one which does the most damage to ESPN's public image, is that the network punished Simmons to truckle under to the NFL for fear of offending the business partner whose games make ESPN a lot of money. Like many obvious suspicions, this one wilts a bit under closer scrutiny.
For one thing, ESPN itself is the source of the reporting that has most damaged the NFL's credibility in the Rice case, reporting that pretty much calls out an entire NFL franchise, the Ravens, as an institutional liar. No one thinks this has damaged its business relationship with the league, and they shouldn't.
ESPN broadcasts NFL games on Monday nights because it has paid well over a billion dollars for the rights to do so. The league has changed rightsholders more than once over the past decades, always for the same reason. Some other network made a higher bid. That and that alone could sever ESPN's ties with the NFL. Words will never hurt a multi-billion dollar business enterprise unless they're uttered by a federal judge.
Institutional groupthink causes far more organizational catastrophes than does venality, and it is my belief this is why Simmons is enjoying a theoretically unpaid vacation today. ESPN is, after all, a subsidiary of the most famously rigid and humorless corporation in the country, Walt Disney Co. No other business has as many rules for its employees. Authoritarianism is in Walt's frozen DNA.
I also think that having been dared by Simmons to suspend him, ESPN executives let their emotions rule and took the dare. They are probably ruing their action this morning. By lunchtime, they will see the silver lining.
Truth is, bad publicity will have about as much effect on ESPN as on the NFL, little verging on none. As long as ESPN's networks keep broadcasting live sports events, it will continue to win the blue ribbon as Disney's prize cash cow. It's not as if television executives have much of a public image to damage anyhow.
Let's consider where Bill Simmons fits in the ESPN empire. ESPN has its endless sports broadcasting empire, from NFL games to College Gameday, and a smaller but aggressive straight journalism operation based primarily on its Website and magazine. Bill straddles both of these operations, the primary reason for his uneasy relationship with his bosses. This was not his first suspension.
As a journalist, Simmons is the founder and guiding spirit of Grantland, the long form journalism subsite on ESPN.com which produces a goodly amount of excellent work. Grantland's reputation and audience can only be enhanced by Simmons' new status as National Sports Truth Teller.
Within the entertainment empire division of ESPN, Simmons' highest profile role is as one of the commentators on the network's NBA pregame and postgame shows. These shows suffer the same problem as pre- and postgame shows for all sports. They're terrible television, being 90 percent talking heads either speculating about an event that's going to be over in a couple of hours, or commenting on an event the viewer just saw.
Ah, but what if the shows contain a talking head with a national reputation for confrontational honesty, who might upset the applecart at any moment in a blaze of apparently self-destructive righteous anger? Can't hurt those ratings. Confrontation is the essence of television entertainment.
Is it cynical to note that Simmons' suspension will end several weeks before the start of the NBA season? I prefer to think of it as recognizing ESPN's management can't possibly be as dumb as it appears to be here. Maybe they even know something about the history of their own business.
Long before mobile computing or the Internet, before cable television even, there was a sports commentator who straddled the divide between journalism and entertainment. He never held back an opinion, no matter who it offended, and never stopped boasting about that, either. He was by far the most famous sports commentator of his era, adored by million, and loathed by millions more who somehow couldn't stop watching or listening to him.
Just a guess. ESPN sees Bill Simmons as a possible Howard Cosell for the 21st century. If so, his suspension wasn't discipline. It was marketing.
The Hippocratic Quarterback
Tom Brady's passing statistics so far this season are bad, very bad. Except for one, which is perfect. The perfect one may well be one reason the others aren't up to below par.
Brady is 24th in the NFL in passing yards, despite having thrown more passes, 114, than all but five other QBs. He's thrown more times than Peyton Manning has. His average yards per attempt of 5.5 is lower than all other quarterbacks who've started all three games except Derek Carr and Ryan Tannehill. Brady's completion percentage of 58.8 is lower than all three game starters except Tannehill and Jake Locker.
Add it all up in the incomprehensible NFL way, and Brady's passer rating is 82.9. That's better than only the following three games or most of three starters: the Smiths, Geno and Alex, Tannehill, Carr and Locker. Those are not quarterbacks with whom other QBs should want to share a paragraph.
Now we come to the anomaly at the heart of New England's offensive issues this month. Brady would likely have the lowest passer rating in the NFL were it not for his perfect exception to an otherwise dismal throwing effort. In those 114 pass attempts, Brady had yet to throw an interception. Only two other NFL starters are without a pick. One is Cam Newton. If you can guess the other without looking it up, maybe you should start your own football blog. It's Brian Hoyer of the Browns.
Brady's ability to avoid the worst play a quarterback can make is remarkable when one considers that his protection has been, well, let's say inconsistent to date. Putting the heat on the quarterback is the primary way defenses generate interceptions. It takes both nerve and skill for a slower-footed quarterback like Brady to throw balls away where they can't be touched and take the sacks rather than make questionable throws.
My long distance guess is this. After the Dolphins debacle, when Brady had the crap beaten out of him in the second half, not coincidentally losing two fumbles on sacks, and the New England passing attack vanished altogether, he, Josh McDaniels and Bill Belichick made an adjustment, probably both consciously and unconsciously, that until the offensive line stabilized itself, the Patriots passing game would operate on a strict "first do no harm" game plan. Only the most reliable receivers would be targeted on what the coaches and quarterback regard as the most reliable patterns. When in doubt, remember incompletions aren't the end of the world, just one drive. Don't let those offensive penalties drive you nuts out there, Tom.
If my guess is correct, it leads to two conclusions, both pretty obvious. First is that the downsized New England offense has been part of two consecutive wins, so as a strategy, it can't be called a failure. Teams without turnovers win much more often than they lose.
Unfortunately for the Pats, the second conclusion negates the first. Do no harm is a strategy with distinct limits. Avoid pain, avoid gain. The best teams built around error avoidance usually make the playoffs then get beat by teams capable of overcoming their errors with touchdowns. Let's not beat ourselves out there is not the war cry of champions.
The Pats' three foes in 2014 were quarterbacked by Tannehill, Carr and Matt Cassel. They're 2-1 because they're playing teams with worse quarterbacks than the limited 2014 Tom Brady edition.
Brady knows all this, which is why he's come out after the last two wins talking about how the offense needs improvements amounting to an overhaul. But until he and Belichick believe the offensive line can be trusted, the do no harm offense will remain in place, at least in the game plan.
That game plan will be discarded when the scoreboard makes risk-taking imperative. That will be when the 2014 Patriots season really gets started.
The perfect can be the enemy of the good. It won't seem like it when it comes, but the first interception Brady throws this year may be a most encouraging development.
The Living Room Sport
Roger Goodell made it very clear very early in his press conference last Friday that he was going to say nothing of substance or note. In response, I began clicking the remote to fund something else to watch on TV. There wasn't anything else.
I lost count of the number of channels on my cable system broadcasting Goodell live when it went over a dozen. There were all of ESPN's channels and Fox Sports' two channels, of course. There were all four cable news channels. Then there were all of the local network station channels. There were NESN, NECS and NECN. Goodell's visage beamed forth from Bloomberg and CNBC right above the stock ticker.
I quit searching after those two. Absurdity is like anything else. It can't come in a higher sum than infinity. Was the Commissioner of the National Football League going to start opining on the Alibaba IPO?
No one would deny that Goodell's presser was news. The twin issues of domestic violence committed by pro football players and the NFL's institutionally inept and corrupt reaction to those crimes are a big story, nor just in sports, either. But that big? More channels on my cable system broadcast Goodell's words than broadcast the previous week's announcement by the President of the United States that the country was entering another war.
Pro football is the country's most popular sport. But the popularity of sports, while great, have limits. Roughly 15-20 million people watch an average NFL national Sunday broadcast. That means that roughly 290 to 295 million Americans are doing something else at the same time. Even the Super Bowl, the biggest TV show of all, gets a rating in the 40s, meaning more than half of all television sets in the U.S. aren't tuned into it.
Those otherwise occupied Americans, call them the More Fulfilled Lives Majority, were not thought of when CNBC, whose audience struggles to reach one million in the daytime, went live to Goodell on Friday afternoon. Oddly, neither were the 15-20 million dependable NFL viewers -- except as a revenue stream. No, the broadcast and cable networks treated Goodell as the biggest news in a big and busy world because what he had to say was of intense interest to the handful of mass media conglomerates that own them all. Pro football is more important to television the business than to television viewers and was treated accordingly.
In the always uncertain world of show business, the regular habits of NFL television viewers are a comforting source of reliable profits. They are the last surviving remnant of the 20th century media universe, an old-fashioned audience that runes in to watch the program when it's scheduled and is even less likely to change channels during commercials. They're also mostly guys, a good thing if one is selling beer, wealth management services or pickup trucks.
An overheated column in "The Wall Street Journal" when the Ray Rice debacle got rolling a few weeks ago posited that the very business model of television could collapse if that reliable NFL audience because as fickle as ordinary television viewers have become. This is nonsense. The pro football season is only five months long. Somehow Comcast's quarterly reports hold up during the pigskin free majority of the fiscal year.
There is no denying, however, that within the TV business, where paranoia is a certifiable skill, any threat to the reliable revenue provided pro football audiences is seen as an existential one. And it doesn't take paranoia, only common sense, to see that close association with an organization becoming notorious for toleration of domestic violence is problematic for television companies, who spend most of their programming time attempting to attract women viewers.
The "NFL In Crisis" story is a perfect closed feedback loop within the television industry, almost identical to how very bad weather in New York City is a bigger story than very bad weather anywhere else because that's where television news executives go to work. The league's miseries matter so much to TV decision makers they cannot imagine they might not matter that much to the public. If you get your news from TV, which I don't advise, be prepared to have a lot more Goodell crammed down your throat in the weeks to come.
To the public, what's happened in the NFL in the past month or so has been distressing. But even the most avid pro football fan knows their favorite pastime is in the end a sideshow.
To the audience, a sideshow is a diversion which can be taken or left alone as daily life permits. To the carnival barker, the sideshow is life itself.
Guilt Trips Usually Reach No Destination
Many Americans like to watch football. They are not responsible for Adrian Peterson beating his children, nor for Ray Rice and the other players who have slugged or will slug women. That's on the people who commit the crimes.
Neither are fans responsible for the NFL and NFL teams' blithering incompetence in coping when players become a danger to the outside world as well as to each other. Customers aren't what cause mismanagement. Complacency bred of decades of success is part of why the NFL has been so bereft of either good judgment or moral sense, but popularity doesn't generate complacency automatically. It takes greed, short-sightedness and arrogance, too. Fans didn't bring those to Roger Goodell's tailgate.
Dragging the fans into the blamefest related to Peterson and Rice, as some professional scolds have tried to do, is wrong. It also gives we fans too easy an out from a football issue for which our moral responsibility is enormous.
People who like to watch football are contributing directly to destroying the minds and bodies of the people they're watching. The medical evidence has become impossible to ignore without willful denial. That quandary should be addressed or at least recognized by every follower of the sport.
I think about the issue. I've written about it on this blog for years now. It doesn't mean I have stopped watching football, although I'm not watching as much as I used to. It doesn't mean I still don't love football. It's just not blind love. I don't want to be co-dependent on football. If the sport doesn't significantly improve player safety, which may not even be possible, my fan level will drop from avid to casual to what else is on.
Don't know how long that progression will take. I'd guess it would quite a while. Five seasons? Ten? For sure it'd be more than the right now yesterday demanded by those selfsame scolds.
In columns today running on parallel tracks of error, Dan Shaughnessy of the Globe and Michael Powell of the New York Times both expressed indignation/bemusement/cynical scorn that despite the debacles of the month, pro football remains popular. The subtext, of course, was "you people reading the sports section, you like football. Shame on you!"
Aside from the questionable business practice of ragging on the customers, the lack of perception expressed by Powell and Shaughnessy, whom I hasten to add have been far from the only commentators from the sports world and otherwise to say or write the same tripe, is dazzling. Are they aware of, oh, all of human history?
People can and do change every day. Change however, seldom comes quickly and almost never immediately. The rate of change in mass human behavior is slower still. To believe football fans should immediately lose interest in a pastime they've practiced for years because of the collateral damage of its violence is to hold them to a standard of moral behavior achieved by no society ever.
Coincidentally, this also gives fans a swell excuse to ignore said damage. Most folks are willing to accept only what they see as their fair share of responsibility. Almost all know damn well they had nothing to do with Peterson or Rice's actions. It's an easy if incorrect rationalization to leap to thinking those brain-damaged former players have nothing to do with them either.
The demand for perfect behavior is the enemy of the reflection needed to generate gradual improvement. The NFL's popularity will never just drop off the table. If it ever declines, it will be through erosion, not implosion.
Fandom is a habit. Habits are hard to break. Habits shared by millions of people never end in an outbreak of mass cold turkey.
They can shrink, though The Surgeon General's Report on Smoking and Health was published on January 11, 2014. Smoking was still really popular in February 1964. Fifty years later, it's an outcast habit shunned by most Americans and limited by society as a matter of law.
If football can't or won't change, will its human toll make it a broken habit in 50 years? Beats me. I have enough trouble figuring out how I should treat the game. Fans should know the score. After that, I refuse to advise them, let alone scold them.
First, Assume a Different Boston
The good citizens of Boston 2024 Partnership, the folks who wish to being the Summer Olympics to the city in that seemingly faraway year, think it's a wonderful thing Boston has a compact city core convenient for pedestrians and public transit. Their excitement over this geographic truth somehow became the lead story in this morning's Globe.
Here's the shorthand version of the lede. It MAY be that the International Olympic Committee is attracted to just a setting for its little get-together, so it MAY be the U.S. Olympic Committee will pick Boston as its nominee for 2024 host city over L.A., the Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. So the Partnership is very encouraged.
Good for them. No, honest, I mean it. There is no point in this group of influential businessmen and other movers and shakers to do any moving and shaking if there's not some evidence it isn't all in vain. It may not read like it, but I'm on their side. I support bringing the Olympics to Boston, on the grounds I would enjoy it and so would others. I am even willing to help.
Free advice is my first bit of volunteer assistance to the Partnership. Gang, that story was no puff piece. It was a warning letter..
John Powers wrote the story. He knows as much or more about the Games, from its top-level politics to 2020 archery medal favorites, than anyone else on earth. And in between quotes from Partnership leaders Joe Fish and Bob O'Donnell, John sprinkled facts indicating that much of the Partnership's planning may still be in the Power Point stage.
Here's a couple of excerpts from Powers' nut paragraph. "It is not clear if the city is ready to commit to staging the Games." Also, "it is still investigating the feasibility and availability of sites in the vicinity."
Oh. Except for having secured the cooperation of necessary public and private institutions or having generated significant public support, Boston's Olympic bid is right on track. No wonder the bidders are optimistic.
I have my doubts about institutional support. As a former Cantabridgian shooed off of Harvard's unused athletic fields in summers past, I wonder if the school would just say, "Fine, let us donate our football stadium and anything else you need." But the Partnership is composed of influential people. If it believes that influence will bring civic institutions to their cause, it's in a better position to judge.
What I have no doubt about whatsoever is that the Partnership has yet to demonstrate any kind of outside game. If it is making efforts to convince the public of Greater Boston to get behind the Games, those efforts have not reached my attention. And when its leaders have tried to rally public support, they've hit exactly the wrong note.
The "legacy" of the 2024 for the public is supposed to be a better subway system and a new soccer stadium. I suppose it's inevitable that a group led by a construction industry guy (Fish) would regard built structures as the apex of any community, but this is pretty weak tea to justify what would be in the best case a mass disruption of normal life for four million people for three weeks.
It's also selling the Games under a premise so mistaken as to constitute false advertising. The "legacy" of an Olympics is never stuff. The stuff winds up being downsized at best and abandoned ruins at worst before the next Games. The Games are sports. Sports are about getting away from normal life to make life more fun.
Holding a successful Games requires a huge level of civic cooperation. Even holding a clusterfuck Games like Atlanta in 1996 required it. There can't be any civic cooperation without cooperative citizens. As far as I can tell, the Partnership has yet to try and rally such citizens, or even to identify them.
Greater Boston is an area where an annoying large percentage of the public will tell strangers until they're stupified that "this is the greatest sports town in America (or Earth)." Yet the Partnership hasn't stressed the most obvious thing about the Games, to wit, they really are the greatest sports EVENT on earth. Great sports town should host great sports events seems like a pretty simple and effective PR message to me.
It's only effective, however, if its addressed to sports fans. The Partnership needs to be moving past the Globe to where the fans are. forums like the city's two regional cable sports networks and its two sports talk radio stations. Yes, they'll be treated badly by sneering skeptics. This is inescapable. After all, we're talking about media that currently are bitching about Tom Brady because the Patriots only won their last game by 23 points. Whining in the face of the prosperity is the most unattractive characteristic of the Boston fan base.
But if the skeptics can be fought to a draw, the larger body of neutrals can be turned into Games fans. This is or ought to be the Partnership's first priority. If sports fans decide the Games are for them, the group has a shot at its longshot dream. If that doesn't happen, there won't be a Boston Olympics, no matter how many powerful institutions sign on for the ride. There won't be enough civic cooperation by the general public to let those institutions get their way.
I have been blessed to have attended four Olympic Games, three Summer, one Winter. Whether or not they wound up benefiting the economies and infrastructure of Barcelona, Lillehammer, Norway, Atlanta and Sydney I neither know nor care. I know every spectator, volunteer and person in the street I saw at each Games appeared to be having a marvelous time. I know I left each one with memories that will remain vivid and cherished my whole life long.
Putting on the Games is expensive and doesn't pay for itself. That's a truth that needs no apology. So is putting on a big fancy wedding for one's daughter. Those happen every week in every culture, because parents love their children. The Games can and do take place because people love sports.
Putting on a party for the whole world isn't a sensible thing to do. It's a love thing to do. If the Partnership wants to get this burg on its side, it had best abandon its edifice complex and tell the whole and corny truth.
Promise Boston what you can deliver, memories to be cherished for a lifetime. That's what a "legacy" is, not another damn station on the Green Line.
Must Find Something Else to Do TV
Let me be clear about one point right up front. Nobody but the Minnesota Vikings is to blame for how yesterday's Patriots game lacked a sense of urgency, or sense of dramatic tension, or any other appeal to the senses. The team that provides the only side of a one-sided contest is not responsible for its tedium.
Still, my daughter is a stalwart Pats fan, and she came over to her parent's house to see the game on high definition, and by the late second quarter, we were clicking to other sports in which she has less than no interest, such as golf and NASCAR. Our sports conversations were 1), where did golfer Billy Horschel get the first pair of Madras pants seen in public since the Carter administration? and 2), what will Tom Brady do when he retires?
We got that last figured out. By the time Tom hangs it up, Hollywood will be ready for yet another Batman.
I don't think we were the only ones unable to focus on the blowout. Brady himself looked less than fully engaged on the sidelines in the second half. Winning is always enjoyable, but in truth, by the second half, the Pats were in practice mode. Playing well was to maintain the habits needed for future games, not to win the game at hand. Few if any athletes in any sport find practice as fulfilling as competition.
No, when I come to think of it, there's only one person who watched the Pats-Vikings game who should've found it three hours of enjoyable entertainment. That would be Teddy Bridgewater. Minnesota's rookie backup QB gained at least a month on the moment when he can throw his baseball cap and clipboard away for keeps.
Today's Big Game, Fans vs. Facts
When the Patriots-Vikings game comes on TV today, take a moment and check the opposing sidelines.
Scan the Minnesota sideline. Adrian Peterson probably won't be there. He's inactive due to being a monster. One of pro football's biggest stars, the darling of all fantasy leagues, was charged last week with beating one of his children in the name of "discipline."
Ray Rice cold-cocked his future wife in an act of alcohol-fueled rage. That's horrible. Peterson's case is worse. He beat a child as a deliberate decision. That's not the act of a normal, let alone decent person.
Now look at the Patriots sideline. Doing so during the National Anthem would be perfect. Gaze at the 45 Pats lined up in order. Try to guess which 15 of these young, strong, vibrant athletes will be half-human wrecks tottering to premature death by my age of 65 or younger, much younger, maybe by 50, their brains permanently injured and diseased due to the game that's just about to start.
According to an actuarial survey conducted for the former players suing the NFL, a survey not disputed by the league as a matter of fact, roughly one-third of all players will develop some form of brain trauma related medical issue in their lives. Go pick your particular Patriots hero and imagine them with Parkinson's disease, or unable to recognize their own grandchildren in 2040. Now have some more chips and dip and root, root, root for the home team.
Some say that the increasing evidence that many NFL players are a danger to others as well as to themselves poses a threat to pro football's ludicrous level of popularity. I wish this were so, but I have my doubts. People are as attracted to monsters as they are frightened by them, and their safe display has long been a very profitable racket. Ask the Discovery Channel and Chatham, Massachusetts about the great white shark's contribution to their bottom lines.
Most players aren't monsters, after all. Most leave their gift for violence in the locker room next to their shoulder pads, go home and lead lives appropriate to reckless rich young men, no more of a menace to society than Justin Bieber. Many lead humdrum suburban young married with children lives. It is quite possible for any fan to rationalize that a few bad apples don't spoil his or her barrel of NFL fun.
But what if the barrel itself is killing people, shortening the lives of football players in the most terrible way imaginable? Even the dimmest fan knows that the entire massive structure of the NFL rests upon their willingness to pay for tickets and sit in front of the tube for hours on end watching the collisions that are causing those brain injuries. The dimmer the fan, the more likely they are to tell you loudly they are the sport's bedrock.
When I was a child and teenage NFL fan, it was accepted knowledge that former players had permanent health issues and the risk of premature death. But it was thought the risks were joint issues and the possibility of cardiac arrest. Former players had limps. Former players needed to lose weight. These were not problems to disturb the fan's role in the game.
Now well into the 21st century, we know better. Football the sport contains the certainty, not the risk, of a casualty level among players that'd be deemed unacceptable by any military planner in the world. One third of them will be lost or crippled by the time they hit normal retirement age, in a country with a significantly increasing percentage of people in that age group.
Dangerous sports can improve player safety. Auto racing has. But those changes were to machines, not human beings. They were also conducted by sports organizations who actually believed some risks were unacceptable, that danger was bad for business.
If there's one thing we've learned about pro football in 2014, it's that the men who run the NFL don't think anything can ever be bad for their business. Make that two things. We've also learned they don't care about anything in their business but the rapacious search for more profits. The league SAYS it's deeply concerned about player safety. It says it doesn't like domestic violence, either. The survey I cited only took place because the NFL was sued, not because of its well wishes for its former employees.
The most disquieting thought I want fans to have this afternoon is that maybe the NFL couldn't make its sport safer even if it did want to. Perhaps no rule or equipment improvements can alter the fact that repeated collisions between strong, fast, insanely motivated young men are going to permanently damage one of every three brains involved.
If so, then every fan must look at complicity. Their enjoyment, and pro football offers plenty, is being purchased at the price of someone else's cognition. Fans are the bedrock of football. Therefore, it is our obligation to know just what the hell we are supporting.
Rationalization being one of humanity's supreme skills, most fans will deny or ignore what the NFL's human damage this afternoon except for knee injuries suffered by their fantasy teams. 2040 is a long way off, after all. Medical science will save the heroes of 2014 by then.
Some won't. The ones who won't are the real risk to the NFL, a risk it ignores at its peril, and a risk of course it will ignore.
Boxing's dangers to the human brain have been known for centuries. It's still popular enough. Floyd Mayweather, another beautiful person, remains quite rich.
But boxing is nowhere as popular as it was for the first two-thirds of the 20th century. If you chart its decline in the U.S. alongside the NFL's growth the two lines are almost exactly parallel. America found a violent sport it found more acceptable because it seemed safer. The athletes wore helmets and pads!
The knowledge that football violence is just as if not more dangerous to long-term human health as boxing ought to be hard to rationalize. Some fans, the best of us in many ways, will renounce pro ball forever and watch the Premier League or something else instead. Others won't drop out, they'll just consume less of the sport than they used to. They'll watch the Pats or whatever team they follow and find three hours of moral dilemma a week is enough for them.
I am not an optimist about mankind, but neither do I think humans are incapable of change for the better. While I know the vast majority of fans will continue to consume the NFL's product with gusto, I believe most of them will at least feel the occasional qualm about it, and that the numbers of dropouts and use-lesses will grow as the facts about football brain damage grow.
I believe this because that while most people like watching monsters from a safe distance, few like to think maybe they're the monster.