As Super Bowl LIII and the National Football League’s centennial season approaches, it appears that American football is thriving. Last year, for the 2017-2018 season, the NFL made $8.1 billion in revenue, a new record, surpassing the $7.8 billion it made in the 2016-2017 season. A 30-second ad in this year’s Super Bowl costs $5.24 million, also a new record high.
But concerns over football’s safety—specifically, the risks of concussions and the chronic traumatic encephalopathy they can cause later in life—are quietly eroding the sport’s position in American culture. For one thing, viewership for the Super Bowl has declined each of the past three years. For another, the number of high school football players in the country has shrunk 6.6% in the last decade.
The number of high school students who played football for their school decreased from 1,109,511 in the 2007-2008 season to 1,039,079 in the 2017-2018 season, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations.
That hasn’t affected collegiate recruiting just yet, since only a fraction of high school players actually make it to that level, anyway. But as Michael Weinreb points out The Ringer, it’s evidence of a growing rift in the football community—particularly in California, which produces a large number of football players. In California, activists in favor of using legislative action to eliminate tackling from organized football leagues for children until the age of 14 are at odds with those who value the sport’s traditional place in communities.
As Bloomberg reports, many Americans—including president Donald Trump—see football as a symbol of manliness and view attempts to change the way it’s played a threat to a culture of toughness. And yet, that may be the only way to save players and long-term interest in the sport.