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Opinion

Millennial generation could kill the NFL

Many protective mothers and fathers of Millennials aren't allowing their kids to play tackle football because of health risks. These attitudes could close the NFL’s pipeline to many talented players. But these concerns also have the potential to change the violent NFL culture for the better.

By Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais / October 19, 2012

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Armon Binns (85) is hit by Cleveland Browns middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson (52) and defensive back Buster Skrine in the first half of an NFL football game Sept. 16 in Cincinnati. Mr. Binns suffered a concussion on the play. The Browns are scheduled to play the Colts this Sunday afternoon. Op-ed contributors Morley Winograd and Michael D. Hais say that 'more than 3,000 former NFL players have filed more than 100 lawsuits against the league for concussion-related conditions.'

Tom Uhlman/AP

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Arcadia, Calif.

The emergence of the Millennial generation poses an existential threat to the future of the National Football League.

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Professional football has been America’s favorite spectator sport since 1972 when baby boomers became the most important TV audience demographic. Steve Sabol, the genius behind NFL Films that helped to popularize the NFL in the 1960s, captured the drama and danger of pro football with his slow motion films of big violent hits backed by stirring music.

Pro football, depicted by Mr. Sabol as a confrontation between good and evil in which there can be only one winner, matched the values of baby boomers a half century ago. But this focus is not as appealing to the Millennial generation with its focus on win-win solutions and an instinct for avoiding confrontation.

Furthermore, out of concern for the future health of their children, many protective mothers and fathers of Millennials are deciding their kids should not play tackle football at all. These attitudes could close the NFL’s pipeline to many talented players within the coming decade. But these concerns also have the potential to change NFL culture for the better.

Millennials (young people 9-30 years old) were reared by their parents in a highly sheltered and protected manner. The generation’s arrival was signaled by “baby on board” bumper stickers and AMBER Alerts, major child protection legislation and “helicopter parents.” 

Because of the way they were reared, Millennials are the most risk averse in recent American history. Concerned about the safety of their “special” children, the parents of many Millennials have demonstrated a strikingly fearful reaction to a series of reports about the devastating impact playing in the NFL has had on many former players.

According to GamesOver.org, a group “dedicated to serving and meeting the transitional needs of players when they leave the game,” 65 percent of NFL players retire with permanent injuries, while the suicide rate of former NFL players is six times the national average, possibly due in part to a brain disorder that researchers say impacts those who have suffered multiple concussions. 

So far, more than 3,000 former NFL players have filed more than 100 lawsuits against the league for concussion-related conditions. If they are combined in a single class action, these suits could cost the NFL millions of dollars and possibly threaten it with bankruptcy. Moreover, in each of the past two seasons about 15 percent of those on NFL rosters (270 in 2010 and 266 in 2011) received concussions. And already in the first month of this season, at least two starting quarterbacks have been sidelined by concussions.  

The NFL has taken note of the threat and is working to reduce the impact of concussion-related injuries through improved equipment, especially helmets that provide enhanced protection. It is also working toward better coaching that teaches safer tackling and blocking techniques. And the league is developing new rules or stronger enforcement of existing ones that prohibit or reduce blows to the head.

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