Mary Pilon of the New York Post went biblical, or at least ancient Roman, in prophesizing how she believes the demise of the NFL might come about. Pilon likened NFL players to “gladiators,” warning that the health concerns associated with football, such as concussions, might eventually cost the NFL their privileged place as the sport of choice for most Americans.
After a personal note about her longtime football-watching father who has lost interest in the league, she gave a thorough run down of the NFL’s recent ratings nosedive. Pilon then crossed the analogy Rubicon, “The fall of Rome seemed unthinkable to people at the time, but inevitable to historians reflecting upon it with the benefit of context. At their height, gladiator contests made war a diversion, thousands charged into majestic amphitheaters, including Rome’s Colosseum, to watch hundreds of gladiators slay wild beasts and each other.
Then, Pilon writes, the disapproval of violence in the gladiator games grew to a fever pitch. The Philosopher Seneca wrote, “Now finesse is set aside, and we have pure unadulterated murder. The combatants have no protective covering; their entire bodies are exposed to the blows.
“This is what lots of people prefer to the regular contests… And it is obvious why. There is no helmet, no shield to repel the blade. Why have armor? Why bother with skill? All that just delays death.”
The outcry from Seneca, Christians, and others eventually made the gladiator games “culturally unacceptable.” Pilon thinks a similar pattern, with a twist, could happen with the NFL: “While the US government is unlikely to ever limit the number of football games, plenty of parents are refusing to let their children play the sport due to the risk of head injuries. The more we learn about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressive, degenerative brain disease that has plagued scores of professional players, the harder it becomes for many of us to watch the gladiators out on the field. And the more we know about players committing violence off the field, especially against women and children, the more we — like Seneca — turn off altogether.”
Pilon sums up by saying that the rise of the UFC proves American’s thirst for violence in sport is alive and well. However, the NFL lacks a powerful overriding narrative, such as the Cubs pursuing their first World Series in 108 years. Coupled with “replays and officiating” overwhelming the “game play” on the field, the pace and drama of what’s happening on the field has made the NFL product unwatchable.
In closing, Pilon speculates that the uninterrupted and better-paced violence of the UFC might eventually replace the NFL, the same way chariot-racing eventually replaced the gladiators: “For better or for worse, fans have a new place to celebrate muscles and gore, free from leaden rules and commercial breaks but filled with intense drama and action. Football, like boxing, will never go away, just occupy a different role in the American zeitgeist. The change will be glacial, not instant. And mixed martial arts may just be the chariot-racing alternative of our time.”
The NFL faces double-digit ratings declines across all networks. Could the NFL’s barbarians be at the gates? Time will tell.
Follow Dylan Gwinn on Twitter: @themightygwinn