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Drums are sounding again—to no one’s surprise—about the game’s future. High school football participation is down, reports Patrick Hruby, citing statistics from the National Federation of State High School Associations and the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

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While high school athletic participation has risen 6% over the past decade, tackle football participation has declined about 17.4% in just the last five years.

Hruby contends those declines are having an impact on the game. “High school football…finds itself coping with mounting reports of merged teamsforfeited games and canceled seasons.”

There are multiple reasons why football participation is declining, but a risk-related reason stands out—the fear of long-term health consequences from repeated hits to the head.

Health impacts aren’t solely an issue for high school players, of course. In addition to suffering cognitive-related issues in later life, The New York Times reports that retired NFL players are suffering indirectly in another way—hooked on opioids in retirement— the consequences of using medications to manage injury-related pain.

None of these findings are new, though. And they aren’t likely to sound a death knell for the game, either. That’s because a pool of players will keep the game alive in a country that can’t seem to get enough of the pigskin sport. Witness the fact that a new pro league will launch later this month.

But there’s a hitch to counter the hoopla. We live in a society where money and markets reign supreme. We measure people and enterprises by worth, revenue-generating capacity, and financial risk. Football is no different, and that has been a good thing for the game—until now. A market-related problem has emerged. ESPN’s Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada call it “the evaporating insurance market.”

Insurance coverage is a fundamental feature associated with the economics of sport. It helps sponsors manage risk—just as farmers do when they buy crop insurance. But what happens when insurers conclude that the potential risk of offering coverage is too high?

“Before concussion litigation roiled the NFL beginning in 2011,” the reporters write, “at least a dozen carriers occupied the insurance market for pro football, according to industry experts.” Today, only one company is willing to provide the NFL with workers compensation insurance. The same circumstance faces the helmet industry--only one carrier covers neurological injuries.

Insurers are especially concerned about what they call ‘latent impacts’ of the game—those that emerge over time—exactly what they faced with workers who experienced asbestos exposure.

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Fainaru and Fainaru-Wada cite an industry official. “Traumatic brain injury ‘is an emerging latent exposure the likes of which the insurance industry has not seen in decades,’ Joe Cellura, president of North American casualty at Allied World, wrote in a blog post last year for the website, Risk & Insurance.”

The evolution of the insurance industry is likely to affect youth, high school, lower-end college, and semi-pro football—sooner and with greater impact—vis-à-vis high-end college and pro football. Money is the reason. Without insurance coverage to cover adjudicated claims, the financial risk associated with playing the game will far outdistance the rewards of competing.

But before concluding that restrictive or no insurance coverage is a real threat to the game, let’s look at the situation from another perspective. Mike Florio’s interpretation, which appeared recently in Pro Football Talk, is a prime example. His is a three-step argument—DENY, DEFEND, and DEFLECT—or ‘The Three D’s.”

Florio denies that limited insurance coverage is a problem. Football is a low-risk proposition for insurers because complainants will “have a hard time prevailing” in courts of law. Why? A tight connection does not exist between playing football and “the emergence of cognitive issues far later in life.”

Florio defends football, arguing that there’s more than enough money at the high-level college and pro levels to cover claims that might come the game’s way.

Florio deflects concern by saying that other sports—ice hockey and soccer—face the same situation. Why are we focusing on football only, he asks?

What about the players? Players knew the risks before they slapped on helmets, he asserts. And what about the kids? “Many think kids under 14 shouldn’t play tackle football, anyway,” Florio writes.

So just where might we settle on the matter?

I believe the outcome will depend on the interplay among choices (individual and institutional), markets (financial risk/reward), and courts (what’s legal and just). But don’t expect those domains to move in the same direction and at the same pace.

And don’t underestimate the impact of public fancy. Times change. Tastes change. Baseball hasn’t been “America’s Pastime” for decades. ‘Friday Night Fights’ aren't on network TV. The NBA and NHL used to be small, Eastern-centered leagues. Horse racing…. Well, you get the drift.


In the meantime, enjoy the Super Bowl … while it’s around.

Frank Fear