The Universal Notebook: The trouble with football

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Having announced in August that I was boycotting the NFL over the prevalence of concussions and the blackballing of free-agent quarterback Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee against racial violence, I must confess that in the past three months I have occasionally taken a sneak peek to see how the Patriots were doing, mostly in the vain hope that they were losing.

Watching football only in highlights, I have begun to understand why the Pats, like the Yankees of my youth, are the team America loves to hate.

They win a lot and they break the rules.

Patriots receiver Rob Gronkowski’s dirty hit, spearing a defenseless Buffalo defensive back late and out of bounds with his helmet and forearm, earned Gronk a mere one-game suspension – the sort of inconsistent justice routinely meted out by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. If Tom Brady got a four-game suspension for letting a little air out of a football, Gronk should have been suspended for the remainder of the season for savagely attacking an opponent and putting him in concussion protocol.

The following night on Monday Night Football, the viewing public was treated to several nasty hits, one of which sent Steeler’s linebacker Ryan Shazier off the field on a stretcher with no feeling in his lower extremities. Football is ritualized war, so casualties are all part of the game.

In my half-hearted attempt to become a better man by no longer supporting the violence that is football, I watched no football at all over Thanksgiving. It wasn’t all that hard since six grandchildren kept me pretty busy and football has never really been my favorite sport. I like baseball and basketball much better, and hockey not at all.

Turns out I’m not the only one boycotting the NFL. The average game this season has attracted 14.8 million viewers, down from 15.6 million last year. The 800,000 fan decline in per game viewership is being attributed to fans protesting players protesting. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Despite my good intentions, I probably will be among the millions watching some of the NCAA College Football Playoffs over the holidays. As I have Georgia relatives who belong to Dawg Nation, I will be rooting for the University of Georgia Bulldogs over the Oklahoma Sooners in the Rose Bowl. And because Alabama’s Crimson Tide got in the playoffs despite an easy schedule and key losses, I will be rooting for the Clemson Tigers in Sugar Bowl.

You notice that most of the big football schools are in the South these days. The popularity of football in other parts of the country is waning. In Maine, several schools have dropped varsity football because of insufficient participation, which is down almost 7 percent in the past seven years.

An old friend who was a three-sport standout in high school, including as quarterback of his football team, told me he usually attends the Maine high school football championship games, but he was going to skip them this year because they didn’t look to be very competitive. Turns out he was right, with three of the championship games being 57-0, 48-0 and 63-20 stinkers. Running a score up to 57-0 isn’t very sporting. They either need a mercy rule or better coaches in Maine football.

The dwindling interest and lack of parity in high school football, coupled with a growing body of knowledge about the long-term health consequences of playing football, would suggest that Maine schools begin thinking about phasing out football. At the very least, local television stations should stop featuring and favoring football over all other fall sports. It’s unfair and irresponsible.

Instead of phasing out football, however, the Maine Principals Association is now talking about eight-player teams rather than the traditional 11 for schools that can’t find enough players. Maybe they should also consider flag football. Two-hand touch? Co-ed football? In my day, schools that couldn’t field a football team played soccer.

Speaking of eight-man football, the latest entry on Maine’s minor league sports scene is the Maine Mammoths, an expansion team in the National Arena League. Arena football, played indoors in the spring and summer, is a fringe enterprise that attracts fewer viewers to an entire season of games than a single NFL game does. I predict the Maine Mammoths will be extinct within a year or two.

The NFL, declining at a rate of 5 percent a year, will obviously be around for at least a few more decades, long enough to fine-tune rules and upgrade equipment to cut down on the number of players it turns into vegetables.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.

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