End of Football, End of Capitalism: Odd Coincidence or Is There a Connection?
Is there a connection between recent rhetoric discussing the end of capitalism and the end of American football? Were Karl Marx alive today, he might say that there is.
A recurring theme for some financial commentators recently has been the "end of capitalism". The recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland highlighted ongoing concerns of capitalism's viability. The current global Zeitgeist reflects a growing concern of income inequality and a desire for a restored sense of trust in the marketplace. Meanwhile, there appears to be growing concern that American football is doomed owing to injuries, player suicides, and lawsuits. In an article for the Chicago Tribune, John Kass recently commented that the "bone-shattering truth" is that "US football is doomed". Baltimore Raven Bernard Pollard has also recently suggested that the end is near for NFL football and that in 20 to 30 years, American football will no longer exist.
I have previously discussed how there appears to be some sort of strange connection between finance and football. Perhaps this connection is no coincidence. Perhaps the popularity of American football progresses in step with the capitalist system.
History's most famous critique of capitalism came from 19th c. economist and philosopher Karl Marx. As economist Nouriel Roubini and economic historian Stephen Mihm discussed in the book Crisis Economics, "Karl Marx believed that crisis was part and parcel of capitalism and was a sign of its imminent, inevitable collapse." Roubini; Mihm: "Capitalism, he warned, is doomed. [...] Capitalism is crisis; it introduced a level of instability and uncertainty that had no precedent in human history."
Whereas one could argue that Marx's personal feelings played a large part in the formation of historical materialism, Marx discussed capitalism's collapse in terms of the economic relationships of individuals. Marx did not seek to justify capitalism's collapse on ethical, moral grounds. In short, Marx believed that the course of human history portended a coming final stage of economic behavior. Humanity had started with the system of primitive communism, which later evolved into ancient society, which later evolved into feudalism, which later evolved into capitalism. The crux of this historical materialistic progression rests in the development of the productive forces. Once a system's developmental forces and forces of production reached a point where they could not develop any further, the system's socio-economic relations became fettered and the system collapsed.
According to Marx's analysis, a major problem with capitalism rested in the concentration of wealth and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Whereas capitalists could put forward "countervailing tendencies" to prevent the coming breakdown, these tendencies would only be delaying the inevitable. In capitalism's demise, a new socio-economic system would rise up: socialism. Socialism would then eventually evolve into communism; per Marx, communism would be the last stage is humanity's "prehistory".
Whereas there may be many misconceptions regarding Marx's theories, even Marx conceded that capitalism had an important "historical task" in paving the way for socialism to become feasible. One could argue that we have not yet reached the point where socialism would be feasible...but according to the ideas of thinkers like Gerald Cohen, capitalism may develop and evolve to such a point in the future.
In any event, each particular historical stage (primitive communism, ancient society, feudalism, et al.) carries with it particular characteristics and aspects in society and culture. A YouTube lecture posted by "Eidos84" eloquently expanded upon this notion. The economic relations affect societal and cultural norms in terms of government, religion, habits, and customs. Cultural norms and practices can serve to reinforce and represent the economic base and superstructure. From the video: "Marx would argue that the kind of sport you find in a given society will have a lot to do with its economic base or bases. In a medieval peasant society, where's there's very little division of labor and where the bases of communality and production is the village itself, we should expect to find sports which celebrate village life and that mode of production. And the perfect example of that [can be found in] the primitive forms of the game we call 'soccer' and they call 'football' in Europe... There is very little division of labor, everyone kicks the ball, everyone passes the ball, and in which we work as more or less a sort of organic unit or an organic whole."
Along this line of thought, a more agrarian, individualistic, capitalistic society might have a sport like baseball -- where everyone bats, fields, and catches, but there is more specialization in terms of labor. As for a highly-developed and industrialized capitalist society, we would expect to find a game like American football, "where there is an intense division of labor. There are large people who never touch the ball, smaller people who never block, and then, another guy who may not even speak English and just kicks the ball through the uprights." Thus, in American football we find a very heavy division of labor as in industrialized capitalism.
In addition, with football we find a hierarchy of coaches, trainers, assistants, general managers, and owners that represent and celebrate the economic system. The sport represents and reinforces capitalism's relations of labor and production. From the video: "Marx doesn't think this is the result of some sort of conspiracy. That's what culture does. It celebrates and reflects the life we live. Particularly, the economic bases of our life."
From this perspective, is it any surprise that discussion regarding the end of football is coinciding with discussion regarding the end of capitalism? In a way, as with a failing superstructure, it is as if American football is becoming "fettered" owing to injuries, concussions, and lawsuits. I think there is enough there to suggest that perhaps it makes sense that football would decline at a point in time when capitalism is declining as well.
In terms of saving football, one could put forward a number of possible reforms to make the game safer. Per Kass' abovementioned commentary, "Perhaps football could be saved if the rules were changed, but football doesn't have the will to change." Kass' commentary suggested that football's demise is not a question of if, but when.
In an article for Grantland published in February 2012, Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier explored what the end of football would look like economically. The authors suggested that injuries, lawsuits, and suicides may be sounding an approaching death knell for the sport. From the article: "This slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years." At some point, colleges would give up the game and NFL franchises would begin to shut down. Football's demise may have negative economic effects for cities and colleges that depend on the game. From the article: "People -- American people -- might actually start calling 'soccer' by the moniker of 'football'."
In an article for WilmetteLife published on May 4, 2012, Randy Blaser asked whether we are in fact witnessing the end of football as we know it. Blaser suggested that a potential wave of lawsuits by former professional and college football players threatens the sport's viability: "And if colleges eventually find football too risky and dangerous, would high schools be far behind? How can high schools continue to offer a sport that may cause brain damage? These ideas are not so far-fetched." Blaser discussed that he "gave up watching pro football years ago" because "[t]he excessive violence and injuries [in football] -- especially to key players -- made it seem pointless to invest time and energy following a team." Blaser: "The lingering effects of head injuries caused by playing football are destroying lives. Why should we live with this?"
On a personal note, I absolutely love the game of football; I am a football purist. I am actually in year 11 of what I like to call my "sci-fi" Madden football franchise with the Cleveland Browns. After a number of rough seasons, radical changes in coaches and players, and a few lucky draft picks, the Browns were finally able to make it to the AFC Championship in 2018 (though they lost the game thanks to an incident that could be called "The Fumble") and later won the Super Bowl in 2019 against the Detroit Lions and in 2020 against the Philadelphia Eagles. (As a side-note, in being an NFL franchise "owner" in the game, I have seen Marx's tendency of the rate of profit to fall first-hand -- as players improve raising team profits, they demand higher salaries -- eventually, owing to the salary cap, the "owner" may be caught in a bind in having to get rid of higher-paid quality players to remain financially sustainable, lessening the quality of the team. There is a downward push on profits over time.) And as I find myself playing in the 2020-2021 season, I cannot help but wonder in the back of my mind what the game of American football will look like at that point. Will the football played in Madden '21 look completely different to the football I remember playing in Madden '98 with Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers?
Going along with my previous discussion, will there even be kickoffs in Madden '21? What is the sport going to look like in 10 to 20 years? And for that matter, what will global capitalism look like in 10 to 20 years? Whether we like it or not, going along with Marx's perspective on cultural norms and economic relationships, perhaps football's decline is merely a symptom of greater superstructural transition -- that humanity is transitioning from capitalism to something else.
That leaves us a final question of to where we are headed. What might be the next most popular sport? If lacrosse coincides with primitive communism and medieval kicking games coincide with feudalism and football coincides with capitalism, what sports would theoretically coincide with futuristic socialism or communism? Maybe soccer or hockey? Maybe a sport that has not yet been invented? Maybe all sports or no sports at all? Such discussion remains mere speculation.
Even so, with commentators pondering a coming end of football, some may be wondering what is going to come next. Going along with Marxian analysis, if capitalism gives way to socialism and then to communism and lacrosse was popular in the Native American tradition (which Marx would have argued hearkens to the primitive communist stage of history), then perhaps a Marxian economist would argue that it makes some sense that in football's decline, as according to CNBC and Yahoo!, lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in the US. In addition, CNBC noted that "rugby is surprisingly getting more popular." Might we one day be watching a lacrosse game on Thanksgiving? And as some football players have suggested that they would not want their sons playing football, how many future athletes (that would have played football) might choose to play soccer, hockey, or lacrosse instead?
I've previously suggested that the NFL take steps to transition American football to be more like rugby league or Australian rules football, but I think Cowen and Grier may be on to something: Maybe the American football of the future will be soccer. That being said, given the connection between football and finance, perhaps there is reason to believe that football's decline portends deeper changes within the capitalist system.
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