Perhaps the most important play of Sunday’s Super Bowl came in the second quarter, when Patriots wide receiver Brendan Cooks was knocked to the ground by Philly defensive back Malcolm Jenkins after 23-yard completion. The hit looked brutal from the comfort of my living room, if for no other reason than Cooks didn’t see it coming. He laid on the field for several moments, and, after being attended to, did leave on his own two feet. Slowly. And he never returned.
The importance of that play wasn’t simply because the Pats lost a critical weapon. Let’s face it, Tom Brady threw for almost a third of a mile, so he seems to have found other targets. The relevance is that his departure was for a head injury, the exact issue at the core of football’s most pressing existential crisis. Beyond all the reasons that people proclaim to not care as much about football as they used to, beyond the national anthem and the culture wars, beyond the 500 channel universe where you can choose to watch anything from Shark Tank to Star Wars instead of the Big Game, beyond the no-fun-league and everything else that might erode audience share is the reality that too many people are starting to think that football might just be too dangerous. Of course, that’s a generalization, and it’s far more on the coasts and with college graduates, but the erosion has started, even if it’s still a pretty big beach.
So when Brendan Cooks lay on the turf in the second quarter of the Super Bowl, the only game that most Americans watch all year, after a brutal but legal hit to his head, that affirmed what a lot of people are already suspecting. And for those of us who hoped to ignore our cognitive dissonance for at least four hours – or however long the game lasts – well so much for that.
The numbers for Sunday’s game reflect that larger reality. While some 103 million people watched the game in the US, that’s down 7% from last year and is the smallest number of viewers since 2009. That’s on top of a 10% dip in viewership this whole NFL season. And let’s be clear – this was an outstanding football game. I know that because I let my kids stay up until after 10 to watch the ending, which, for the record, is a full hour later than my wife made it. It was well played, had comebacks, heros and villains, and perhaps the best collective quarterback play in Super Bowl history. And the storyline itself was compelling. A team trying to become the winningest in history vs. a team that takes solace in its own misery – with a backup quarterback who might not even be on the team next year. From two relatively large markets with big historic fan bases. So by all means, there should have been a lot of people watching.
So what does this mean? What’s the takeaway from an outstanding contest that still couldn’t manage to keep pace with any game of nearly the last decade? Does this mean football is in fact dead, or dying? And are we sure this isn’t simply because red meat Republicans won’t watch any sport that’s played by anyone unwilling to pledge unyielding support to a song?
I think the best answer came a few days before the Super Bowl itself, during Justin Timberlake’s press conference about his upcoming half-time show. And yes, you have to have a press conference about a 15-minute performance on a football field. JT, as the cool kids call him, was asked about his two year old son suiting up to run some pass routes. He replied, “he will never play football.” Certainly, that was a clear lack of situational awareness, and he tried to walk that instinctive comment back, but I think that’s all we need to know about the relative future of football. Sure, most of us still watch. Almost as much as we used to watch. But down deep, we now know that there is something inherently wrong with the sport, so much that when it comes to our own kids, it’s simply a non-starter.
Of course, that’s not universal. Just watch the newest season of the TV show Friday Night Tykes – which is awesome, by the way. There are plenty of families that see great value in the sport of football. But others, like Justin Timberlake, who with his wife Jessica Biel have all the fiscal wherewithal to keep their kids from the game, are starting to think otherwise. Brendan Cooks lying on the turf, likely having suffered a concussion, might have convinced a few more towards that opinion. Maybe a few even stopped watching, or won’t watch next year. It’s hard to say, as football’s descent will be far slower than precipitous, assuming it does happen. But if it does, that 23-yard reception will be the most important play of the game.
Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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