The football head injury conversation more and more people are having is a complicated and multifaceted one. One of the reachable conclusions is obvious, though: a confluence of related factors could conspire to bring about the “end” of football as we currently know it. Many people often immediately retort, “No!”, maybe because they like football a lot and don’t want it to end, but also, they say, there’s too much money in football, it’s too big of a business, and it’s way too popular and ingrained in our culture to go away. And the first person might then bring up boxing. To put the thesis statement at the end of this opening paragraph, the point, for those, like Jonathan Mahler, who might miss it, is that if a sport as widely popular and culturally ingrained as boxing could fall from prominence, so too could football; in other words, that football is America’s most popular, wealthy, culturally relevant sport is no defense to the claim that it might lose that status, because a once-similarly situated sport– boxing– did lose its status as such.
Mahler, a sports columnist for whatever Bloomberg View is, captured readers with the headline “Why Football Won’t Go the Way of Boxing (Yet)” and his thesis is that football won’t follow boxing’s decline because boxing’s decline was the result of television-related changes, not “brutality.” The issue that vitiates the analogy is not the specific reason for the decline, as Mahler believes, but it is the fact of the decline itself.
I’ve repeatedly argued elsewhere that beginning with the proper premise– answering the right question— is the most important step in any piece of persuasive writing, and that’s exactly where Mahler gets off track. Early in his article he writes:
As we continue to learn more about the serious long-term health risks of playing football, we keep hearing the question: Is football destined to go the way of boxing? The implication is that people stopped watching boxing because they were turned off by the spectacle of two men doing serious, possibly permanent harm to each other. The only problem with this theory is that it isn’t true.
(Emphasis added.) That isn’t “[t]he implication,” though. Regardless of why boxing went away, the Sweet Science is a useful historical analogue in this modern football conversation because it went away.
Mahler tidily presents the Cliff’s Notes history of boxing’s rejection of and by network television and football’s embrace of the accessible medium. There’s nothing wrong with that, but what he fails to do is carry the football-boxing analogy all the way through. If he had, he would see that head injuries could be to football what television was to boxing. Again, it’s the fact of boxing’s decline, not the reasons for it, that even makes boxing relevant to this football conversation.
To return to the dialogue played out in the opening paragraph here, Mahler essentially is just doubling down on football’s popularity. That another popular sport lost its status doesn’t matter to him because football is popular!, which brings us right back to where we started.