Slowly but surely, the totem pole is shifting.
For decades, football has been America’s sport. It’s the most popular game around, rife with jock rock stars (jock stars for short). But now it’s under siege from multiple angles, and I don’t think it can retain its supremacy forever.
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Looking back decades ago, it was football that supplanted baseball as top dog among the major American sports. But the same cycle that catapulted 100 yards of green grass into the spotlight will, eventually, force it out.
That’s right. The NBA is on the move, and has been for the last 30-plus years.
The Lakers and Celtics dynasties helped popularize the sport in the ‘80s before passing the torch to Michael “Air” Jordan in the ‘90s.
Then, in the early 2000s, the most-hyped rookie in the history of professional sports began his NBA career. No one knew that he’d be widely considered the second-best basketball player in the history of the sport. And no one knew that his impact would be felt just as strongly off the court – if not more than his sheer greatness on the court.
Yes, let’s start with LeBron James.
He is the face of the NBA, and has done a masterful job representing the game of basketball for the last 10 years or so. Not only is he the most well-rounded player ever, his humanitarian efforts are absolutely astounding.
LeBron has always been good about giving back to his community. His I Promise School is a project that will improve the quality of countless lives. The school offers better access to education for at-risk kids and their parents – as well as covering college tuition for its graduates – and is symbolic of the NBA’s progressive attitude.
The face of the NFL today is not a player. It’s a messy argument over the national anthem. I don’t need to explain to you what’s going on there, nor point out what a bad look it is for professional football.
Like I said, it’s a mess, just like NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s checkered past as the league’s decision-maker. The NFL’s reputation as an organization more tolerant of issues such as domestic violence than others is another black eye for football. The upcoming Urban Meyer decision will shed a lot of light on where football in general lies when it comes to these cases.
How about Jameis Winston? How many times does his name have to be tied to sexual assault/harassment before he gets more than a three-game slap on the wrist?
But a sweeping shift in societal views and values always comes slowly, just like the stripping down of what is arguably football’s greatest appeal as a spectator sport: the violence.
People enjoy boxing, MMA and other forms of humans doing things that damage other humans’ bodies.
Football is no exception.
New studies continue to reveal the severe nature of long term damage to football players’ bodies (not just concussions – players deal with injuries to their knees, shoulders and everything in between). These studies corroborate the achy stories of retired players who are paying the price today, a price they weren’t warned about.
But now groups of football fans, coaches and players alike condemn the new safety rules as an attack on the core of what makes football, well, football.
Enforcing stricter rules on tackling is starting to take away the boom-type, exclamation-mark plays that excite the crowd in ways other sports can’t.
But basketball has exclamation-mark plays, too. These athletes can put on a dunk show on any given night, and Steph Curry and the Warriors have been extremely influential in the three-point explosion that’s rippling through all levels of the game today.
That’s another thing basketball has on football: points. There’s so much more scoring in basketball. And modern teams are scoring more and more points as the years go by.
Basketball is also easier to follow on a screen than football. It’s a five-on-five game, meaning there’s less to keep up with than the 11-on-11 nature of football.
And player empowerment in basketball is way, way ahead of football. Of course, a lot of that is thanks to LeBron James, but ask yourself this: As an employee working for someone else, would you rather have better working conditions or worse? Which business do you respect more, the one that treats its workers right or the one operating on the tyrant-and-the-slave model?
With all that being said, the television ratings tell the other side of this story.
While basketball’s numbers are on the rise while football’s decline, the gridiron still holds a comfortable lead on the hardwood court when it comes to television viewership.
A 2017 Gallup poll revealed that 37 percent of Americans consider football their favorite sport, compared to 11 percent who chose basketball (football had dropped from 43 percent about 10 years ago, though, showing the slow nature of this transition).
At the end of the day, we’re witnessing football creeping into metaphorical old age, as basketball is hitting its metaphorical athletic peak. As football devolves, basketball evolves.
It’s the survival of the fittest.
Andrew Huang is a sports writer. You can follow him on Twitter @AndrewJHuang or contact him at [email protected].