The U.S., polarized politically and splintered socially, is about to experience one of its few widely shared moments: the professional football playoffs.
Football reigns in America. More than a sport, it's an integral part of the nation's culture. Baseball, the national pastime, and basketball or golf, which have global celebrities such as LeBron James and Tiger Woods, are dwarfed by the popularity and wealth of the National Football League.
The majority of Americans say they follow the NFL; the passion intensifies as a dozen teams start the playoffs this weekend, leading up to the Feb. 2 Super Bowl. Among the most watched television programs this autumn were dozens of NFL games. It is estimated that total global viewership for the Super Bowl may top 150 million, seven times the U.S. TV audience for the last game of baseball's World Series and more than twice the number of Americans who go to church on Sundays; the most watched movie of the year or the president's State of the Union address don't even come close.
This is a communal experience, not just for middle-aged, beer-guzzling sports nuts.
Four television networks will pony up about $5 billion next year for the rights to broadcast NFL games; the league, which also has its own network, brings in about $10 billion annually.
Despite its rough-hewn persona, the NFL is that rare American venue where socialism flourishes. The TV revenues are divided equally among the 32 teams; an overall salary cap is imposed on each club, which prevents a big-market, rich franchise from dominating and allows the teams with the worst records to get the first picks of the annual player draft.
Take the Packers of Green Bay, a Wisconsin town with a population of a little more than 100,000. The team has 80,000 season ticket holders - the waiting list is as long as 30 years - who revel in their team's games in bitter cold weather on the "frozen tundra," as the grounds were famously labeled.
The Packers are publicly traded, with a few hitches: Shareholders get a piece of paper, the right to attend the annual meeting in historic Lambeau Field (in the summer), but no dividends or even the ability to sell the stock. The franchise is valued at about $1.2 billion, with annual revenue of $282 million and profit of $54.3 million.
Yet even as pro football is riding higher than ever, it faces peril. The NFL, as documented in the book "League of Denial" by investigative reporters Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada and an accompanying documentary on Public Broadcasting Service's "Frontline" series, covered up for years the impact of the game's violence on the players. Amply documented now is the disproportionate incidence of brain injuries and dementia among former players. Four months ago, more than 6,000 former players reached a settlement with the NFL, which didn't admit culpability. With more research - some of it funded by the league, which has stopped stonewalling - more connections may be forthcoming, and further legal action appears certain.
It hits home with the public when a star such as quarterback Brett Favre, only 44 years old and retired just three years, says that he's experiencing memory loss and that if he had a son he might steer him away from football, given the dangers.
In dealing with the issue, the NFL has imposed tougher restrictions, reviews and penalties. Yet critics say much more needs to be done. The focus on concussions and their ramifications is overdue; less attention is paid to the pervasive use of painkillers in locker rooms, leaving some players, eager to keep their livelihood, oblivious to potentially serious injuries.
The way contracts are structured encourages this. Long-term medical costs, for example, are only partially covered. "Statistically, football is as dangerous as any industry, and occupational injuries and treatment by physicians should be held to the highest standards," says DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players Association. That isn't the case today, he notes.
If changes aren't made, warns The Washington Post's Tom Boswell, one of the country's top sports columnists and a lifelong pro football fan, America's favorite entertainment may go the way of boxing, which was wildly popular a half century ago and was undone by its own myopia.
In the meantime, along with scores of millions of others, I will be glued to the television for the next month of Sundays (and a couple of Saturdays). Devoid of a hometown team, I'm eager to see if my long-shot Super Bowl pick, the San Francisco 49ers, will prevail.
Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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