At the beginning of the month I wrote a post entitled “Is Football Dying?” It was a direct parody of the many “Baseball is dying” stories you see each fall. Indeed, it directly tracked the format and followed the same reasoning as a New York Times column to that effect, only switching baseball and football around.
I thought the parody was so obvious that it didn’t need to be explicitly identified as a parody. Yet a lot of people took it seriously. A lot of people — including some who really should know better; including some who openly lauded that Times column when it came out — actually thought I was arguing that football was somehow on the decline and found the conclusion and the reasoning preposterous. And they were mad about it.
I’m not exactly sure what to take from that experience. I know baseball fans, myself included, can be a little sensitive when people criticize the sport. But that sensitivity is rooted in the awareness that, yes, a sport can decline. Baseball was once the alpha-sport in the country and it wasn’t even close. Now, while it is certainly healthy on its own terms, it is clearly secondary or even tertiary depending on how you measure it. And of course there are no small number of people, both inside and outside of the game, who openly wonder about its health and talk about it as if it might die at some point for reasons both silly and legitimate. It’s worth disabusing people of faulty notions about baseball’s health because the claims of its poor health are often rooted in reality.
But where does the sensitivity of football fans come from? And make no mistake, there was no small amount of sensitivity in the wake of my “Is Football Dying” post. Go back and read the comments and some blog posts by others responding to it who didn’t get the joke. Football is so clearly and ridiculously more popular than any other sport in this country that even a serious suggestion that it is in decline should be laughed off rather than argued with on its own terms. Concussions? A random early-round delay in selling out a playoff game? Smack talk and the casual racism of fans who hate such smack talk? They are things worth talking about (and the concussion issue is indeed serious) but even I, a known football hater, would never suggest that they’ll make a dent in the National Football League’s hegemony.
And that hegemony is solidly in place. ESPN reports that, for the 30th straight year, the NFL is the most popular sport in America according to the annual Harris poll:
In 2014, 35 percent of fans call the NFL their favorite sport, followed by Major League Baseball (14 percent), college football (11 percent), auto racing (7 percent), the NBA (6 percent), the NHL (5 percent) and college basketball (3 percent).
In 1985, the first year the poll was taken, the NFL bested MLB by just one percentage point (24 to 23 percent), but since then interest in baseball has fallen while the NFL has experienced a huge rise in popularity.
In the face of that and at a time when it is almost impossible to escape talk of the Super Bowl and everything that surrounds it, one wonders what animates anyone who actually gets prickly and defensive if it is suggested, even in jest, that not everything is perfect in the National Football League. Yet those people are all over the place. Wait until there are about 30 comments on this post. They’ll be here too to defend their sport, despite the fact that is damn nigh invincible and in no need of a serious defense.
Oh well. There’s no accounting for people’s feelings. Even partisans of insanely popular things sometimes worry when a small minority does not feel the same way they do about that which they love.
Just ask Nickelback fans.