Why is this interesting? - The Football Edition

On competition, television, and the numbers behind America's most popular sport

Graydon Gordian (GG) works and lives in Atlanta, GA. He’s written WITIs on Jazz, Christmas Eve in Uruguay, and the NBA. He never scored a touchdown. He got close once, but a defender tripped him from behind at the one-yard line.

Graydon here. I first strapped on football pads and a helmet in 1992, when I was around seven years old. I played for the Corsairs, an Austin-area Pop Warner team that’s still around. I probably weighed barely more than the pads themselves, and generally hated it. I was somehow both scared and bored, and not especially athletic. But my dad and uncle had played college football, and my mother’s parents were lifelong Pittsburgh Steelers season ticket holders, so men in our family played football. About eight years later, when I was a sophomore in high school, I hung up my pads for the last time. Somewhere along the way, the speed and ferocity of the game had passed me by (if I had ever been in front of those aspects, to begin with). I was 120 pounds soaking wet, maybe less even, and that just doesn’t cut it when it comes to Texas high school football.

But I didn’t stop watching the game, at least not right away. In fact, I watched more of it as time went on. I attended a college without a football team (that was intentional), but still watched the Texas Longhorns every Saturday and the Steelers every Sunday. For years, both weekend days were dedicated to hours upon hours of American football. 

In my 20s, I became a serious student of the game. I started reading highly detailed, tactics-driven books and blogs written by coaches and other seasoned practitioners—although I knew I would likely never coach myself, much less suit up again. I could spot the difference between a nickel and a dime package, give you an intellectual history of the spread option, and wax poetic on the zone blitz. I even wrote a bit about football from time to time. But aside from some touch football in the park, my playing days were long gone.

Why is this interesting?

My limited experience on the field might put me in the 80th percentile of football-minutes-played among Americans. While as a country we watch a lot of football, but we really don’t play it. Some young men and a very small number of young women do, but that number goes down with each passing grade (not to mention generation). If you don’t make the team in high school, your playing days are done. Maybe you’ll play a little flag football during PE, or join an intramural touch football team in college, but that game is nothing like 11-on-11 tackle football.

It’s important to point out because the gap between amateur and professional play is not so wide in every sport. According to the National Sporting Goods Association, I’m among the 26 million Americans who play basketball. And when I happen to play 5-on-5, I’m effectively playing the same game as NBA players, if at a much lower skill level. But aside from the general absence of refs and dunks and the embarrassingly low 3-point percentages, the game’s pace and pattern is recognizable. The same goes for the 17.8 million people who play tennis in the United States. When I lace up my clean-as-a-whistle white New Balances, I’m abiding by the same rules as the professionals, on a court that’s the same size as theirs, and playing with the same (if considerably lower quality) equipment. My serve may be 40 miles/hour slower, but I’ve gotta get the ball in the same box. 

But drawing an out route on your chest huddled up with your friends on Thanksgiving or hurriedly counting down from “5 Mississippi” so you don’t burn your one blitz, has almost no relation to the modern-day gladiatorial games that tens of millions of Americans tune into every Saturday and Sunday (and now Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday).

That means that the only people who really play tackle football, excluding children, are the million or so high school athletes who run out under those lights on Friday nights and the guys we watch on TV. (Where I grew up those are actually the same.) 

So how many people is that? According to the NCAA, around 7.3% of those high school players, or roughly 73,000 athletes, go on to play in college. And of those, about 1.6%, or 250-ish players annually, go on to play in the NFL. There are some secondary and semi-pro leagues, but they only add a few thousand players to the total, if that. In other words, about .005% of the population ages 15-64 plays football, and the overwhelming majority of that group are high schoolers. Just .0004% (the 80,000 or so athletes on a college or professional team) of that same age range play the country’s most-watched sport after high school.

I find that incredibly strange and think it says something about what football really is. It’s still a sport, or at least it resembles what we think of when we use that term, but at some point, it may no longer primarily be that. It could be more accurately described as a TV show. Over the years, as football has taken up more and more air time, fewer and fewer minutes of actual gameplay reach our television screens. The average NFL game lasts over 3 hours, during which a fan can expect to see somewhere between 11 and 15 minutes of actual action. Most of what we do when we “watch football” is simply watch TV.

And when we strap on a helmet and pads as kids, we aren’t learning a game we’ll enjoy playing for the rest of our life. We’re just in the first round of auditions for the big show. (GG)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Graydon (GG)

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