"Thirty years from now, I don't think it will be in existence," Pollard told CBSSports.com. "I could be wrong. It's just my opinion, but I think with the direction things are going -- where they [NFL rules makers] want to lighten up, and they're throwing flags and everything else -- there's going to come a point where fans are going to get fed up with it."
You should never say never but there are plenty of reasons to believe that Pollard is perhaps overly concerned about the future of the game. The game has been made safer and safer almost from the moment it was invented and its popularity continues to grow.
In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, football was being played on college campuses under a loose set of rules. The game was violent to the point where during the 1905 season, 18 college and amateur players died. Countless more suffered debilitating injuries. Publications such as the New York Times called for the game to be banned.
Rather than banning football, however, President Teddy Roosevelt decided he wanted to save it. He convened a group of coaches and administrators and bluntly told them that unless changes were made football would no longer be played.
There was some resistance during and after the meeting, but eventually football's leaders would agree to get rid of many of the elements that had turned the sport into all-but-unregulated brutality. Rugby-style mass formations, and gang tackling, were outlawed; the distance needed for a first down was changed from five yards to ten, which made it essential to come up with plays that didn't necessarily go straight through the center of the line; a neutral zone was instituted at the line of scrimmage; and -- most important -- a new kind of play was put into the rulebook:
The forward pass.
Those changes not only saved the game, they enhanced it, making it more enjoyable to watch. The NFL was formed in the early 1920’s and the college rules were adapted and improved. The pro game surpassed the college game in popularity in the 1960’s. During that time, clothesline tackles were executed regularly and defensive linemen were permitted to head slap blockers. Those methods were outlawed in later decades but practices such as helmet to helmet hits against defenseless players and wedge formations on kickoffs were either legal or the rules against them weren’t enforced. Those rules have been either changed or made to be points of emphasis over the last decade.
And as the game has become safer and safer for the players, its popularity has grown and grown. TV ratings are through the roof. Last year’s Super Bowl was watched by over 111 million people in the USA. Regular season ratings are as strong as ever.
The results of a recent Harris poll revealed that pro football is the most popular sport in America by a wide margin. Thirty-four percent of respondents named pro football as their favorite sport, easily beating baseball, named by 16 percent.
And all of this is against the backdrop of concerns like the ones that Pollard expressed. Perhaps the NFL is losing some fans due to the emphasis on player safety but the numbers would indicate that they are gaining more than they may be losing.
There may be a breaking point somewhere. Maybe the rules with get changed to change the game into something that is safe to the point of being boring and fans will start to leave and they won’t get replaced. But it is difficult to see that happening even 30 years in the future.
Even if it becomes only half as popular as it is now, it would decline to the level where baseball is now. That sport is doing quite well, thank you. Just ask Albert Pujols (starting the second year of a 10-year, $240 million contract), Josh Hamilton (5 years, $123 million), Ryan Zimmerman (8 years, $126 million), or any number of other multi-millionaire players.
The NFL might not remain on top of the heap in the sports world forever. But there is still plenty of reason to believe that Pollard’s should stick to football and stay out of the predictions business.