It could happen, according to economists Tyer Cowen and Kevin Grier:
By now we’re all familiar with the growing phenomenon of head injuries and cognitive problems among football players, even at the high school level. In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell asked whether football might someday come to an end, a concern seconded recently by Jonah Lehrer.
Before you say that football is far too big to ever disappear, consider the history: If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist. The original version of Napster no longer exists, largely because of lawsuits. No matter how well a business matches economic conditions at one point in time, it’s not a lock to be a leader in the future, and that is true for the NFL too. Sports are not immune to these pressures. In the first half of the 20th century, the three big sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, and today only one of those is still a marquee attraction.
The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits.1 Precollegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society. If you are coaching a high school football team, or refereeing a game as a volunteer, it is sobering to think that you could be hit with a $2 million lawsuit at any point in time. A lot of people will see it as easier to just stay away. More and more modern parents will keep their kids out of playing football, and there tends to be a “contagion effect” with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit. We have seen such domino effects with the risks of smoking or driving without seatbelts, two unsafe practices that were common in the 1960s but are much rarer today. The end result is that the NFL’s feeder system would dry up and advertisers and networks would shy away from associating with the league, owing to adverse publicity and some chance of being named as co-defendants in future lawsuits.
It may not matter that the losses from these lawsuits are much smaller than the total revenue from the sport as a whole. As our broader health care sector indicates (try buying private insurance when you have a history of cancer treatment), insurers don’t like to go where they know they will take a beating. That means just about everyone could be exposed to fear of legal action.
Via Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy, who responds that the NFL and other football leagues could successfully push for tort-reform laws protecting the sport from legal action. Maybe, but that wouldn’t solve the insurance problem – not to mention a gradual decline in the number of young people being allowed to play the game. (Football is my favorite sport, but the more we learn about head trauma, the more nervous I become about my own sons possibly taking part.)
If history is any guide, the NFL will go out of business just as the Cleveland Browns are about to win the Super Bowl.