Hunt: America's pastime needs to save itself

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. Baseball, the national pastime, and basketball or golf 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 next 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 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.

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