1980 book predicted the looming death of football


There’s been plenty of talk about the decline of football. It’s not new. Indeed, it’s at least 40 years old.

Earlier this week, when discussing the Championship Throw That Wasn’t from Super Bowl LIV, I remembered Championship Throw That Was from Super Bowl XIV. I specifically remembered the photo of Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s pinpoint pass that Rams defensive back Rod Perry nearly batted away but that landed in the arms of receiver John Stallworth, who caught the ball in full stride for a 73-yard touchdown while the Steelers trailed 19-17 in the fourth quarter of a game played in front of more than 100,000 spectators at the Rose Bowl.

The image of Stallworth ready to corral the throw, with Perry’s blurred right hand obscuring the “I” in Sports Illustrated, continues to be one of the most powerful and iconic of the Super Bowl era. Curious as to whether my copy of the issue was still floating around in the attic over the garage, I accepted the challenge of sifting through the various places it possibly could be, and I found it without much sweat or frustration.

It’s a fascinating time capsule, with the ads revealing much more about changes in society than the stories or the photos. The Super Bowl XIV issue was fueled by revenue from space used to sell grossly outdated cars (Oldsmosbile Cutlass on the inside cover, Mazda 626 on page 24, Volkswagen Rabbit on page 36, with Paul Hornung sitting on the hood, two-page International Harvester Scout on pages 40-41, Renault Le Car on page 45, Ford Thunderbird on page 51, two-page Honda Civic at pages 58-59, Chevy Camaro at page 71, and American Motors at page 79), the liquor (Ronrico rum on page 21, Seagram’s VO on page 39, Canadian Mist at page 54, Wild Turkey at page 69, Smirnoff on the inside of the back cover), and the cigarettes (Kool Milds on page 9, a two-page Camel lights spread on pages 22-23, Merit on page 42, Doral II on page 53, Golden Lights at page 60, Camel at page 67, Winston at page 75, and Arctic Lights on the back cover).

And then there’s this question, in an ad at the top of page 55. “Is the All-American game going into sudden death?” The title was as ominous as it could have been: “The Death of an American Game, The Crisis in Football.”

“From Pop Warner to the pros, organized football is in serious trouble,” the ad explains. “Sports Illustrated senior writer John Underwood exposes and explores the dramatic problems that jeopardize the sport’s future (from the 100% injury rate of the NFL, the sanctioned violence and drugs, to professionalization and questionable values exhibited on the college level and below) and offers a detailed, constructive proposal for reforming the game. ‘Sure to stir controversy. . . . A powerful indictment of the grid-iron system from top to bottom.'”

The ad included an image of a football with a flag draped over it, an homage of questionable tastefulness to the casket of an American soldier.

I’ve found a used copy of the book for $4.44 (with shipping and tax). It will be interesting to see what Underwood thought a full four decades ago of a doomed sport that has continued to grow and thrive and succeed, despite the constant parade of those who would like to see it fail.

Yes, the sport has challenges. Led by the NFL, football has made real efforts to address and to solve them (even if it took more than a little while to get the league’s full attention regarding concussions). But there’s still nothing like football in the broad American sports experience.

So here we are, 40 years after that weekly flood of copy hawking crappy cars and cheap booze and cancer-causing addictive smoke sticks. Football hasn’t simply endured but it has become dramatically bigger than it was in January 1980. Now, the NFL enters its second century strong than it’s ever been — and likely stronger than any of those who founded the league in the showroom of a Hupmobile dealership in Canton 100 years ago this September ever would have imagined.

24 responses to “1980 book predicted the looming death of football

  1. How ironic the story speaks of rampant drug use and now we know that Steelers’ team was juiced on horse steroids, leading many to early deaths.

    And btw, don’t diss my Ronrico Rum.

  2. The NFL continues to break its own revenue records each and every year. They’re literally printing money. Now it seems to be picking up steam across the entire globe. According to doomsday predictions, the world was supposed to end many times.

  3. in other words 100% injury rate, paid college players, performance enhancing drugs, long term permanent damage and shorter life spans… All true it just hasn’t made people stop watching and paying for the game. would be an interesting book.

  4. Enter gambling. Way more people bet on football than the average fans knows. Not to mention those parlay sheets that beyond popular. Everyone in college did that for a buck.

    NFL won’t admit it but history repeats itself. Enter fantasy football. Fantasy FB is why they allow ‘real’ gambling now. People are already and always have been doing it.

    Take away both and I guarantee the NFL wouldn’t be nearly as popular. Baseball is a perfect example. Almost impossible to bet MLB. Money lines confuse the average person just for starters. But fantasy baseball is way easier. Easiest way to make money (from above examples), if you know the game.

  5. Yeah, 40 years later and the NFL is a multi-billion dollar a year business and the most popular game in America while printed news and printed news monthly’s are virtually dead.

    I’d say Underwood nailed it.. 😂

  6. charliecharger says:
    February 9, 2020 at 11:14 am
    The NFL continues to break its own revenue records each and every year.

    YEA and I’m paying more for health insurance than I ever have and getting less, its called gouging! Just like what the NFL is doing to watch their product, hell even at stadiums where they can’t fill the seats now they’re still raising prices and they’re really jacking the prices of their TV coverage.

    To prove my point last Aug I dropped one tier on my satellite provider to save $80/mo and the only real channel I lost was the NFL Network and when I asked the woman why that tier was so much she told me that 95% of the cost increase of that tier over the last 3-4yrs was because of the NFL Network! So now I save $960/yr and the only channel I even noticed I lost was the NFL Network, well that was a no-brainer, count me out!

    I seriously don’t think most people realize how much its costing them to watch the NFL at home but if and when they do find out a whole lot of those people will cut those channels too because all of these huge increases are totally unsustainable.

    BTW I don’t even miss it!

  7. That same year, the NBA was in actual serious decline as Bird and Magic were first emerging as league-saviors. Decades later, I was living in China and saw hordes of locals screaming for Kobe Bryant and giant murals of Lebron James and jerseys of every team from the Celtics and Rockets to Magic and the Hawks being worn in even in unlikely 3rd tier cities. Meanwhile, the NFL cancelled its game in Beijing and has never really taken hold in China, except in tiny pockets here or there. Underwood was right in a way. The NBA, not the NFL, has proven the more sustainable sport with greater potential for worldwide growth.

  8. I watch every NFL game at home for free without Sunday Ticket.Have for a few years now.There are other ways to see the games without paying that ridiculous price.

  9. In the 1970s, many thought soccer would displace football. Many lectured us on how soccer is less violent and how we should like it because the rest of the world likes it.

    Soccer is boring, I don’t care if the rest of the world likes it, and give me one instance where football fans have beheaded a referee as is reported to have happened in soccer.

  10. Football as was played in the 1980 is indeed dead. Today we have a different game using the same name.

  11. College Football is where it’s at. Over the years I have come to love it more than the NFL.

  12. In order to survive most things will evolve or cease to exist. Like it or not they’re still here.

  13. At one time they used to advertise cigarettes and now you can’t even be within 50 feet of a place with one or you’ll be arrested

  14. Ha ha the Renault Le Car. I had a teacher who had one of those, it was light as a feather and rusted out quickly. Definitely not a high point of automotive engineering. Then again, most cars from that era, with a few exceptions were junk.

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