Logo for the DFR Audible post categoryAs much as I loathe the idea of even thinking about the NFL out of season, because it only plays into the league’s desire to dominate all conversation all the time, I have to produce this post now, if for no other reason than to get out in front of a very radical idea.

Much of the conversation right now about football revolves around the implications for the future of the game due to the effects of concussions and CTE. The most dire comments foresee football as we know it going completely away within a decade or two.

There’s another thing that’s always threatened with extinction these days: jobs. Specifically, the jobs that are predicted to be taken over by automation. That’s a common topic that shows up with fair amount of frequency in economic-oriented writings such as Paul Krugman’s blog or the commentary blog Naked Capitalism–both of which I’ve been know to frequent.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that, while watching a recent discussion on TV about the potential threat to the NFL’s future posed by the health issues, I had an epiphany that brought these two seemingly unconnected concepts together:

The NFL’s future lies in robots.

Automation in various industries has had one major, most noticeable impact: the elimination of part or all of an industry’s workforce. As robots have grown ever more sophisticated, workers have become disposable, and bottom-line minded managers have had little problem sending those workers home in favor of those cheaper–and more compliant–automatons.

For the NFL, their problem is the penchant of their workforce to get hurt–in some cases seriously, and in the long run with particularly dire consequences for the player’s future.

Since, in both cases–the NFL and other industries in general–the workforce has undesirable characteristics, it seems natural that the answer preferred by one case–robots–will eventually become a solution favored by the other.

Think about it: there isn’t going to be any escape from the consequences of concussions and CTE for the NFL. The tobacco industry was able to survive the cigarette chickens coming home to their cancerous roost because, ultimately, they had the trump card of individual choice: all the warning labels in the world would not stop some people from smoking. The customers will keep coming, no matter how hazardous the product is, because they will exercise their personal right to do so.

For the NFL, however, they face a double whammy with their dangerous product. Fewer young people will be willing to play the game, knowing the risks involved–so the talent pool will inevitably shrink, perhaps inoperably so. But there will be a certain number of players willing to roll those dice for a shot at fame, wealth, and accomplishment.

However, those players aren’t the NFL customers; that group is the people who consume the game as viewers and ticket and merchandise buyers. And again, despite there inevitably being a number of diehards on the consumer side of the equation, there will be others who will not be willing to continue to watch a game that knowingly, willingly chews up young lives for the sake of making a buck.

Furthermore, if changes are implemented to make the game safer, the league may even lose a number of those diehards, who will not accepted what they perceive to be a “watered down” version of their beloved game. It is, after all, the violence of the NFL game that many have come to love, much as the gladiator contests of ancient Rome satisfied the bloodlust of the citizens in the stands–regardless of how the participants on the stadium floor felt about it (many of whom were unwilling participants, of course). Some will turn away from the carnage, others will insist on the carnage; it’s a seemingly unsolvable dilemma.

But that dilemma goes away if the players on the field are replaced by robots.

After all, few will feel any pangs about mechanical players getting mangled in a brutal collision in the middle of the field. They will, of course, simply be a collection of parts, not human beings. Indeed, given the potential for extra-human physical prowess, having robot players may add dimensions of excitement to football that today’s players and coaches can not even dream of.

This whole idea does come with a lot of questions. For one: will people watch a sport played by robots instead of human beings? Probably. Especially in the future, as you have more and more of the population raised on ever more sophisticated video games, which portray a virtual version of reality that many today seem more comfortable with than the actual world around them, it seems likely that to those folks the idea of a giant version of one of those electronic, magnetic football games will be fairly normal and acceptable. After all, we’ve long had people willing to sit in stands and watch demolition derbies; it’s hardly a stretch that some of those same people might be OK with watching a football game played by machines.

The bigger question, of course, will be: how long before we have robots sophisticated enough to run around a field like today’s football players, close enough to real human players to at least provide a simulacrum of the current NFL game? Right now, that answer is unknowable. Robotics have come a long way in recent years, but we’re still miles away from having androids capable of running a post pattern or picking up a safety blitz, and doing so in a way that represents real competition. It may be that football will not survive long enough for it to reach the day when it can replace its injury-prone workforce with mechanical men. And, given the challenges we’re likely to face from energy crises of the future, the economics of an all robot sport may not make much sense.

But if football–given its inherent problems when mixed with human anatomy–is going to continue to be anything like what we’ve come to expect from the game, it seems to me that it will inevitably have to explore this option at some point in the future.

So that’s the prediction. Just make sure to check back in at this space in three or four decades to see if I was right.


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