Chris, being a good social scientist, started by laying out his starting assumptions:
First, given the overwhelming popularity of the NFL, I must assume it cannot fade into obscurity over the course of a decade. Therefore, some type of cataclysmic event must precipitate its demise: labor disputes will not be sufficient to kill football; there is a vast demand to play football professionally and a vaster demand to pay for it.
Second, corruption, especially highly organized crime, could undermine football’s legitimacy over time, as it has in boxing, but this would not be nearly sufficient to end football in a decade.
Third, the only semi-realistic event that might end football would be an acute, severe, and graphic escalation of health concerns that are not easily remedied by technology. A possible scenario:
1. All three members of the Manning family die within days of each other due to sudden brain hemorrhaging brought about by on-field hits.
2. The entire offensive lines of the Dallas Cowboys, New York Giants, and New England Patriots die in a single game due to on-field injuries that cannot be prevented with better padding.
3. Due to head injuries, several unrelated players from different teams become criminally insane and either: a) hold schools hostage, b) join Al-Qaeda, or c) try to kill the Batman.
Aside from questioning what Chris meant by “All three members of the Manning family” in a lengthy e-mail dialogue that I won’t bother to reproduce here, Sam moved straight into assessing the chances of other sports taking the privileged place of pro football in this country’s sporting culture… (As you read, note that Sam and Chris did this entirely independently of each other; they ended up giving different styles of responses… but with surprisingly similar predictions.)
Sam: “This is probably your champion for the short term. (A) In lots of places it is already king. (B) Many of its stars don’t translate to the NFL anyhow. But I could see some of the same issues which would shut down the NFL eventually marginalizing this as well.”
Chris: “If professional football is out of business, I must assume that college football is out of business for exactly the same reasons. Therefore, there is no more legal football in America, at any level. Of course, there will still exist a not insubstantial clandestine football league, which I assume will employ Michael Vick as commissioner.
Sam: “The big issue in the long term, however, would be that Football — without a dominant professional outlet for young players to aspire to, might lose a lot of its best athletes. So to answer the rest of this question, we’d need figure out where those athletes would gravitate towards. This leads to your other options…” (15% chance that college football becomes the next NFL)
Chris: “College football does not exist. Big sports schools immediately pour substantially more money into their basketball programs. College hockey sees a smaller increase amongst Northern and Northeastern schools.” (0% chance)