The XFL Could Save Football (But It Probably Won’t)

The original iteration of the XFL only lasted one year, failing for numerous reasons ranging from the popularity of the NFL, its direct competitor, to being a rushed and inferior product, with inferior players, and so on. The XFL’s mantra then was that it was going to be even more extreme than the already hard-hitting NFL, and Vince McMahon, owner of the WWE (and thus XFL) likely thought he could do football even better. It was a stretch, sure, but his company was in the midst of the immensely popular “Attitude Era;” it wasn’t out of the question that McMahon could find something that rivaled the NFL, or at least carved out a niche alongside it, appealing to the many people who watched wrestling on television.

It didn’t happen, of course, as the XFL was largely an embarrassment, quickly shelved and jettisoned from public consciousness. It may be surprising to you then that now—in an era of CTE awareness and fair(er) treatment of women, etc.—that McMahon’s XFL, which got off on big hits and cheerleaders, is trying to make a comeback. McMahon’s already distanced himself from the previous version of the XFL, however, noting that this one will come without the gimmicks.

Okay, but what’s the angle? Well, take a step back, and you can see McMahon’s money-making levers start to jostle. The NFL’s had something of a controversial year, from players kneeling for the national anthem in droves early in the year to declining ratings to the ominous and ever-present specter of CTE knowledge. I’m not sure if McMahon sees value in that latter point, but the first two . . . that’s probably  why he’s pouncing here. He’s already made it clear in part of the XFL’s opening salvo that the league is going to essentially force players to stand during the national anthem, attempting to divorce the sport from any politics or social stances, while also not hiring, according to McMahon, any player with any sort of criminal record.

It’s impossible—or impossible for me, anyway—to untangle the NFL’s small but noticeable decline in popularity, or figure out whether (or how much) the Colin Kaepernick-led controversy had anything to do with it. It seems more plausible that people are watching less football for a variety of other reasons (most of which were mentioned in the article linked above), like: serious injuries to star players like Aaron Rodgers and Deshaun Watson, concerns over the general violence of the sport, spotty quality of play, some popular and big-market teams having down years, and, perhaps most of all, the growing number of alternative streaming entertainment options available, like Netflix and Amazon Video. If McMahon thinks he can create a new league based off of viewers who quit watching the NFL but will quickly turn to another (and similar) brand of football, he’s probably mistaken.

What’s interesting and, perhaps, ultimately unfortunate is that there does seem to be a place for another football league. Where the NFL—and, to a lesser but similar extent, college football—has really whiffed over the last decade-plus is with head injuries. Sure, there’s the “concussion protocol” now and a few rules intended to limit serious injuries, but as we see whenever the games really matter or the players involved are stars or even semi-stars (or even just starters), serious attention to head injuries is often conveniently pushed aside until later on. After a big hit, the players want to keep playing, their teams want them to keep playing, their team’s fans want them to keep playing, and the league wants them to keep playing. The result is a league—and, more so, a sport—that’s unsafe for play.

Where the XFL could pose a serious threat to the NFL’s stronghold, or at least provide a fun distraction, is on the injury front. Imagine a league that put that first, one built around the idea that the future health of its players was paramount to its own existence. Imagine a league that explored every imaginable scenario to create a safer game. It may seem like a longshot, but there are real, potential solutions out there. Maybe it’s helmet technology (a softer helmet?) or playing style; maybe it’s a simple rules adjustment. If, say, a defender makes an illegal, helmet-first hit, not only is he tossed from the game and fined, but the opposing team gets to pick another non-QB from the other team to sit the rest of the game as well. This would incentivize players to make clean tackles not only to stay in the game and avoid a fine, but to simultaneously avoid the ire of their own teammates, coaches, and fans.

The NFL was built without any serious regard to injuries. It succeeded, over the years, in part based on injuries themselves, or at least the big hits that caused them. By the time anyone noticed that football eventually debilitated many of those who played it, the league and game was just too far along. There was no turning back, at least not on a grand scale. It has tinkered with some of the specifics but remained largely the same; if you catch a game on any given Sunday afternoon, you’re bound to see at least one or two disturbing hits, and the players are only getting bigger, faster, and stronger.

The XFL has the unique advantage of not having a history, at least not one it’d like to remember. There’d be nobody crying about tradition if the league adopted a safer style of play or instituted more progressive penalties to deter illegal hits. There’d be less red tape to cut through to make any sweeping changes, no powerful union or ownership group to go through, no tradition to wade through.

Not only could McMahon’s XFL create competition for the NFL, it could actually help save football. While the sport remains America’s most popular, by a wide margin, it is also its most vulnerable, facing eventual extinction anytime a new study on football’s effect on the brain comes out. If the XFL was able to help solve head injuries in football, it would, at the very least, have a long-lasting impact on the game and those who play it, even if it never runs into NFL-sized profits.

Now let’s all share a chuckle at the idea of any of this happening. Perhaps I should give McMahon more benefit of the doubt, but his own company, WWE, has recently been sued over CTE-related effects, and for putting “corporate gain over its wrestlers’ health, safety and financial security, choosing to leave the plaintiffs severely injured and with no recourse to treat their damaged minds and bodies,” which sounds all too much like the NFL.

There’s an angle here, but it’s not zeroing in on Trump voters, eliminating peaceful protests, turning away all convicts, or returning gimmick-free. The angle is finding a safer game. Vince McMahon is in perfect position to do it, but his XFL saving football may be more improbable than a John Cena heel turn at this point.

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