THE INC. LIFE

Is Football America’s Next Political Litmus Test?

In today’s America, as goes Vermont so goes the other 49% of us is starting to sound a lot less crazy than it used to.

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BY Bradley Tusk - 10 Sep 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Okay, it's just Vermont. I mean, it's the state that gave us Bernie Sanders. Of course they don't like football. Ben and Jerry probably prefer playing hackeysack. But maybe that's the point - and why football may become America's next cultural lightning rod.

Last Thursday's Wall St. Journal broke the news that high school football participation in Vermont has plummeted to the point where its existence at all is now in question. They're not alone.

College football announcer and former NFL center Ed Cunningham recently quit his job at ESPN because he couldn't stand watching young men voluntarily subject themselves to brain damage, play after play, day after day. NFL ratings fell precipitously last year and while the league blamed it on the election, anytime Americans start preferring politics to football, it tells you something.

We're almost two countries within a country these days. Trump's election highlighted our differences, but the cultural dividing lines have been stark and apparent for years: immigration, guns, abortion, climate change - to the point where people on both sides of the issue frequently vote against their own economic interests (whether it's poor people in Appalachia voting Republican or rich people in California voting Democrat) because they define themselves by social and cultural touchstones instead.

Trump did a masterful job exploiting those divisions in the election. As did Karl Rove in 2004 by putting a ban on same sex marriage on the ballot in Ohio, as do Democrats when they forbid anyone to deviate from the party line on support for charter schools, lower taxes, less regulation or anything else not in the narrow interest of the party's major donors.

It's easy to write the speech decrying those who don't share "our values". But so far, that list of unacceptable views has never included football. That's starting to change.

Sooner or later, a smart plaintiff's lawyer is going to organize a class of former high school football players suffering from CTE, sue a school district for failing to protect them and win. Insurers who cover schools will react by raising premiums. And just like schools start cutting non-core subjects like music and art when money gets tight, many of them are going to jettison football.

In blue states like Vermont, we just won't have high school football. But in red states like Alabama or Texas, Vermont's developing abdication presents a political opportunity. Politicians will rush to introduce legislation using municipal or state taxpayer money to insure high school football, and few candidates will be able to resist the siren song of making it about values, about culture, about us vs. them.

Then football changes. It's not an American sport. It's a regional sport and, sorry for the bad pun, a literal political football. It joins the list of cultural issues that divide us. And while the NFL isn't going anywhere, the league is only adding fuel to the fire by refusing to allow Colin Kapernick to play, by denying the undeniable brain trauma football often causes, by creating a league of owners, general managers and coaches who are so overwhelmingly white and male that it only implicitly reinforces the notion that football is yet another cultural dividing line like guns or immigration.

Obviously, the NFL and NCAA don't want to see this happen. But it may be too late. Once your emotions around football shift from who you root for to whether rooting at all defines who you are, the odds of a bureaucracy rescuing a sport from the talons of political opportunism are very low.

Look, maybe it's just Vermont. They're a weird state. People in New York or Illinois or California usually don't look to Vermont for moral guidance. But that's what Hillary Clinton thought too and she barely survived the Democratic primary. Is football the next abortion, the next DACA, the next litmus test?

I hope not. But in today's America, as goes Vermont so goes the other 49% of us sounds a lot less crazy than it used to.