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It’s difficult for those of us born in the latter half of the 20th century to imagine a life without American football. Today, the National Football League
is such a powerful, global force that it's easy to forget that the sport's only about 150 years old, and the first 50 years of its history would be barely recognizable to the fans of today. If compared to the javelin throw
, long jump
or sumo wrestling
, football is a sport still in its infancy.
For every sport that’s survived through the years, there are loads of others that have vanished into obscurity. A common factor in the extinction of many of these sports was that they were considered offensive by certain groups of people. (Not to be ignored: the current struggle between the First Nation and the Washington Redskins
.) Animal- and human-rights organizations have played major roles in the banishment of many sports throughout the years.
So as accusations mount against the NFL
and its culture of violence, let’s take a look at some sports that were unable to weather the tide of public ridicule.
• Goose Pulling
: In this sport, popular in the 19th century, a live goose was plucked of its feathers, greased up and hung above a road so that men on horseback, riding at full gallop, would pass beneath the goose and attempt to grip its neck and yank it free. (In the bloody history of the sport, a goose never once won.)
• Horse Diving
: Similar to goose pulling, though more of a show than a sport, horse diving gave little thought to the animal involved. This late 19th-century act was as simple as it sounds: A person on horseback would ride up a long ramp leading to a cliff-like dive into a body of water. Once animal-rights groups caught on to the fact that the horses were being prodded and frightened into diving, there was little debate before the sport was completely abolished.
• Niche Fighting
: From babies in diapers to kangaroos, bears, chickens and dogs, in the early part of the 20th century, combat sports got creative with contestants. None of the wild incarnations lasted long; most of the nation decided early on that combat sports are best left to two, consenting adults.
It takes a particular arrogance to believe in your own immortality — nothing lasts forever. Never mind the NFL’s enormous revenue stream, massive popularity and how ingrained in modern culture it may be, public opinion sways to the pull of its own tide. All it takes for the demise of an institution is for the people who strongly believe that it’s fundamentally dangerous, inappropriate or in poor taste to endorse that institution, to convince other people to agree with them.
From concussions and violent, on-field hits to the incidents happening off the field, there’s no question that the NFL (and football as a sport) is now fixed under the scrutinizing lens of the public microscope. Leaders will do well to consider that there’s a chance that they could someday go by way of the goose-pullers, and in 200 years be remembered as a wild and violent sport that fell extinct once the populace wised up to its brutality.
Nic R. Krause was born a cranky, curmudgeon of a child in a Minnesota suburb. He was plucked from the muggy tundra and relocated to Colorado Springs 22 years ago. From intramural jai-alai, to his complicated relationship with the Minnesota Vikings, Nic, plainly stated, is bonkers for sports. Follow him on Twitter @NicRKrause.