The NFL vs. Toynbee’s Theory of Decline and Renewal

This post of many lives lives again,

This time, I repost for two reasons:

The 3rd(?) intro from the original post is just below.


Shamelessly I repost this yet again, based in part on this article from Bill Barnwell.  At their latest meetings the NFL has yet again added more regulations about player behavior.  Thanks to the NFL’s passion for off-season rule changes dunking of the ball over the goalposts, that scourge of TD celebrations everywhere, will no longer threaten our beloved sport.

I speculated some time ago that the NFL was in danger of drifting from an “administrative” phase of business development to a “bureaucratic” one, from which return to sanity is difficult if not impossible, and  Mark Cuban seems to agree!  

So below is a brief intro from the first time I reposted.  Behold, the post that will not die . . .

Back then I wrote .  . .

I am reposting this as I’ve just read this article from the always insightful Tyler Cowen on the sometimes enjoyable Grantland site from Bill Simmons.

Regarding concussions. . . their recent increase in their acknowledged frequency has a lot to do with our increased knowledge of head trauma.  But football’s success helped create this problem.  The money and attention the sport gets increases the pay, which increases the time players can train, and so on.  Salary increases have likely been commensurate with increases in the speed and strength of the athletes.  Increased media coverage means more microscopes on more areas of the sport.  Thus, like many areas in life, success has solved problems and created others for the NFL.

And now, the original post (from 2012) . . .

The NFL dominates the sports landscape as well as TV ratings.  No other major sport can get close enough to smell them.  But I wonder about their long-term future, given some of the trends in place today.  I think that a historical perspective on the process of growth and decline shows that the NFL’s long-term prospects are bleak.

My fears about the NFL are not based on revenue sharing, but on their increasing push towards standardization, which leads to outmoded application of old ideas, which leads increasingly to irrelevance and vulnerability, which leads to decline.

In his career Arnold Toynbee uncovered what he believed were patterns that human civilizations followed.  He was not a determinist – nothing was inevitable – but people tend to act in similar ways when put in similar situations.  Civilizations grow when what he calls ‘Creative Minorities,’ who are not bound by current patterns and thus have the possibility of greater freedom of vision and action, have a chance to impact and shape existing institutions.

The problem is that more often than not, after this creative minority has success and obtains power they forget how they rose to prominence in the first place.  They tend to believe that it was a specific technique or solution that brought them where they are.  They forget that it was their elasticity that produced those solutions.  So – this ‘creative minority’ becomes a ‘dominant minority.’   They become arrogant, and this arrogance leads to increased standardization (“my way or the highway”).

Dominant minorities engage in pointless expansion just because they can, and they refuse to change with the times. marcus_aurelius The Roman Empire, for example, expanded into Britain, Egypt went into Syria under the Pharaohs, etc. all for no reason other than that they could and knew no other way.  This mentality gets the leaders it deserves.Take a look, for example at this image of the so called ‘great’  emperor Marcus Aurelius here, who evidences all the above characteristics.

The Confederate South fits this bill too, where our key creative minority founders (southerners mostly like Washington, Madison, P. Henry, Jefferson) turned into ‘Dominant Minority’ Jefferson Davis’s in a few generations.  They insisted on keeping slavery and tied their future almost exclusively to the possibility of territorial expansion out west.  When Lincoln threatened this, they rebelled, trapped in a mindset that believed the lie that ‘1 Southerner can beat 10 Yankees, etc.’  Anyway, this drive to expand, whether successful or not, overextends civilizations and is a factor in their demise.

Record companies were doing quite well, and then hit the master stroke of the cd.  This boosted their profits enormously, but they got foolish and greedy.  They standardized their industry, eliminating the sale of singles, forcing people to buy whole albums.  They established, on the whole, even greater control of the artists and how that product was distributed through conventional media.  The price of cd’s never declined like we thought it would – in fact prices rose.  With almost complete control over the process, they felt no need to lower prices.  Because we were stuck the money kept rolling in.  But when the internet came along they were stuck in outmoded thinking, and ended up attempting to fight a battle with all the sense of arrogant people living in the past, and music consumers have little sympathy with them as we watch them struggle in vain.

I fear the NFL is demonstrating some of the same tendencies, like standardization and expansion.  Everyone will wear only NFL gear (no Tom Landry  suits and hats, for example).  Everyone will adhere to outmoded black out rules – we’re the NFL, after all, and we rule the sports world.  We will certainly not adapt, as we may not even know how to anymore.  Starting with Fed-Ex field, stadiums are expanding to ridiculous sizes that will only serve to lead to more blackouts.  And expansion is not evidenced only in the stadiums, but also on how often football is televised.  Note how many more Thursday games there are today as opposed to a few years ago.

If we could track the decline we would have the bold, innovative Rozelle give way to the administrative Tagliabue, succeeded by the bureaucratic Goddell.

When a civilization reaches this point, it does not look good.  Decline usually happens, but it is also true that this encrusted situation begs for a ‘creative minority’ type to enter and shake things up.  Such movements and people can revive organizations.  In American history, Lincoln (from out west in Illinois, his political power based in the new and up and coming Chicago) and Teddy Roosevelt (from NYC but with his heart and mind out west) I think fit this bill.  Rome, for example, never got and never wanted such people, and so marched themselves over a cliff, and that is the normal pattern.  The NFL needs to embrace something like this soon before things go beyond the pale.  One of their problems, however, is that so much of what they have done will be tied up in stadiums.  Indeed, once an empire expands, retreat from ground gained is very difficult to negotiate, both psychologically and politically.  This, I think, will be the NFL’s albatross, and they will need some creative leadership to avoid shipwreck.  They don’t appear to be heading in this direction, as now the league looks like it will pick Super Bowl sites based on who has a new stadium.

If you have further interest, check out my podcast on sports and culture with Steve and Marc at the link below: