Is the NFL an Extreme Sport?


In the United States, the NFL is the most popular sport. The average game attendance in 2019 was just over 66,000, which totaled over 16 million spectators for that season alone. Though efforts to establish the league abroad have been slow going, the NFL International Series will soon expand to Germany. 

Online, popular teams have millions upon millions of likes on social media pages. On and off the gridiron, top athletes become beloved celebrities and earn top dollar. For example, the star quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs recently signed a nearly half-billion-dollar contract with the team.

Despite the fact that the NFL is associated with a high risk of injury and typical careers in the league last no more than a handful of years (depending on position), the sport has a strong foothold in major league sports.

For most Americans, football stars are modern gladiators. Fans support their team and favorite players by packing into stadiums, wearing jerseys, and betting on their team.

As the 2020 season gets underway, fans and pundits rely on expert NFL picks to wager across the league or participate in fantasy sports leagues amongst friends, meaning they’re willing to back actual teams and then reimagine the league themselves.

To most Americans, this is just another Sunday packed with football—not an extreme sport. Still, ever since FRONTLINE released a documentary covering the high rates of concussions, more people have begun to investigate not the NFL, but the sport itself. 

Should American football be considered an extreme sport?

Standard Fare of Extreme Sports 

At the moment, extreme sports don’t include American gridiron. By definition, an extreme sport is an activity with a high degree of risk that often comes with super speeds, dizzying heights, unique and specialized gear, and pushing the body to the limits.

Despite the fact that most extreme sports require a high degree of technical knowledge and countless hours of practice, some of the American public associates extreme sports with rebellion and counter-culture.

Events like the X Games and broadcasters like the Extreme Sports Channel have helped to redefine what an extreme sport is. Rather than associating a high degree of risk with various sports and labeling them as ‘extreme’, there’s now an emphasis on what those risks are.

Mentioned above, an extreme sport should have some perilous element of height, speed, location, depth, or involve another natural force that can’t be predicted. An easier way to qualify an extreme sport is to ask the question: would this be taught as curriculum in a school?

If the answer is no, then it’s likely an extreme sport. Other qualifications and divisions of extreme sports for pundits include whether or not there’s a motor involved (rally racing versus water skiing), whether or not extreme physical harm is on the table should execution fail, or the Ernest Hemingway approach, which counted three categories: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering.

A key driver behind extreme sports is the sensation of adrenaline. If the participant isn’t chasing neuro-chemicals that provide a rush of endorphins, then the activity is likely just a sport.

The NFL, when viewed in this light, seems to fall squarely into the ‘sports’ category. There’s no dangerous heights or natural elements. There aren’t dangerous depths or speeds. Football is still taught in school. It doesn’t fall into any of Hemingway’s categories and, aside from a big win and a Super Bowl ring, there’s likely not a lot in the way of immediate endorphin reward.

However, there is plenty of peril for athletes that compete in top leagues. A condition known as CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) is shaking up the NFL world and making many reconsider what kind of sport football is.

The NFL: Contact, Contact, Contact

Top NFL players, much like other sports heroes, enjoy an unprecedented level of celebrity and wealth based on their careers in the big leagues. The NFL is full of stories that inspire, from Jim Brown’s transition to Hollywood to what the New Orleans Saints squad did for their city following Hurricane Katrina.

It may stand to identify NFL stars as gladiators given the hype of fans and physical demands of the gridiron. Only sports like MMA and boxing have higher records of injury. And, in terms of hard hits and grueling endurance, many would still posit that rugby is riskier than American football.

Both boxing and MMA are associated with CTE, but neither sport involves nearly as many participants as the average team. The NFL currently has almost 2,000 players on its rosters, which means that treating the condition is a high priority for the industry.

While both MMA and boxing rely on contact to determine a winner, American football allows padding, which means that sports technology can help reduce risks. To date, the NFL has donated millions to support research for the prevention of CTE. Many individual franchises and athletes have also shared millions in order to improve the qualifty of play for all involved.

Time & Expectation in Extreme Sports

While the risks associated with playing in the NFL are clear, these dangers don’t qualify the sport as an extreme sport. In the end, the risks associated with extreme sports add to the experience and make it what it is. They are a dynamic part of the activity, not a product of it. 

Catching the perfect barrel for a surfer or overtaking on a hard turn for a rally racer are often described as near-spiritual experiences. The emphasis on extreme sports seems to also relate to time, and the way a single moment can endure for what seems much longer.

The relationship to the sport is another important factor. Many who engage in extreme sports look forward to competing in the X Games or the Olympics, but there’s often an experiential relationship to the sport—not a huge paycheck or a Super Bowl ring.

Extreme sports make for high-octane tournaments and champions are often endearing, but the sports can be fully satisfying for the participants and spectators without placing an emphasis on competition. 



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