Will Tort Lawsuits be the Downfall of the NFL?

The National Football League has been the most successful professional sports league in the US over the last several decades. But economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier argue that tort suits over concussion injuries might lead to its downfall:

Before you say that football is far too big to ever disappear, consider the history: If you look at the stocks in the Fortune 500 from 1983, for example, 40 percent of those companies no longer exist…. Sports are not immune to these pressures. In the first half of the 20th century, the three big sports were baseball, boxing, and horse racing, and today only one of those is still a marquee attraction.

The most plausible route to the death of football starts with liability suits. Precollegiate football is already sustaining 90,000 or more concussions each year. If ex-players start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against football-related lawsuits. Coaches, team physicians, and referees would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society. If you are coaching a high school football team, or refereeing a game as a volunteer, it is sobering to think that you could be hit with a $2 million lawsuit at any point in time. A lot of people will see it as easier to just stay away…. The end result is that the NFL’s feeder system would dry up and advertisers and networks would shy away from associating with the league, owing to adverse publicity and some chance of being named as co-defendants in future lawsuits.

This is a plausible scenario for the demise of professional football. But Cowen and Grier ignore an important countervailing factor: If tort lawsuits start to pose a serious threat to college and professional football, the NFL and other powerful interests that benefit from the sport won’t take it lying down. They will use their considerable lobbying clout to push for changes in tort law. Majority public opinion could well be on their side. Football is an extremely popular support, and many people might reason that the threat of concussion is just one of the risks that players voluntarily take on when they choose to participate in the sport.

Over the last twenty years, many states have enacted strong tort reform laws in order to curb dubious lawsuits that threaten the business climate in their jurisdictions. The reformed states include even the once-notorious “tort hellhole” of Alabama. If tort lawsuits start threatening the NFL, big-time college football, or even high school football in states like Texas, we might well see a new round of reform laws.

It’s possible, of course, that concussion injuries could lead to such a wave of public outrage that the NFL and Division I college football programs will be unable to resist the tide. But I am skeptical. Most fans already know that football is a dangerous sport, and that doesn’t seem to bother most of them much.