As recently as the early 2010s, rugby was an afterthought in American sports, something played by collegians and small handfuls of old-timers chasing past glory and a great party. But the long-germinating seeds of the NFL's decline took root in early 2013 when a UCLA study found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in living retired professional football players. On the heels of several high-profile suicides by retired NFL players like Junior Seau and in the midst of a number of lawsuits by former players, the UCLA study triggered a national debate about football and our tolerance for violence as entertainment. The Atlantic columnist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote presciently at the time,
This is when you start thinking about football and an existential crisis. I don't know what the adults will do. But you tell a parent that their kid has a five percent chance of developing crippling brain damage through playing a sport, and you will see the end of Pop Warner and probably the end of high school football. Colleges would likely follow. (How common are college boxing teams these days?)Baltimore safety Bernard Pollard put a player's face on Coates' argument before Super Bowl XLVII, predicting that the NFL would be out of existence within 30 years. He was unavailable for comment after the game as a result of the concussion he suffered during his team's 31-20 loss to the San Francisco 49ers.
After that, I don't know how pro football can stand for long.
If the UCLA study was a significant public relations blow for the NFL, the 2015 legal ruling awarding $1.2 billion in damages to the families of players injured during their careers was an economic gutpunch. Shortly thereafter, the league outlawed high tackles, ironically borrowing a rule from rugby, but the NFL's popularity would never again reach its 2012 peak.
While the NFL struggled with the obvious tension between its celebration of violent hits and claims to emphasize player safety (in one particularly memorable juxtaposition, the league fined Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison $75,000 for a 2010 hit on Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi - and then sold pictures of the hit on its website), rugby began to grow steadily. International and college sevens matches made for compelling television, and the 2016 Rio Olympics were a significant stage for the game - enough so that the ARFU was founded shortly after the Games, with eight teams in traditional rugby hotbeds like San Francisco, New York, and Boston.
By 2022, the NFL had experienced six consecutive years of ratings declines, which hurt the league significantly as it negotiated new television deals with its broadcast partners. At the same time, the ARFU inked its first national television contract, with NBC Sports Network signing to broadcast a Match of the Week and the entire playoffs.
Though President Barack Obama talked about football's need to address its concussion issue as far back as 2013, the tragic on-field death of USC wide receiver Torey Butler in 2025 spurred a theretofore slow-moving Congress into action. Led by Massachusetts Senator Tom Brady, a bipartisan effort in both chambers resulted in significant new player safety and equipment rules for football at all levels. Decried by hard-liners as the Mark Kelsoization of the game, the legislation stopped short of banning the sport, but had a material impact on how it was played.
Two years later, the NFL awarded a new television contract to TNT and Apple after no major networks bid on the package. Meanwhile, ESPN joined NBC Sports Network as a broadcast partner for the ARFU, which increased to 16 teams. All of the rugby league's games were now televised nationally.
In 2028, Jonathan James, the top pick in NFL draft, spurned the league to sign with the ARFU Dallas Harlequins. The Cal grad starred at running back for the Bears' gridiron squad while doing double duty as a wing on their national champion rugby squad.
Just this year, in a move rumored for some time, the NFL contracted to 24 teams while the ARFU expanded to 20. Commissioner Tim Tebow (and quite a story his ascension was, to be sure) is rumored to be in talks with the upstart American Rugby League to develop a hybrid football/rugby game to compete with the ARFU.
And now, we see ARFU ratings exceed those of the NFL for the first time. We still like our violence, it seems, but we're increasingly unwilling to let it come at such cost. Like boxing before it, American football seems destined to decline slowly, but absolutely surely, until it becomes a quaintly barbaric anachronism.
It was fun while it lasted, though.