Is future bleak for Super Bowl?

Story highlights

  • Super Bowl 50 takes place this weekend between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers
  • Amy Bass: Fewer young people playing football, largely because fewer adults are letting them

Amy Bass, a professor of history at the College of New Rochelle, is the author of "Not the Triumph but the Struggle: The 1968 Olympics and the Making of the Black Athlete." As the supervisor of NBC's Olympic Research Room, she is a veteran of eight Olympics, with an Emmy win in 2012. Follow her @bassab1. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)It's Super Bowl time again, and with that comes all the usual kind of football questions: How will five-time MVP quarterback Peyton Manning match up against the Carolina Panthers' defense? Will Manning snag one more title before he retires, or will rising star Cam Newton lead his team to their first Super Bowl title? Oh, and will the balls be properly inflated?

But another question is hanging in the air, one that the NFL likely doesn't want to contemplate: How many more Super Bowls will there actually be?
In a way, that sounds like a strange question, because football has never had a lack of fans. Last year's Super Bowl, for example, was a ratings bonanza for NBC, with some 114.5 million viewers -- climbing to 120.8 million during the final minutes -- making it the most viewed television program in U.S. history. It would be hard for advertisers to complain about those kinds of numbers, even at a reported $4.5 million per 30-second spot.
    Next year, network television looks set to grow the NFL juggernaut further, with NBC and CBS brokering a deal earlier this week rumored to be in the $450 million range to split the Thursday night prime-time games package.
    Amy Bass
    So the problem, right now at least, is not audiences or money. Instead, the question is who these huge audiences will be able to watch in the years to come, and whether they will want to keep tuning in.
    Setting aside the question of violence that has plagued football on and off the field (and let's be clear: that's a huge thing to be setting aside), the reality is that fewer kids are playing the sport, largely because fewer adults are letting them. In part that is down to a broader apathy among American youth toward sports -- a number of recent studies confirm a steady falloff in youth athletic participation as kids are simply burning out in an increasingly specialized pastime by the time they hit their early teens.
    But while baseball, for example, has seen a 4.3% drop in youth participation, and basketball is down 6.8%, football's numbers are plummeting at a far greater rate: tackle football has lost almost 18% of its youth players, while touch football has lost more than 30%.
    What is happening to America's football players?
    Doctors are able to answer that question. In the wake of studies that better understand the connection between football and chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the NFL has been forced to rethink its protocols -- or lack thereof -- for when a player gets knocked in the head.
    And football players get hit in the head a lot. Indeed, the list of football greats connected to CTE continues to grow, and now appears to include former MVP and Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, researchers announced this week.
    Meanwhile, the emerging details of what life with CTE is like would give any parent pause before putting a helmet on a kid, including Chicago coaching great Mike Ditka, who told HBO's Bryant Gumbel last year that "the risk is worse than the reward" and he would not want an 8-year-old to play.
    Ditka isn't alone. As youth programs such as Pop Warner feed fewer students into school programs, high schools experience shortages on the gridiron. From Camden Hills High School in Maine, where the football program was canceled midseason after too many players were injured to safely field an experienced team, to Maplewood Richmond Heights High School outside of St. Louis, some 25,000 fewer high schoolers play football than five years ago, according to CBS News.
    What these schools are trying to avoid was made abundantly and tragically clear last season, when three high school players died from injuries sustained on the field. Five died the year before.
    The NFL says it is making the game safer, particularly in light of the class-action suit brought by former players it settled last spring.
    Yet football's naysayers continue to get louder -- and more scathing. Take the comments this week from sportswriter Jeff Pearlman -- Wednesday's national signing day, when college football teams get to pick their players, gave him one more reason to hate on football. "Football is slowly becoming cigarettes, and the NFL is big tobacco, circa 1982," he told me. "They keep saying everything's fine, we're making it safer, but ultimately, like cigarettes, you can't make football safe."
    John Branch makes clear in his devastating New York Times article on the brain of Stabler that no one -- not even the quarterback, generally considered to be more shielded on the field -- is safe from the head trauma seemingly inherent in the sport. Increasingly, parents and school administrators aren't willing to see kids start on a path that might very well end with a degenerative brain disorder.
    All this raises real questions about the future of the sport.
    "The NFL may be the last bastion of football in 50 years, because I can imagine the slow death of the sport creeping up from the youth level," Branch told me. "If we keep finding out about the long-term effects of brain damage caused by the game, it's hard to imagine many parents will allow their children to play. Maybe high school and college football go away. And maybe football becomes more like MMA -- a sport that has relatively few participants, but enough to entertain the masses, with athletes willing to take obvious health risks to achieve money and fame."
    And for now, the masses do want to be entertained. But as Americans gear up for the showdown taking place Sunday between the Panthers and the Denver Broncos, the question remains: In 50 years, who will be left to play the game?
    Is this the beginning of the end for football?