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    The End of Synchronized Swimming


    Last night, Intelligence Squared, a debate organizer, invited respected authors Malcolm Gladwell, Buzz Bissinger, Tim Green (a former NFL defensive end for the Atlanta Falcons) and sportswriter Jason Whitlock to discuss the topic of college football in a sensationally entitled event, “Ban College Football.” 

    Part of this debate centered around the public’s growing awareness of concussions in football.


    Growing evidence for brain injury and elevated dementia rates for football players—violence and suffering for the entertainment of others— have led critics to compare the sport to dogfighting

    The debate follows a recently published article,”What Would the End of Football Look Like” authored by economists Tyler Cowen and Kevin Grier, which argues that concussions, and more specifically the legal liability stemming from concussions, could ultimately transform football from America’s most popular sport to among its most marginalized ones.

    The highly-charged debate, the controversial article and the manner in which the concussion debate is normally framed spurred me to conduct my own research. 

    I would like to thank Intelligence Squared and particularly Mssrs Cowen and Grier for their inspiration. (The original version of this article can be found here.)

    What Would the End of Synchronized Swimming Look Like

    We are just weeks away from another summer of sunshine, bike rides, little league, swimming and basketball in the park.

    However, it is not pure fantasy to suggest that those idyllic summer days may be done for good in the not-too-distant future. How might such a doomsday scenario play out and what would be the economic and social consequences?

    By now we’re all familiar with the growing phenomenon of head injuries and cognitive problems among football players, even at the high school level. In 2009, Malcolm Gladwell asked whether football might someday come to an end, a concern seconded recently by Jonah Lehrer.

    But if you thought concussions in football were bad, did you know that according to the American Association of Neurological Surgeons, seemingly innocuous activities like riding a bicycle carry with it a concussion incident rate that is 71 percent higher than playing football?

    Did you know that children and young adults are 85 percent more likely to incur a concussion from an outing of swimming, playing baseball and basketball than from an afternoon of playing full contact football ?

    Before you say that cycling (or even skateboarding) 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. The original version of Napster no longer exists, largely because of lawsuits. No matter how well a business matches economic conditions at one point in time, it’s not a lock to be a leader in the future, and that is true for cycling too. Cycling is 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 cycling starts with liability suits. 

    In the United States, football-related concussions represent anywhere between 2% and 4% of the 1.4 to 3.5 million traumatic brain injuries (TBI) estimated to occur each year.

    The majority of TBI’s occur from … falling. To our knowledge there is no discussion–yet–about outlawing the act of putting one foot in front of the other (i.e. walking), but those days may be numbered.

    The highest TBI incident rates occur in children between 0-4 years old and the elderly aged 75 and above; demographic segments in which football participation rates hover around zero percent according to recent estimates, but are believed, by some, to be increasing.

    If injured cyclists, divers and speed-walkers start winning judgments, insurance companies might cease to insure colleges and high schools against …anything.

    Umpires, crossing-guards and synchronized swimming instructors would become increasingly nervous about their financial exposure in our litigious society. If you are coaching a high school water polo 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. More and more modern parents, unlike the knuckle dragging variety, will keep their kids off the diving team, and there tends to be a “contagion effect” with such decisions; once some parents have second thoughts, many others follow suit. We have seen such domino effects with the risks of smoking or driving without seatbelts, two unsafe practices that were common in the 1960s but are much rarer today. The end result is that the USA Olympic feeder system would dry up and advertisers and networks would shy away from associating with sports that are rabidly followed by hundreds of millions of people, owing to adverse publicity and some chance of being named as co-defendants in future lawsuits.

    It may not matter that the losses from these lawsuits are much smaller than the total revenue from these sports as a whole. As our broader health care sector indicates (try buying private insurance when you have a history of cancer treatment), insurers don’t like to go where they know they will take a beating. That means just about everyone could be exposed to fear of legal action.

    This slow death march could easily take 10 to 15 years. Imagine the timeline. A couple more college cyclists— or worse, water polo players — commit suicide with autopsies showing CTE. A jury makes a huge award of $20 million to a family. A class-action suit shapes up with real legs, Tour de France organizers keeps changing its rules in an effort to prevent head injuries with the same rigor they undertake to ban doping, but it turns out that less than concussion levels of constant head contact still produce CTE. Technological solutions (new helmets, pads) are tried and they fail to solve the problem. Soon high schools decide it isn’t worth it. The Ivy League quits all water sports, then California shuts down its participation, busting up the Pac-12. Then the Big Ten calls it quits, followed by the East Coast schools. Now it’s mainly a regional sport on the southeast, west coastArizona and Florida.

    The socioeconomic picture of a diver becomes more homogeneous: upper middle class, over-coddled, private schooled.

    Bausch and Lomb pull their advertising from swimming events. After decades of turning a blind eye to cycling’s doping epidemic, Carrefour, the world’s second largest retailer, finally caves in and pulls its sponsorship of the Tour de France, and even vitamin water companies pull out declaring that they’ve had enough.

    There’s a lot less money in the sport, and at first it’s “the next table tennis” and then it’s “the next badminton,” and finally public pools, cycling paths, and little league baseball fields around the country start to shutter.

    Along the way, you would have an Olympics with much lower talent levels, less training, and probably greater player representation from poorer Pacific Island countries, where the demand for money is higher and the demand for safety is lower.

    Finally, in the same fashion that mixed-martial arts, the United States’ fastest growing spectator sport, has supplanted the barbaric sport of boxing, water sports and cycling are marginalized as less-dangerous sports gobble up its market share.

    People — otherwise known as stupid American people — might actually start calling “soccer” by the moniker of “football.”

    Despite its undeniable popularity — and the sense that sports are everywhere— the aggregate economic effect of losing sports like cycling or swimming would not actually be that large. In 2010, 19.8 million bicycles were sold in the U.S. representing sales of $6 billion, while U.S. GDP is around $15,300 billion. 

    Fence and swimming pool construction in the US has already shrunk to $23 billion, representing an eight percent year-on-year decline. But that doesn’t mean everyone would be fine.

    Olympic water sports facilities will lose a lot of their value and that will drag down neighboring bars juice bars, ice cream stands and health-food restaurants, causing a lot of them to shut their doors.

    Cable TV will be less profitable, and this will hasten the movement of TV-watching, if we can still call it that, to the web.  Never mind that worldwide there are over 759 million pay-TV subscribers (equivalent to 2.5 x the entire population of the United States).

    The summer Olympics will no longer be the best time to go shopping for a new car at the dealership.

    Take Green Bay as a case study: A 2009 study of the economic impact of the Packers’ stadium estimated “$282 million in output, 2,560 jobs and $124.3 million in earnings, and $15.2 million in tax revenues.” (A study that has not been independently verified, and which was published by AECOM, an economic consultancy retained by the Green Bay Packers). That’s small potatoes for the national economy as a whole, but significant for a small and somewhat remote city of 104,000.  Just imagine if those cheese heads liked water sports - they would be so hosed, eh? 

    Any location where water sports is the only game in town will suffer. If water sports go, Southern California still has numerous other distractions: Hollywood, high-end shopping, skyscrapers, fine dining, and many other cultural activities. If water sports die, Norman, Oklahoma (current home to one of the authors), has … noodling? (Because, obviously, the only entertainment alternative for a bunch of Okie hillbillies has to be noodling.)

    And what about Clemson, in South Carolina, which relies on the periodic weekend football surge into town for its restaurant and retail sales? Imagine a small place of nearly 14,000 people, which does not include Clemson’s enrollment of over 19,000 students that periodically receives a sudden influx of 100,000 visitors to fill up Clemson’s 80,000 capacity stadium(?) five or six days per year, on what is one of the school’s culturally devoid alumni’s major leisure outings. It’s like a port in the Caribbean losing its cruise ship traffic, except these yahoos probably don’t even know where the Caribbean is. 

    Overall, the loss of sports like diving could actually increase migration from rural to urban areas over time.

    Water sport-dependent areas are especially prominent in rural America with its lakes, ponds and other natural watering holes, where there is, according to these authors, nothing the hell else to do, and some of them will lose a lot of money and jobs driving the newly rural unemployed into city slums.

    Outside of water sports, little league baseball and skateboarding, American human capital and productivity probably rise. No wasting summer days around the pool and cycling to work, especially since cars offer such a faster mode of transport, means less binge drinking, more studying, better grades, smarter future adults.

    Losing thousands of divers, swimmers, and hundreds of pro cyclists might produce a few more doctors or engineers.

    Plus, talented coaches and general managers would gravitate toward management positions in American industry, that is otherwise devoid of such prescient talent.  Imagine how much more successful Apple could be if Bobby Petrino was the CEO.

    Heck, just getting rid of eye-rolling cycle-to-work days to prove companies’ give a rat’s ass about the environment probably saves American companies hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

    Other losers include anything that depends heavily on swimming to be financially viable, including pool boys who dream of parlaying their mundane jobs into sex with bored housewives. No more air travel to the Annual Swimming Pool Manufactures Association.

    Furthermore, many prominent universities would lose their main claim to fame. Alabama and LSU produce a large amount of revenue and notoriety from football without much in the way of first-rate academics to back it up –not withstanding this gratuitous assault on the schools’ academic reputations which ignores the University of Alabama’s ranking as America’s 34th best public university; 35th best law school and 63rd best business school; and LSU’s 63rd best ranking among US public institutions and numerous recognized academic programs.

    Schools would have to compete more on academics to be nationally prominent, which would again boost American education, again not withstanding the fact that these schools in particular already boost American education and successfully have been doing so since 1831 and 1860 respectively.

    One of the biggest winners would be badminton. To the extent that fans replace water sports with another sport (instead of meth or oxy – because, according to these authors, there is a thin line separating redneck dumbass males who love football from what otherwise would be a surge of idiots descending into an abyss of Class A felony drug use), high-octane badminton is the natural substitute.

    On the pro level, the season can stretch out leisurely, ticket prices rise, ratings rise, maybe the league expands (more great athletes out of the pool now), and some of the individual and doubles players will have less fungus related illnesses. At the college level, single elimination badminton tournaments become the only game in town.

    Another winner would be track and field.

    Future Michael Phelpses in the decathlon? (Assuming Phelps can run a 10.22 second 100 meters dash, long jump 8.22 meters, shot put 19.17m and so forth).

    Future Jerome Simpsons in the high jump? (A 15-year old record held by Cuba’s Javier Sotomeyer who cleared 8 feet).

    World records would fall at a rapid pace, because future Ray Lewises would finally take up curling.

    This outcome may sound ridiculous, but the collapse of cycling and water sports is more likely than you might think. If recent history has shown anything, it is that observers cannot easily imagine the big changes in advance. Very few people were predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, or the rise of China as an economic power. Once you start thinking through how the status quo might unravel, a sports universe without water sports at its center (a universe in which the United States is home to five percent of its population) no longer seems absurd.

    So, if you think this article is misleading alarmist drivel, imagine what it would be like if instead of talking about cycling or swimming, we were talking about football.

    Because if we were talking about football, hopefully we would be able to have a much more serious discussion. 

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    Reader Comments (2)

    Love the fact that riding a bicycle carries with it a concussion incident rate that is 71 percent higher than playing football. Don't you hate when facts get in the way.

    May 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

    I guess one reason for the decline of fences and swimming pool constructed in US is the increase of drowning incidents of small children. Maybe parents are afraid to enroll their kids in a swimming class or their kids to become a part of a synchronized swimming team, is also because of drowning cases.

    May 23, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaple Ocena

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