10:12am

Tue January 28, 2014
The Protojournalist

Fixing The NFL: Put Robots In The Super Bowl

Through one lens, the National Football League — on the threshold of Super Bowl XLVIII — looks to be at the top of its game. Revenues are ridiculously high: more than $9 billion a year, CNN reports. Television ratings are roof-piercing: 34 of the 35 most-watched TV shows of autumn 2013 were NFL games, according to the NFL.

Through another lens, the NFL may be in trouble. The league is in a legal battle – revolving around head injuries — with more than 4,000 former players. The outcome, Sports Illustrated notes, could cost the NFL millions or billions of dollars. Performance enhancing drugs pose problems for the league. In the past few years, there have been reports of a rise in the number of all kinds of severe injuries and a fall in attendance at games. Playoff teams struggled recently to sell tickets to the stadiums, Yahoo reports. Prices for Super Bowl tickets have fallen, ESPN says.

What if sweeping change is needed to keep the NFL healthy and profitable?

As a rhetorical exercise, what could be done to ensure the NFL's success into the 22nd century? One idea suggested by folks now and then: Put robots on the field instead of players.

The NRFL

Maureen Carruthers of the National Robotics League – a program of the National Tooling and Machining Association that encourages students to build competitive battle robots – loves the idea of an all-droid National Robot Football League.

By switching to robotic football, Maureen says, "we solve a multitude of problems: We stop glorifying human-on-human violence to our children, and stop asking people to put themselves in harm's way for our entertainment. Those reasons alone make an alternative worth considering."

Think of the benefits, she says. "Posters of famous mechanical and electrical engineers adorn teenagers' bedroom walls. We will be raising a generation of Americans who have a strong interest in manufacturing and engineering which will result in an incredible boost to our economic growth and national security."

Rookie Robots

To boot, Maureen says, "while every kid who grows up watching games in the NRFL will not go pro, I imagine pee-wee, high school and college robotic combat programs will also be formed. The young people who participate in those leagues will learn a variety of technical and academic skills that will serve them, and our country."

The young creatives will go on "to design and build autonomous automobiles, full service house maids, and amazing machines we can't currently imagine," she says, while still learning the life lessons that our existing sports programs teach, such as teamwork, sportsmanship and a sense of accomplishment.

On a larger scale, Maureen says, a world in which everyone dabbles in robotics — the way everyone currently dabbles in football — is a world that understands the benefits of "focusing human energy on creatively solving problems that only humans can solve... while leaving to the robots the mundane and dangerous work that must be done to keep our society moving."

New England Patribots

Lest you think these ideas are way out of bounds, the NFL is constantly testing and tinkering to improve its product – or at least its revenues. One of the latest suggestions by Commissioner Roger Goodell is perhaps changing the scoring system by doing away with extra-point kicks. Maybe the league could ease into robotics — have Peyton Manning, um, manning a robot from the sidelines. And other players guiding robots using video-game dexterity.

If the Pentagon is relying more and more on robots for combat and other tasks and if American firms and farms are shifting to droids and drones, why not the NFL? Perhaps Fox, the network that will broadcasting the Super Bowl on Sunday, has been preparing us for the morphing all along. For years its sports division has been represented by a popular football-playing mascot named Cleatus, who is half human and half, you guessed it, robot.

The Protojournalist: A sandbox for reportorial innovation. @NPRtpj

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