Death Sports? NFL At Flashpoint

Understand this: A football fan will not stop watching football because Aaron Hernandez is in jail on a murder charge, because Junior Seau committed suicide after hundreds of concussions led to a debilitating brain disease, because a brutish game of body-devouring combatants consistently churns out horrible news that creeps us out more each year.

Those are disturbing developments for the masses, of course, but nothing that will taint the thrill of your beloved team beating a divisional rival in overtime or your fantasy roster rescued by a breakout player. For all the monumental social issues in its corner offices and boardrooms, the NFL hasn’t yet approached any red-alert stage of consumer withdrawal. Expect the usual blowout TV ratings when Al Michaels, himself embroiled in an offseason arrest involving an alleged DUI and U-turn at a police checkpoint (do you believe in taxicabs?), joins Cris Collinsworth in the prime-time booth on opening night. On the field, the sport never has been hotter, cooler and more in demand.

Still, the scorching lava gathering beneath the surface cannot be understated. In the biggest picture on the highest-definition screen, Roger Goodell and the league’s fat-cat owners are sitting nervously atop an unprecedented identity crisis that in due time, if not scrubbed and purged, will lead to a full-blown erosion of their mighty domain. Murder cases cannot be a regular part of the NFL narrative, yet, from Hernandez to Jovan Belcher to Steve McNair, they have been. When people aren’t dying off the field, they’re suffering on it — as long as human skulls are exposed and knocked around in a violent sport, concussions will continue to weaken men and ultimately kill them.

As a society, we’ve never had more thoughtful introspection about priorities than in the 21st century. It only makes sense that protecting the brain, heart and spine — I’m not sure what took so long, the brain being what it is — should be primary goals in sport and life. In any debate about a barbaric endeavor, mass popularity logically will cede to a basic quality-of-life ideal. More parents will continue to realize the dangers of football, no matter what young Joey says, and they’ll direct him to basketball courts, baseball diamonds, soccer fields and other safer venues. In southern California, which doesn’t have (or apparently need) an NFL team, youth flag-football leagues are enjoying increasing popularity and invite kids with ads in the Los Angeles Times. None of these trends are impacting NFL business now — the bottom line still thrives like few businesses in American history. But as common sense takes over in households, the exodus of young talent is sure to undermine the game.

For long-term survival, pro football somehow must slow the relentless cycle of tragic and evil stories. I’m not sure Goodell or anyone else on Earth has such power; the landscape turns dark too often. When it isn’t another report or lawsuit about head injuries, it’s another bulletin about guns and murder or some other criminal development. As sure as the Super Bowl, the draft and Chris Berman’s puns, we can count on a staggering off-field story every year. Incrementally, we’ve seen the dogfighting conspiracy of Michael Vick, the death of McNair in a murder-suicide triggered by his girlfriend and the sexual assault investigations of Ben Roethlisberger. Last winter, it was Belcher, who killed the mother of his child, then shot and killed himself in a stadium parking lot. Now we have Hernandez, once considered a fine example of the so-called “Patriot Way” of Bob Kraft and Bill Belichick in New England, accused of homicide and investigated for two previous murders.

Football’s emotional pull is such that few are so ashamed to stop following the league, despite the deadly upheaval. It’s considered a “societal problem;” when the San Diego Union-Tribune trots out its trusty crime blotter and reports that 36 current or former NFL players have been arrested since the 2013 Super Bowl, league apologists contend the ratio remains below the national average. Making that comparison is bogus, as NFL players earn significant sums of money and should have the means to lay low and avoid trouble. Also compare the frequency of NFL arrests to much lower ratios in the NBA and Major League Baseball. The conclusion: A violent profession might be prone to violent conduct off the field. That’s a generalization, sure, but if the public believes it, perception snowballs and becomes reality.

How does Goodell stop it? Lord knows he has tried, tirelessly assessing stiff punishments via the personal-conduct policy he implemented when named commissioner in 2006. Concurrently, he has focused league attention on the study of head injuries, which should have happened within the NFL hierarchy years before. No one of right mind would evaluate Goodell’s efforts and say he has been lax. No, the problem is that the job seems too overwhelming for him … and anyone else.

He keeps suspending players, sending powerful messages. The list of arrests, many involving guns, keeps growing. Urged by the league, franchises are ramping up vetting procedures, probing the backgrounds of potential draftees the way Eric Holder scans a reporter’s phone records. But no amount of investigating helps when a respected organization like the Patriots, despite the warning signs, drafts Hernandez.

Goodell, too, has tried mightily to make the game safer, to the point sideline concussion checkups are regular in-game dramas that could be sponsored by advertisers. For all the talk about innovative offenses, face it: The point explosion is largely about defenses being paralyzed by the cautionary rules and new limitations on physicality. Before long, a 51-45 score will be the norm, and fans sensing an Arena League feel will cry for the defensive battles of yore. How does the NFL place a premium on safety and still maintain the rough, snarling texture of football? Tackling in and NFL practice, once the physical foundation of any coaching regime, is almost obsolete.

The pressure on Goodell never ends. Nor should it. Along with a potential landmark lawsuit against the NFL — some 4,200 players seek damages, claiming football concussions have caused dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and after-effects reducing their quality of life — the commish recently received a letter from 18 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They accused the league of continuing to deny “the link between repeated head impacts and permanent brain damage.”

Obtained by the Associated Press, the letter stated:
“Legions of former players suffer short-term memory loss and other neurological issues, and many cannot even remember taking part in some of the NFL’s greatest moments. In the meantime, the NFL publicly touts the `benefits’ it provides to former players with brain injuries, while denying these players necessary medical monitoring, long-term care, and security.

“No one wants to see another generation of players suffer this fate. As former players, we refuse to stand by quietly and watch men who unknowingly sacrificed their health and future to the NFL go without the care they desperately need.”

Last December, I wrote a piece for Jonathan Eig’s Web site, Chicago Side Sports, projecting the death of football in 30 years or so. Has anything changed since then? Here’s part of the piece:

You’ll have to trust me when I say football, as we’ve known it in its most violent and neurologically ruinous form, won’t exist by mid-century. Oh, maybe it will carry on without tackling and equipment, like flag football. Or maybe it will involve little or no clothing, like the Lingerie Bowl. Madden 51 will be around, I suppose, without the “Bams!” and “Pows!” or John Madden himself, safe and fun to play while snug on your sofa.

But to continue football in its current debilitative downward spiral — a frightening, numbing swirl that is turning strong-minded physical specimens into mentally ill, broken-down vegetables and causing the NFL and its franchises to think more about defense attorneys than defensive schemes — is to insult any intelligent forecast of where this country might be headed. You’ll have to trust me even though the league projects $10 billion in revenues this year and $25 billion by 2025. You’ll have to trust me even as television networks drool more than ever at the prospect of financing the league with many of those billions. You’ll have to trust me despite the fact the last three Super Bowls, including a Giants-Patriots clash that drew an estimated 111.3 million viewers last February, rank with the last episode of “M-A-S-H” as the only four TV programs to attract more than 100 million sets of eyeballs in American history. You’ll have to trust me as an estimated 50 million people play fantasy football this season. You’ll have to trust me amid an aggressive push to market the league globally. You’ll have to trust me as college football finally realizes a four-team playoff is instant gold and lands a 12-year, $6-billion deal from ESPN.

All of that money, ambition and corporate hubris will be overwhelmed in the coming decades by simple common sense: It’s quite stupid for any parent to allow a child to put on a football helmet and, if he’s really good, spend anywhere from 15 to 30 years getting his brains beaten in. It never has been the brightest idea to begin with, steering a talented young athlete toward football while knowing the NFL generally offers a shorter career span and a more limited financial window than baseball and basketball. But now, with a persistent jolt of concussions-are-deadly awareness that is long overdue in America, we’re about to experience incremental moments that begin football’s gradual slide toward extinction.

The NFL has tried to protect its most visible stars with safety rules that all but turn them into hermetically sealed mannequins. But when two factors serve to conspire — a weak offensive line coupled with opposing defenders who are bigger, faster and more physical than ever — a quarterback may as well take his snaps in the middle of an expressway. As long as the name of the game is tackling the guy with the ball, a quarterback will be hit and eventually will be hurt. No amount of legislation is going to change that. I’m afraid the rash of quarterbacking injuries this week will become the norm, meaning the teams that knock out the QB while keeping its own QB healthy are the teams that will win big. That always has been the objective to some degree, but with the intense focus on concussions now requiring quarterbacks to undergo sideline medical testing when they are knocked woozy, defenders have even more incentive to deliver the knockout blow. This explains the New Orleans Saints and their pay-for-knockout bounty scheme, and even if no money is exchanged in future locker rooms, the unspoken mission every game will be to make sure the quarterback takes a sideline concussion test at some point.

If the mission to protect brains has become the biggest story in sports, the sideline protocol watch has become its accompanying charade. Sorry, there is too much pressure on coaches to win to make me believe they are prioritizing a player’s health over keeping him in the game. A football coach — and the “players in the huddle” — aren’t of a mindset during a huge, nationally televised game to do anything but suck it up and keep playing as they’ve always been taught.

The macho game isn’t going to stop. Quarterbacks will be hit. Coaches will look for positive answers instead of real symptoms. Team-employed doctors and trainers will do what’s best for the coach, not the player. The player will beg to return, longing to be a tough-guy hero and not wanting to be called soft.

And 20 years from now, the same player might have trouble remembering what day it is. Or, in a severe case, he might ponder suicide.

The NFL, ignorant of this crisis for decades, is reacting as legal defendants do when more than 3,500 former players sue the league, claiming to have lacked sufficient information from their employers about concussion perils. Commissioner Roger Goodell is covering his backside in a variety of ways, ordering the NFL’s own TV network to launch an investigative series on player safety in what smacks of an attempt to demonstrate the league’s diligence in a courtroom. Know how much the league could lose in litigation?

A whole lot of those TV billions.

Just as steroids have sabotaged our joy for sports, concussion debates will do the same. It means attrition is swallowing up the game. It means football isn’t football anymore, just an avenue to a battered brain.

I didn’t hear much disagreement then, nor will I now. Yet that won’t stop fans from forgetting it all and embracing the big story lines: Will Adrian Peterson break the single-season rushing record after falling eight years short? Who stops the Read Option first, if anyone? Is Rex Ryan an all-time coaching farce or just a bad running joke? Is Tom Brady doomed without receivers? Should Tim Tebow be installed as a regular H-back and help save the Patriots … and America? Can San Francisco hold off Seattle in the new major rivalry? Why does Pete Carroll have so many HGH cases on his team? Might the Ravens return to the Super Bowl, in a navigable AFC, even with loads of new faces? Who’s more mature: Jay Cutler or his baby son? Will Robert Griffin III overcome Mike Shanahan’s coaching mistake — letting him continue to play on a knee that needed reconstructive surgery — and be good as new? Will Chip Kelly’s spread offense work in the NFL, or will it be slowed down by game officials who have been told to work at the usual, between-play pace? Why is Tony Romo still in Dallas? Aren’t Kansas City and Tampa Bay the breakthrough picks — but the Bucs only if Revis Island is open for business on opening day? WIll you be shocked if Colin Kaepernick throws a bunch of interceptions and Andrew Luck and Russell Wilson do not? Are too many problems piling up in Denver? If Houston and Atlanta play in an outdoor Super Bowl in New York, what’s a bigger issue: Southern frostbite or national apathy?

On season’s eve, fans suddenly develop amnesia.

But know this: Too much more of the dark side will lead to an expiration date. At this rate, the NFL’s will arrive. No one wants to keep watching a death sport, 12 months a year.