We could describe the NFL as a reflection of everyday life, except everyday life isn’t half this bats— crazy. It could be any hour of any week in any town with a franchise, and there will be, assuredly, another press conference featuring another glum-faced executive addressing another social crisis. This time, it was the owner of the Miami Dolphins, finally appearing in public to say he was mortified by behavior inside the team locker room toward Jonathan Martin.
“It couldn’t have been a worse nightmare,” Stephen Ross said. “We need to look at ourselves. We have to examine everything internally. This is so appalling to me.”
As he spoke about workplace harrassment, threatening voice mail, abusive language, racial epithets, the suspended Richie Incognito, the tortured Martin and a wish to forge a locker-room atmosphere that “suits the 21st century,” the latest pro football catastrophe/debacle begged a question:
Why do we keep watching this dysfunctional dreck?
After Ross is presumably finished releasing Incognito for bullying Martin, firing general manager Jeff Ireland for apparently encouraging the “toughening up” of Martin and dumping head coach Joe Philbin for being clueless to a trail of torment, it doesn’t mean we feel any better about following this league. If the NBA likes to call itself “Fan-tastic,” the NFL is “Sham-bolic.” Other than the murder charge against Aaron Hernandez, coaches collapsing and being rushed to hospitals, the ongoing concussion crisis, players who ignore it with more helmet-to-helmet hits, a commissioner who still seems most interested in covering up the head injury plague, Native Americans who are upset the Washington franchise still is called the Redskins, a star defensive player (Von Miller) who was suspended for only six games after fudging a drug test, suicides, dementia and no established test for Human Growth Hormone, hey, the NFL is doing just swell in the 21st century.
And yet, have you seen the ratings? The 19 most-watched TV shows in America this autumn are NFL games, per the Associated Press. In the middle of it all was a compelling World Series, a six-game delight that included riveting games, famed franchises, wild finishes, umpiring debates, compelling characters, freaky facial hair, intense community pride and a big teddy bear named David Ortiz. The ratings? Worst ever for a Fall Classic that extended to either six or seven games.
We are hooked on the NFL. Are we all sick in the head?
Ross says he will fly to southern California to meet with Martin, who is said to be receiving treatment for mental trauma after what his lawyer, David Cornwell, calls a season and a half of constant harassment. It’s a shame a billionaire such as Ross, or underlings such as Ireland and Philbin, couldn’t have noticed and stopped the abuse long ago, as high-quality executives and coaches would have. “I’d like to hear from him what had happened, why he felt that way and what we did and what we could have done to prevent something like this from happening,” Ross said of Martin. “I want to hear the circumstances, the facts.”
The football public should be nauseated by it all. Instead, people can’t get enough of the story in the sports and hard news cycles, which only feeds the NFL’s off-the-charts attention quotient. It’s now clear a football fan won’t stop watching football because Hernandez is in jail, 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 apparently nothing that taints 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. 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 of late. 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. But 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.
Will football, in its most violent and neurologically ruinous form, exist by mid-century? I don’t think so. 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 TV networks drool more than ever at the prospect of financing the league with many of those billions. 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 NFL globally. You’ll have to trust me as college football finally realizes a four-team playoff is instant gold and lands a 12-year, $7.3-billion deal from ESPN.
Until then, we’ll watch the incredible parade of madness and wonder what new twist possibly could be next. This month, it’s locker-room hazing. Next month, who knows? “I think anybody would be appalled,” Ross said of the one Incognito voice mail that has been made public, with more coming. “When you first read that text that was reported, to me I didn’t realize people would talk or text or speak that way to people.”
They do. In his own office, in his own backyard.
But it’s never so disgusting to make us stop watching the NFL. What it says about us, I don’t think I want to know.