NFL, Nixon, Big Tobacco — Dirty Liars, All

Call it exactly what it is — a cover-up. And understand that systematic attempts to brainwash the American public are scandals that have taken down U.S. presidents, Big Tobacco, CEOs and power pillars everywhere. For two decades, a period spanning two commissioners and dozens of wealthy franchise owners, the almighty NFL didn’t want you or me or, most critically, tens of thousands of athletes to know that head injuries suffered while playing football were now a life-and-death proposition.

Call it exactly what it is — a conspiracy. And ask yourself how this is different than tobacco companies plotting to publicly downplay smoking dangers. When they were caught in their cover-up, the legal settlement was $246 billion in 1998, equivalent today to roughly $400 billion. That’s why the $765-million settlement between the league and more than 4,000 retired players last month was a lowball victory for the NFL.

And that is why Roger Goodell, Paul Tagliabue and the owners should be vilified, in history, for presiding over a neurological carnage.

In the name of protecting a booming industry with soaring revenues now topping $10 billion annually, the NFL kept everyone in the dark for much too long while some former players were becoming wheelchair vegetables, others were developing dementia and Alzheimer’s, and others, including Junior Seau, were so brain-damaged that they committed suicide. Rather than make the valuable information public and educate players about the health risks, the league launched an elaborate public-relations initiative to conceal the very information it had acquired in self-funded research projects. This is creepily similar to what Major League Baseball did in the 1990s when it started hearing whispers about performance-enhancing drugs in the player ranks. With steroids fueling a home-run barrage that revived the sport’s popularity, commissioner Bud Selig and the owners looked the other way, choosing to be complicit in a toxic scheme while counting their newfound profits.

This is filthy dirty stuff. Football kills, and yet, the men in charge wanted it to be their little secret. Consider it the latest and most alarming reason why football, as we’ve known it in its most violent and crippling form, won’t exist by mid-century, if not much sooner. Now we know why Goodell was troubled enough by the work of two reporters, brothers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru, that he demanded to know why ESPN management — which employs both — was cooperating with a potent PBS documentary that will augment the brothers’ book, “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth.”

In the end, it could be the classic journalistic work that sends the NFL plunging on its inevitable debilitative downward spiral.

I’ve highlighted the Big Tobacco parallels in previous pieces on the subject. “League of Denial” hangs the NFL by its throat on the same premise. “There are many differences,” the Fainarus write in the book, which will be released next week and was excerpted this week by Sports Illustrated and — hey, what do you know? — ESPN The Magazine, “but one is that football’s health crisis featured not millions of anonymous victims but very public figures whose grotesque demises seemed almost impossible to reconcile with their personas.”

What I want to know is, how much longer will the football public keep wearing blinders? Parents are petrified, obviously, but fans continue to watch NFL telecasts in record numbers this season, unaffected by the continuous news churn of the concussion crisis. Apparently, a fan’s allegiance to his team, his fantasy league or his bookie wager still trumps the frightening reality that body-devouring combatants in projectile-like helmets are still planting the indentations of brain disease.

Players, too, don’t get it, with the league still filled with too many helmet-to-helmet cheap-shot artists like Tampa Bay’s Dashon Goldson. His former teammate in San Francisco, safety Donte Whitner, legally changed his name to “Hitner” this week in protest of rules outlawing dangerous hits against offensive players deemed defenseless. We’ve officially entered the Twilight Zone, people.

“I actually put the paperwork in yesterday afternoon. Just waiting to get the paperwork out,” Whitner/Hitner said in a media conference call. “So from here on out until I retire, my name will be Donte Hitner, without the W.”

For anyone who suspected a prank, Whitner/Hitner confirmed it later. “That’s what I do. It’s my last name and removing a letter makes it pretty cool,” he said. Want to hear something as crazy? Because he’s changing his name in the middle of a season, Whitner/Hitner must buy every piece of league-related merchandise on the marketplace bearing his previous last name, this according to ESPN’s Darren Rovell. Not that Whitner was a superstar, but that’s a lot of money to prove a dubious point, especially when he was irked to begin with by a $21,000 fine issued by the league for his wrongful hit during the St. Louis game. To help his cause, he is selling t-shirts with a #LegalHitner slogan.

“It seems like on any big hit, they make the call on what the hit looks like,” Whitner/Hitner said. “I’m not out there head-hunting, hitting guys helmet to helmet. I want to show guys can hit hard and bring fear doing it the legal way.

“This is a tough game. This is a game for grown men. When we signed up for that, we all knew that. If you don’t want to play football, you don’t want to be physical, you don’t want to be hit, don’t come around guys that like to hit. That’s the game of football, just do it the right way.”

I cringe to think about Whiter/Hitner’s quality of life in 20 years.

The heroes of the book and documentary are the brothers Fainaru. The beneficiaries are the players, many of whom may want to consider another class-action suit. The goofs are the bosses at ESPN, who bowed out of the documentary after Goodell pressured them and now run the excerpts in a lame attempt to suggest that ESPN owns the story when, in fact, it only tapped into an outside project that happens to involve two of its reporters, just as Sports Illustrated did in also running the excerpts. Remember, ESPN first wants to make money off sports, then cover it when convenient to its financial bottom line.

The villains are the men who run the National Football League. Shame on them. May they feel guilt forever.