HANGING IN THE BALANCE
The precarious future of football in a world gone soft
Sure, while Peter King and the other trendsetting scribes of the football world are busy capturing millions of readers? attention with detailed analyses of the looming playoff matchups, there is a much bigger story that is going unnoticed and unreported the whole time. Enter SewerBall.
Look, I wish football would remain legal ? I really do ? but after so many PC incursions into the core sinew of this once-great sport, I?m afraid that the seeds have already been planted for football?s eventual undoing. Yes, I absolutely see major problems down the road for the NFL and football in general. In an increasingly risk-averse culture, these problems will be of a legal nature as well as an emasculative one.
I cannot predict with any precision just how this process will play out, but it would not surprise me the least, when the 2023 NFL season kicks off, if players will have a belt of flags strapped to their waists to commence an action-packed season of non-hitting and non-tackling. Sure, it would be hard to see exactly how the flag-football league will sustain a massive TV audience once that happens, but at least everyone will be safe. I mean, it?s hard to imagine the cornerback being knocked out with a severe grade 3 concussion as he makes a headlong stab for the wide receiver?s flag. And if you listen to today?s corps of football pundits, you should have it very firmly lodged in yer melon by now that nothing is more important than safety. Uh-huh.
The madness of obsessing over safety in an intrinsically dangerous game is that violence is to football what ice is to hockey. To call football a contact sport buries the lede because it is above all a collision sport ! So, to play Captain Obvious, the savagery and ensuing injuries cannot be avoided. A ban on lunging and hitting with the helmet make sense, but instituting these and similar rules designed to stamp out violence can accomplish very little in a sport that is predicated on violence. The league is touting safety as the Rosetta Stone of football when we know that nothing can ever really make football safe short of banning tackling and hitting. But who would watch then ?
As Roger Goodell and his people continue to swim upstream and try to re-brand the NFL into a sainthood club, I cannot help but wonder when I watch a highlight reel of Ronnie Lott?s greatest hits how he would be viewed today. I marvel at the brutality I see but am simultaneously daunted by the inescapable realization that so many of those same hits dished out by Lott would be ruled illegal in today?s NFL.
While many in the NFL brass are wringing their hands over concussions and pretending to be traumatized by the horrors of CTE, they are at the same time also trying to expand the regular season from 16 games to 18. Sometimes the level of hypocrisy can rise to such a breathtakingly high level that it’s actually harder to notice than if it was more muted. Now, I must ask: will a longer season bring about more concussions or fewer concussions ? Exactly. If the righteous blowhards running the NFL were truly concerned about the players? health, then it follows that they should work tirelessly to shorten ? not lengthen ? the season. Heck, for that matter, shouldn?t they be in urgent talks right now about canceling the next season ? I mean, that?s the only surefire way to spare each player the next inevitable concussion.
I think you see where this is going: no place good for football. The only logical end here is to permanently disband the league altogether and thus prevent any further neurological damage among the guys on the front lines sacrificing their bodies. How can anyone not see the writing on the wall: with the surging costs of liability insurance thanks to creeping lawsuits for long-term harmful effects stemming from this injury or that, many schools will feel the pressure to drop their football programs. How could they not ? Once this begins happening, the pros will be deprived of feeder leagues and the whole food chain ? high school to college to pros ? will be derailed.
Of course, now that the lawyers have jumped all over the concussion revelations ? codified all the more thanks to CT scans and new medical terms like CTE so the lawyers can get paid ? it?s going to require some kind of an unearthly effort to nudge them out of the room. They have successfully corralled former players into filing a massive suit against the league and this bugs me. It couldn?t have been too difficult to get these former players on board ? once the lawyers flashed dollar signs in their eyes, the ex-players, who are likely in need of some extra bread, went ga-ga for this proposition. After all, we?ve heard countless stories about how former pro athletes have squandered their riches in their post-playing days and atoning for past mismanagement of finances had to sound like an enticing plan to a lot of these guys. Yup, they took the bait all right, but, let?s be honest, decades before CTE was even a thing, every melon rancher in the land could have told you that repeated blows to the head could not have been welcome by the brain inside it. I suspect the allure of greenbacks was too great to resist opting out.
And another thing: these guys weren?t exactly conscripted for a violent life on the grid while consigned to meager pay. Nope, they signed up voluntarily knowing full well that their bodies would be put through the proverbial wood chipper in pursuit of football?s holy grail. To steal a great line from The Godfather: it is ?the life they had chosen? so to suddenly seek reparations for some imagined grievance seems absurd and highly unprincipled. More to the point, it would have been nice to see an honorable ex-player, or two, step forward and call B.S. on this massive extortion attempt by refusing to take part in the lawsuit and saying something like: ?hey, I knew all along the long-term consequences would be dire, but I did it because it was fun and for the first time in my life I got to be someone who mattered and for a brief time I tasted a life of glamour. Damn, I wouldn?t trade that for anything.?
Nonetheless, these and other developments have laid the groundwork for some tectonic changes in paving the way for what football will eventually become: a recreational flag football league. It can?t be repeated often enough that, as a result of all these encroachments on the very essence of football as we?ve always known it, we are seeing a slow-motion dissolution of this once-great game that will be hard to reverse unless the NFL and those in charge ? I?m talking about those with a firm hand on the tiller ? have the resolve to say ?enough!? In other words, football as we know it is finished. It has been a great run though. Fans have experienced lots of excitement and plenty of great, memorable games with many takeaway moments that will forever live in the rear view.
The reason things are coming undone is that those at the very top have it as a priority not to keep football the gladiator sport that it has always been and to which it owes its stratospheric growth in popularity, but to appease the various interests who know nothing about football but are fixated on reporting on its assorted carnage, not out of genuine concern for the injured but as a stick in the eye of this most manly of ventures.
It would be truly cathartic to one day see a senior NFL exec stand up boldly and unapologetically and state for the record the following: ?Look, people like the collisions and the violence that is an inherent part of our game and to try to take all that out is a fool?s errand. The game?s success is predicated on people running into each other at warp speed and we intend to keep it that way!? Now THAT would be an impressive laying down of a latter-day Jerry Maguire manifesto, but don?t hold your breath because it will never happen. If it did, just picture the fervency of the blowback from the always-outraged PC establishment. The NFL exec would immediately be thrust on the defensive by some group of do-gooder harpies, slammed as a callous brute while they would scream: ?Don?t you care for the well being of these young men ? Have you no heart, sir ?!!? And so it would go until the exec would eventually apologize and be forced into giving millions in charity to MADD, Amnesty International, and probably Planned Parenthood.
Among the many things that are truly disturbing is how many people at the helm have bought in and are fully on board with re-making football into something it was never intended to be. League front offices latch on to every effort that makes the NFL look beneficent, but behind every such effort is an unwieldy truth. For instance, the NFL proudly celebrates breast cancer awareness month to show female brethren that the league will not turn its back on women?s issues, but cheerleaders do not receive any income for their work in a league flush with money. Again, painting pink ribbon decals on the field accounts for hollow gestures intended to show that the NFL has a caring side when the players who actually fill the rosters are, to put it politely, trained brutes who carry themselves less like gentlemen off the field and more like society?s cr?e-de-la-cr?e of bullies. It strains one?s imagination then to picture these guys acquitting themselves like chivalrous, upstanding citizens when with their significant others. They are basically goons with jobs and it?s all right to like it that way.
As for the game itself, I and others who remain wedded to the original promise of football have accepted that it?s asking too much at this point to let football stand for what it is and always was: a brutal if not barbaric endeavor full of occasional beauty, gripping action, but also chock-full of its share of grisly contact plays resulting in career-ending injuries in many instances and broken dreams.
Few things are more annoying, however, than the sanctimoniousness of the on-air hosts who participate in the very business that they are all-too-happy to castigate. These beaten-down metrosexuals lack all self-awareness as they sit there behind a desk in their made-to-order designer suits tucked away in a posh Manhattan TV studio and pivot from a segment on the week?s hardest hits to a strident lecture about how the players must redouble their efforts to curb domestic violence, while the light reflects theatrically off their glossy, blow-dried hair. What they ignore is that large numbers of the men on the field are beasts. It?s as simple as that. Sheer brutes. I?m not looking for applause when I point this out; just stating a fact. If you don?t believe me, don?t judge them by the milquetoast commercials they shoot but try instead to mic them up during the game.
CBS? James Brown may be just the latest grandstanding phony, but he is hardly alone: believe me, there is plenty of insincerity and cynical behaviour to go around when listening to the ambassadors of the game preaching. Yet, ironically, there he was delivering his anti-violence sermon from inside an NFL stadium ? yes, an NFL stadium ? as he participated in the weekly ritual of pushing the product to the broader populace. Yup, in case you haven?t put one and one together, there is a very close nexus between the excessive coverage the NFL receives and the status it holds as the most profitable sports league. See, expanding its reach and popularity via the airwaves helped make the sport the juggernaut that it has become, and has made each player unbelievably rich in the process.
If the James Browns of the world would like to make a dent on the players? attitudes towards women, shouldn?t their first move be to stop building hype for the product and elevating these violent individuals(football players) into mythic cultural icons ? We know that football players are violent and extremely aggressive people by nature because those are the very qualities necessary to excel at their craft. So if they were serious about addressing the issue of violence, their first move should be to stop giving so much attention to the barbaric endeavor that is football. Ahh, but that might disrupt the flow of incoming cash into league coffers.