A perfect storm is one in which multiple forces intersect and, feeding off of each other form a massive, cataclysmic event of great intensity
By Joe Bruns — National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell right now might be feeling like the captain of a fishing boat seeing on his radar screen the confluence of four storms, each by itself manageable, but combined they threaten to shake the foundation of what has become America’s national sport.
Traumatic Brain Injury
PBS Frontline recently aired the aptly named program League of Denial, investigating the mounting evidence that football playing causes both acute and chronic brain injury even when playing within the rules of the game and with the recommended safety equipment. Furthermore, the program chronicles half-measured – some would say bogus — attempts by the NFL at research into the connection between playing football and traumatic brain injury and the condition known as Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). As with the tobacco industry before it, the NFL continues to hide behind the argument that there is no ‘conclusive proof’ of a cause and effect relationship. It is hard to not accept the premise, though, that NFL players are risking permanent and serious brain damage every time they take the field. Several former NFL players have committed suicide and have specifically asked that their brains be examined.
But the NFL’s problem goes beyond its own professional players who are being paid for taking such risk. The physical style of play and the toughness of the professional players sets an example of the sport played at its highest level. As such it is the style of play encouraged by coaches and emulated by players at every level, sometimes with tragic consequences. Just this month a high school football player in Arizona died of a brain trauma suffered on the field. Children as young as eight are playing tackle football, and have coaches telling them to be tough, to ignore pain and to take a physical toll on opposing players.
Big hits (i.e. violent ones) are celebrated by parents and routinely posted on You Tube. USA Football, the governing body of the sport, sends mixed messages on its website. In one article they talk about the need to teach kids as young as eight to overcome their fear of hitting. They also have an entire section of their website dealing with concussion risk and diagnosis. But their message becomes clear as you dig down, their conclusion is that concussions are “a manageable injury,’ and as for permanent brain damager, “…there is no proof.”
College football: Everyone Prospers Except the Players.
The second threat to professional football as we now know it is the possible professionalization of its ‘minor league,’ NCAA college football.Unlike Major League Baseball, which has a multi-tiered minor league system of professional prospects, professional football depends upon college football to identify talent, teach fundamentals, test players in high-pressure games, and eventually allow the best to rise to the top, ready for admission into the NFL cartel through the college draft system.
All of the costs of this process are borne by the colleges, and funded by television contracts, filled stadiums of fans, and you, the taxpayer. The players themselves, however, are so-called amateurs supposedly playing for the thrill of the competition and the honor of representing the alma mater, or at least that is the story. But players, and even some university administrators are beginning to rebel. For their part, players see the billions of dollars of revenue generated by their play on the field, and wonder why they live on the equivalent of food stamps (sometime literally). They’re beginning to want a piece of the action. One study by Sports Illustrated concluded that a University of Texas football player was worth $578,000 per year. As it now stands, a player cannot legally accept a used car without jeopardizing his career, while his coach makes something upward from $1 Million. Even a college player’s own image can be used and marketed by video game producers without compensation. He may or may not make it through four years of college football without a career ending injury, and only if he is among the best will he be allowed to negotiate with a single employer for a professional contract. There is change lurking in the future.
The third threat to the NFL is brought on by the arrogance of team owners. Take the case of the Washington Redskins. The “Washington Redskins” actually play their home games in Landover, Maryland, having moved out of Washington, DC many moons ago. It turns out the sports stadiums are generally built in the jurisdiction that will give them the greatest taxpayer funded breaks, not necessarily either where the fans reside or in their namesake city. Few of the negotiated concessions are passed on to the fans. The Redskins have among the highest prices for parking, beer and food. They also severely restrict what a fan can bring into the stadium, purportedly for ‘security concerns.’ Even the size of a women’s purse is restricted.
And then there’s the issue of the name “Redskins.”
Many old-time Washington Redskins fans will tell you about the legendary history of the football team, but many don’t know that before Washington, the team was the Boston Redskins (and the Braves before that.) More fans probably do know, but choose to brush aside the fact that, along with a number of championships over the years, the Washington Redskins in 1962 were the last NFL team to integrate, and did so only under the threat of federal legal action that would have denied them use of their DC stadium where they then played.
While opinion polls find people divided, at least some Native Americans find the name Redskins to be offensive – a racial slur. Indeed, many dictionaries describe the term as disparaging or a slur. Defenders contend that the name is meant to honor American Indians, as a tribute to their bravery and warrior spirit. And many public opinion polls support that point of view, along with the sense that the name is part of a tradition, sort of like Semper Fi.
But we are talking here about a football team, not the United States Marine Corps. The ‘tradition’ of a professional football team is hardly something sacred. If even a small number of people are honestly offended by a name that clearly has racist overtones, why keep it? Owner Dan Snyder is on record as saying he will NEVER change the name of the Redskins. (Capital letters are his). This sounds more like simple arrogance than it does like principle. But arrogance in the guise of denial seems to be an NFL trait. While the Super Bowl is described by activist Cindy McCain as the ‘largest human trafficking venue on the planet,” the NFL refuses to cooperate with those trying to address the issue.
Finally there is the inside look at the players culture, as demonstrated by the New Orleans Saints locker room. By now, everyone with even a passing interest in sports knows the story of Jonathan Martin, a classics graduate from Sanford being harassed by fellow Miami Dolphin Richie Incognito to the point that Martin quit the team and Incognito was suspended. While there are many questions to be resolved about the whole affair, one thing seems pretty clear:
The culture inside a professional football team is a pretty ugly one, with behavior that would be considered entirely out of bounds, perhaps even illegal, in most work places.
It also spills over outside the locker room. A Miami Dolphin staffer has come forward with accusations of harassment as well. What does it say about us as a culture that behavior and language, including frequent use of the N-word, that would be grounds for dismissal at almost any worksite is the norm among those we idolize as sports heroes? Perhaps it is a culture that leads to bounty-hunting bonuses for injuring opposing players.
Football and the NFL will endure these trials, I have no doubt. But you never know when a tipping point might be reached when a popular sport begins to decline in popularity as happened with boxing
Boxing was once considered a major sport, and television sports programming grew up with Wednesday and Friday night fights, and broadcasts of major championships before the age of HBO and pay television. But professional boxing had long had seedy underworld connections, including boxers willing to take a dive, corrupt managers and scorers, and plaster added to boxing gloves. But the turning point for boxing, when it lost much of its popularity and glamour, might be the death by brain trauma of Duk Koo Kim at the hands of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini in 1982. Mancini beat Kim to death on national television.
While boxings popularity has waned, it does still continue, and so does the brain trauma. Even as I write this a boxer, Magomed Abdusalamov, lies in a New York hospital with life threatening injuries.
Unlike boxing, the effect of brain injury usually occurs later, out of sight and not on camera, but if a high school boy dies of brain trauma playing football it is only a matter of time before we witness such an event on national television. What will be our reaction?
– Joe Bruns (cajunjoe) is a Trail Mix Contributor