When word broke that ESPN was unexpectedly and belatedly ending its involvement with PBS’s Frontline on a pair of documentaries investigating head injuries in football, ESPN swore up and down it had nothing to do with keeping the NFL happy. According to a report in today’s New York Times, that was a bold-faced lie. ESPN’s statement was that it was pulling out because it had no editorial control over the documentaries—even though it’s known that for months, and as recently as two weeks ago was trumpeting its partnership with Frontline.
In just a few short days, the National Football League’s 2013 season begins, and America’s obsession with violence punctuated by committee meetings (apologies to George Will) will commence.
I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with football. Having been a (surprisingly immobile) quarterback during my younger days, I loved playing the game, almost as much as I love watching it today. I hate the toll the game too often exacts from those who play it. At the NFL level, where immense, supremely athletic players possessed of almost superhuman strength move at warp speed, the collisions can be epic and the effects long lasting. A reasonable person might think the NFL would have long since recognized and honored their responsibility to protect their players…and you’d be wrong. WAY wrong.
For years, the NFL essentially ignored the degree to which their players were risking long-term damage from repeated blows to the head. One need only exmine the legacies of Mike Webster, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau to get an idea the risk an NFL player assumes every time they take the field. When your job involves absorbing collisions equivalent to an automobile accident on virtually every down, you have to expect that someday that damage will catch up with you. Those risks didn’t just appear with the current generation of players, but the increased size, speed, and strength of today’s players have multiplied the danger to almost unimaginable levels.
Instead of recognizing the problem and addressing it early, the NFL has for years ignored it until they couldn’t get away with it any longer. When you have a virtually inexhaustible supply of athletes who dream of suiting up on Sundays, you can afford to treat your employees/players like interchangeable parts.
Despite an outward display of concern about concussions, the NFL continues to treat a full, fair, and open discussion of head injuries as a significant threat to its bottom line. One need only look at the league’s $765 million settlement of a lawsuit brought by former players to understand that the league is still looking to avoid being held accountable for its past negligence and cavalier disregard for the long-term health of those who made the NFL what it is today. Instead of owning up to the truth, the league is still heavily engaged in spin control. When you’re a multi-billion-dollar cartel, image is everything, right??
The parties involved deny the NFL coerced ESPN into walking away from the collaboration with Frontline, but the denials ring hollow considering the league’s history of denying and soft-pedaling their concussion problem.
How NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sleeps at night is beyond my limited understanding and intellect…but then I’m giving Goodell the benefit of the doubt by assuming that he possesses a functional conscience.
Last week, several high-ranking officials convened a lunch meeting at Patroon, near the league’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because they were prohibited by their superiors from discussing the matter publicly. It was a table for four: Roger Goodell, commissioner of the N.F.L.; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; ESPN’s president, John Skipper; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.
At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.
Evidently, Goodell and senior league management continues to view the truth as a threat to the league’s bottom line. The sad thing is that the long-term risks associated with repeated head injuries is no longer in dispute (unless you work in the NFL’s Manhattan headquarters). There’s ample evidence to support the conclusion that conditions like Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) are the direct result of repeated violent blows (the sort that football players regularly suffer) to the head. The NFL continues to be in denial when no one with any awareness of the issue disputes the data.
What the NFL has to gain by pressuring ESPN into pulling out of the Frontline project is difficult to imagine. Instead of cooperating with a full, open, and honest examination of the problem, league management appears determined to deny the long-term risks faced by current, former, and future NFL players. Instead of getting out in front and proving they’re concerned and can effectively address the problem, the league appears more concerned with potential legal liability.
In the end, it appears to be the same as it is with most any major business. It’s far less about people than it is about protecting the bottom line. THAT’S what I hate about football.
Theodore Roosevelt once campaigned to ban football because of its violence and brutality. His bully pulpit succeeded in the promulgation of numerous rule changes that at least reduced the death toll of the game, if not the numbers of broken bodies and scrambled brains. Sometimes I find myself wondering if it might not be time to travel down that road again. Then I wake up and realize that as long as kids grow up wanting to be the next Adrian Peterson or Tom Brady, the NFL will have an inexhaustible supply of your bodies to toss into the maw.
And little, if anything, will change.