These last few months have been pretty bad for the NFL from a PR standpoint. We have multiple stories and a PBS documentary about how concussions are affecting current and former players, and how the league basically covered it up for as long as they could until big name players like Tony Dorsett started turning up with symptoms and a string of suicides went beyond the long forgotten (Ray Easterling) and virtual unkowns of today (Jovan Belcher) to a future Hall of Famer in Junior Seau. We have the Miami Dolphins mess involving Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin, Jeff Ireland, and Joe Philbin. There’s the Aaron Hernandez arrest and upcoming trial, where a guy who was a crucial part of a Super Bowl contender has been alleged to be the type of gangster that some people think only exists in NBA locker rooms. The Washington Post’s Thomas Boswell addressed all these topics, and a few others including the recent health problems of coaches John Fox and Gary Kubiak and the ruthless tactics of the owners in the 2012 lockout. Rick Reilly wrote how it was harder to enjoy the game now with so many players he’d grown to love turning up with concussion related ailments from playing the game he loved to watch. To all of this I say…….really? You guys are that surprised and disturbed by all of this? Are you all really that naive?
Every year the players get bigger and faster. They play a sport in which full contact collisions happen on every play. Did you really think that all they had to do was avoid the killer knockout blow to maintain their wits after the age of 40? Seriously? Did you really think that, given the degree of the criminal element that is allowed to suit up at various colleges and universities every year that none of that would ever land in the league, Hernandez style? Or that a game whose participants often admit that they must have a screw loose just to get on the field would have at least a few guys who might be prone to being as savage off the field as they are asked to be on it? You’re shocked, shocked, shocked that the kind of aggression required to physically confront defensive lineman weighing 300 pounds and up would result in the existence of players like Richie Incognito? On the coaching front, it’s a surprise that guys who work 18 hours days year round and sleep on couches at their office have health problems? And lastly let’s not forget the owners. You sportswriters are really that surprised that the kind of people who threaten to move if they don’t get millions of dollars in public money to build a new stadium would lock out their players to squeeze them for more money even though the league is at its most profitable level ever?
What’s going on here is the same thing that happened with steroids in baseball. The media, largely bought and paid for by the leagues they cover and in love with the magical days of their youth when the game seemed more legit (if you ignore the whole not letting black people play thing, and the reserve clause thing, and a bunch of other things) and fun, either ignored what was right in front of their faces or aided and abetted the deception by not talking about it all. And now the curtain has been pulled back for all to see before the media could figure out a way to stop it from happening or slow it down so much that the public didn’t notice. People often say that if you go to a slaughterhouse you’ll never eat meat again. Well, we see the slaughterhouse now. We see the pain and suffering, the exploitation, and the direct results of certain hiring decisions. We see the true greed of many of the owners, gouging fan and player alike for more money simply because they can. It’s not a pretty picture and the old school sports media helped paper over it for decades. Now that the paper has been ripped away some people don’t know how to handle it. Because to fully accept the truth is to admit their own culpability. When they marveled at how Brett Favre was able to keep his streak going they ignored the elephant in the room known as Vicodin, until Favre himself almost died in an operating room due to his addiction. That’s just one example.
A lot of fans, probably most fans, are more than happy to keep watching even after knowing all that goes on behind the scenes. We like violence and sports are the way to channel that violence that doesn’t involve tanks and bullets and missiles. It’s a way to compartmentalize our inner aggression without it tearing us up inside or hurting the ones we love. In other words, sports are an outlet and we mostly don’t care what it takes to put on the show as long as the carnage does not visibly affect people we know and love. That’s cynical as hell but it’s reality. The only reason we even care a little now is because a guy like Seau killed himself, and formerly lovable guys like Jim McMahon are having well documented memory problems. If the suffering quarterback was Jim Miller instead of Jim McMahon there wouldn’t have even been a story in SI about his problems. So when I see the media kvetching over how their beloved game has turned for the worst, I simply say…..
What did you expect?