Professional football resumes this week, and not a day too soon.
Regular readers know how much I love the sport, and I have written before about the depression that settles over the true fan as the last minutes of the Super Bowl tick down — the sadness of knowing that the long interregnum is upon us.
But this offseason has been more depressing than most. The most popular sport in the U.S. has had a difficult year. As one scandal followed another, one might have expected a dampening of enthusiasm among the fans. I myself was not sure whether I would respond with the same excitement as in the past. Yet, as the opening game approaches, I detect within myself the familiar quickening of breath and heart, the lightness of tread, the hidden smile that together signal the anticipation of old. I thrilled to the first football game I ever attended — a high school contest, back when I was 6 or 7 years old — and the excitement has never flagged.
But what of the horrible news these past months? Why has my love not weakened? Consider the list:
In the college ranks, the Penn State scandal dominated football news in the spring and early summer, but the iceberg of scandal only widens as one examines down below. Another alleged coverup of football misdeeds — in this case, multiple sexual assaults by players — is being investigated at the University of Montana<. Add in the academic scandal that hovers over North Carolina’s program, and one can see why some people have even called for the abolition of big-time college football.
Of course, colleges weren’t alone in making headlines
during the sport’s hiatus from the field. The pro ranks were
shaken by reports of the bounty program supposedly run by the
New Orleans Saints, in which players were offered bonuses for
injuring opponents. A league investigation led to multiple
suspensions of New Orleans players and coaches. (Some of the
players have challenged the penalties.)
Then there is the lawsuit filed in June on behalf of former
players against the National Football League itself, claiming
that the league knew, and didn’t tell its players, about the
correlation between repeated hits to the head and a variety of
cognitive losses, including early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. The
league, meanwhile, has turned around and sued its insurers, who
claim that the case isn’t covered by their policies.
As if that were not enough, the league has locked out its
referees as part of a continuing contract dispute, and has
announced that it will use replacement officials (who don’t seem
to be doing such a good job) during the first week.
After so debilitating an offseason, why keep at it? Love,
obviously — an irrational but still dizzying love affair with a
partner you adore despite (his, her or its) imperfection. But
there is a difference between discovering your partner’s
imperfections and discovering your partner’s secret life.
That is why, of all the scandals of the offseason, the only
one with any serious chance of diminishing support for the sport
among fans is the lawsuit by the players. The complaint doesn’t
just allege the injuries; the complaint alleges that the league,
like Big Tobacco, knew all along. So brutal are the factual
allegations that Andrew Sullivan was moved to refer to the
retired players as “bludgeoned human cattle.”
The NFL has been trumpeting a study by the National
Institute for Occupational Safety and Health concluding that
professional football players actually live longer than men in
the general population. (The research was an update of a 1994
study on the same topic, requested by the players, not the
league. The earlier study reached similar results.)
Data compiled by Bill Barnwell, a staff writer for the
online sports magazine Grantland, go further. Barnwell
concludes, surprisingly, that professional baseball players have
higher mortality rates than similarly situated professional
football players. As Barnwell points out, however, studies of
lifespan tell us nothing about the quality of those lives.
Barnwell reminds us that retired football players often suffer
great pain. Add to this the relatively high rates of cognitive
impairment alleged in the lawsuit, and one is forcibly reminded
that quality of life often trumps quantity of years.
Maybe the allegations of the lawsuit are bunk. Maybe the
NFL had no idea of the damage being done to its players. But
this doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that’s in the league’s
interest to litigate. One reason is that you never know what
confidences will tumble into public view once the trial starts:
the term “human cattle” might start to look credible. A larger
reason is that the fans seem to be siding with the players —
and the NFL, if it fights this thing too hard, is going to start
looking like the wealthy factory owners E.L. Doctorow describes
in his novel “Ragtime,” whose response to the news that
employees have been injured or killed on the job is to counsel
the rest to be more alert.
The NFL is enormously profitable. Even if it costs a few
tens of millions to make the lawsuit go away, it would seem to
be a price worth paying. An exciting new season is about to kick
off. There are fans everywhere who love the sport. This is not
the moment to risk their affection.
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