Over the last month, the football world has watched:
■ “Broadway Joe” Namath, once one of the game’s most charismatic players, join a very long list of former stars who believe they suffered brain damage during their gridiron careers.
■ Players for Northwestern University’s football team petition for union representation, arguing that the revenues they bring in are not reflected in their medical coverage for long-term injuries and educational benefits.
■ An independent counsel reveal a toxic, bullying environment on the Miami Dolphins, in which racial slurs, anti-gay insults, and threats of violence were commonplace.
■ NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell acknowledge that he earned $44.2 million in 2012.
These news items are connected. Taken together, they paint a picture of a sport that is awash in money, but insufficiently protective of its players. Together, they reveal how embarrassingly distant the corporate sponsors in the luxury boxes are from the battered, oft-injured, and sometimes ignorant gladiators on the field.
It matters little that players are well-paid if their health is being permanently damaged and their work environment is warped. No longer can the presence of a few smiling, archetypal stars like Tom Brady or Peyton Manning obscure what looks more like a culture of exploitation in which players from underprivileged backgrounds are used and then tossed away, without an education or even life lessons about how to exist in normal society.
Jonathan Martin, the Dolphins lineman who was the target of much of the bullying, wondered in phone calls and texts to his parents what he — a normal, intelligent person — could possibly be doing in such an environment. It’s a question the NFL and college teams need to ponder. Football is the nation’s most popular sport, based on TV ratings, and it’s not going away. But its strains and contradictions are showing. And it has to prove that it is wholesome and healthy enough for its players, so that those who root for them can feel that they’re not abetting a dangerous and dysfunctional enterprise.
Goodell’s salary is strikingly high, especially for a nonprofit operation. No one doubts that he works hard for the money. He’s a first-class troubleshooter. Scores of players get arrested and charged with crimes each year, and Goodell’s office adjudicates them so carefully that he might as well be running a parole board. Last year, he also spent a lot of time managing the league’s delicate PR response to the link between head injuries and dementia. He even engineered a $765 million settlement of a lawsuit by former players. Now, in response to the Dolphins scandal, he’s facing demands to set strict standards for locker-room behavior.
But rather than view each of these scandals as an occasion for crisis management, the league needs to address all its challenges in a more comprehensive way, by trying to determine whether the instances of violence, injury, and clubhouse dysfunction are related. Among other steps, it needs to continue assessing ways to reduce head trauma in practice as well as games, including sub-concussive hits. If the game itself must be altered to limit some of those “hard hits” that so excite some fans, Goodell must take the lead in overseeing the image-altering transition. And the league needs to take a deeper look at its players, and try to understand why so many commit crimes, and so many others — such as Richie Incognito, the leader of the Dolphins bullying squad — engage in repeated instances of misconduct without effective discipline.
Football’s culture isn’t exclusively the problem of the NFL. The Northwestern players pushing the union petition noted that the unique demands of football are a huge hindrance to academics, a point that is borne out in graduation statistics. Too often, coaches comfort themselves with the notion that if not for football, these kids wouldn’t be anywhere near a university. That’s not true in most cases. But even if it is in others, it’s not a helpful attitude. Neither is that of the self-serving NFL coaches who, like pet owners defending their snarling pitbulls, justify giving repeated extra chances to transgressing players on the grounds that they’re damaged kids who need to be shown a little love.
Football needs to cleanse itself, even if some of the changes — like fewer hits and longer suspensions for unprofessional behavior — make it less appealing to its most voracious fans. Goodell just proudly announced his goal of increasing the NFL’s annual revenues from $10 billion today to $25 billion in 2027. But football’s immense popularity on TV can’t be a reason to preserve the status quo. Nor should the millions of alumni boosters of the college game. In this sport, the players need to come first. Or the weight of scandal will only get heavier, and the whiff of exploitation will get stronger.