Enough with NFL's refusal to evolve
The NFL is the most dominant sports property in America. Its ratings routinely crush all other sports and anything else digitized and transmitted onto a U.S. television screen. This is the NFL's era.
Which is why there is something so Rome-before-the-fall about the league's approach to a recent series of unfortunate events.
From the Washington Redskins' nickname controversy to the systemic string of concussion issues that span decades to the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation in Miami, the NFL no longer has a guarantee on owning the sports landscape, say, 10 years from now. A sport that once sold its brand of leadership in glossy packaging could become tarnished, and the public could move on.
The dismissiveness that marked the NFL's initial approach to emerging concussion science is unfortunately unpacked again and again in these issues. It's not a good look. Reactionary, slow, opposed to change and suggestion until forced -- these traits have been the NFL's Achilles' heel.
And remember Spygate? After the NFL investigated the New England Patriots for taping the New York Jets' practices, the evidence was destroyed. (The social media age won't offer a lot of chances to move on so cleanly, however.) The league could approach the Incognito-Martin situation in the same way -- getting through a firestorm more than getting to the bottom of a culture that at times seems as anachronistic as arguing over mastodon bones.
There is glory and wealth while the spotlight burns, which may or may not be enough to compensate for the risks now coming to light. Even some players, like Terry Bradshaw, are starting to say they wouldn't let their sons play this game.
Football needs bodies. The NFL churns through them so quickly that an average career lasts 3.1 years according to the NFL Players Association. The NFL requires a fresh slate from the NCAA to arrive on time, men who can be folded into the mix of limbs and Sunday sinew and sent out to absorb the violence we relish.
Boxing once ruled the sports landscape in the same way the NFL does now. At its heyday, boxing drew young men to gyms from across social classes and economic groups, but there aren't a lot of rings set up in high schools or gyms anymore. When the sports public was witness to some bouts in which men died from wounds sustained in the ring, it forced profound conscience-examining from some corners, while others defended the brutality -- a conversation that might seem familiar.
Boxing never properly dealt with a number of corruption issues and an alphabet soup of authorities. Later, even the allure of the heavyweights dimmed. You can't have people biting each other's ears off.
In football, there are already enough bodies in the pipeline to keep the NFL functioning for the next decade. But, beyond that, what parents want to set their fresh-faced kid up to succeed in a league that will require him to sign an agreement not to sue if he develops brain injuries as a byproduct of his employment?
The NFL has a real disconnect between the leadership that it has commoditized and the Lord-of-the-Flies mentality that can sprout like a weed in a leadership void.
For a long time, the NFL has operated outside the boundaries of what is considered acceptable practices for a corporation. That worked because it appeared the system was fair and self-policed. But we're seeing now that better treatment for the men inside the locker room and suffering long after their playing days are over weren't part of the bargain.
You can't have players angrily yelling racial epithets at each other in the locker room or shaken down for money to fund untaken trips. And still, the NFL has shown it isn't even willing to cajole an owner into removing a racial slur off the side of a stadium.
How did the NFL become a league that basically requires three years of college, and yet has a culture with some strange suspicion of higher education?
Window dressing, like breast cancer awareness month and pink jerseys, will not distract women from the message that was sent when Incognito allegedly rubbed up against a woman at a team golf outing and sprayed water on her face in a gross pantomime, and the Dolphins officials who were aware of it didn't even bother to report it to the NFL as a code of conduct violation.
Of course the NFL wants to appeal to women, but instead of shutting them up with nondisclosure agreements when the Incognitos of the league act out, let the players face the legal consequences.
The NFL can ignore these recent issues and controversies and continue to push away the very population that will shepherd the next generation of meat into the grinder -- reasonable people who would pack the SUV with cleats and halftime orange slices for the team, people who might catch a glimpse of Tony Dorsett on screen as he searches his increasingly uncooperative brain for words, for a memory.
The NFL can obdurately refuse to evolve, but the rest of the world inevitably will.