The New England Patriots have a much bigger problem to face than potentially losing their star quarterback for the first four games of the 2016 NFL season.
The league they call home is dying.
Not yet, of course. Under commissioner Roger Goodell, the National Football League is currently thriving, with revenues that were projected to surpass $13.3 billion in 2016, which, according to Forbes, is up more than 50 percent from 2010. To his credit, Goodell has taken the product to previously-unheard levels of popularity, television ratings, and financial success. These are the primary reasons why the 32 franchise owners who both cower from and protect his authority have blindly supported him despite his dubious ethics. The cash, it turns out, is pretty good.
But the eventual end is inevitable.
It starts with the players, ever so cyclically limping toward their graves, wounded from playing the game that never treated them back the way they figured it might as wide-eyed college kids blinded by the spotlit promises of stardom. It continues with the league’s refusal to honestly address football’s inherent physical dangers, shuffling each instance of chronic traumatic encephalopathy or other brain trauma into the same hidden vault in which NFL executives tucked away countless other matters of misfortune. This way of doing business is made possible by the players association’s dogged pursuit of the most efficient payday it can secure for 1,700-plus employees, all while failing to pay attention to contract clauses that establish the NFL’s commissioner as a supreme ruler, overseeing menial millionaires.
In reality, over the long term, the Patriots, winners of six of the last 15 AFC title games, are in just as dire a situation as the pathetic Cleveland Browns. The irrelevant Jacksonville Jaguars. The star-crossed and financially-bloated Dallas Cowboys.
Forget the level of talent a franchise possesses at the moment or the depth of the roots of a particular fan base. The National Football League is a complete and haphazard mess.
It’s not like you needed Monday’s court ruling for such a revelation.
While Patriots fans across New England and the country wring their hands over quarterback Tom Brady’s likely suspension to begin the 2016 season, the NFL office on Park Avenue is celebrating the affirmation of its power over the labor force. In upholding Goodell’s harsh, yet, momentous, four-game suspension of Brady, a punishment that arose from accusations of equipment violations before slithering so far from its zygote stage, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals essentially assured the commissioner the right to be judge, jury, and executioner, all by his lonesome.
Where Goodell happens to take this verified authority is anyone’s guess. The NFL may not have planned for Deflategate to unravel into the nonsensical soap opera that it has over the last 15 months, but the Brady-Goodell standoff has, indeed, hogged most of the headlines that might have otherwise been reserved for the tangible concern of the increasing awareness of the debilitating head injuries that professional football has not done enough to address.
Last December, there was some controversy and confusion over the funding of a $16 million head trauma study at Boston University, work funded by the National Institutes of Health, which received a $30 million grant from the NFL in 2012. Last month, the NFL’s top health and safety officer acknowledged a link between football-related head trauma and CTE for the first time. Last week, former Buffalo Bills running back Thurman Thomas discussed his own experiences with playing-related injuries at a concussion summit in Niagara Falls, N.Y.
“When I started playing football as a little kid, the last thing on my mind was, ‘will I be able to walk when I’m 50?’” the Hall of Famer said. “‘Will I be able to keep a train of thought when I’m 45? When I’m 50, will I suffer from uncontrollable mood swings? And even worse, will someday I be so depressed that I would take my own life?’”
A recent visit to a doctor in Buffalo resulted in an MRI on his brain. The doctor informed Thomas that the frontal lobe of his brain was similar to someone who has fallen off the top of a house, on to the front of his head, or going through a windshield of a car several times.
“He said decent … for an NFL football player who had just played in the National Football League for 13 years. Not great, but decent.”
Decent. And getting worse.
It is this sort of reality that football delivers. It is this sort of evidence of the long-term dangers of the game that has some parents directing their children away from the gridiron. Just last year, almost a dozen high school football players lost their lives, some dying after on-field incidents. In 2014, the Wall Street Journal reported that the number of individuals between ages 6 and 18 playing organized tackle football had fallen by 5.4 percent between 2008 and 2012, citing a survey by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association and the Physical Activity Council. High school participation rates were also reportedly down 2.5 percent during that span, making those football figures not necessarily a harbinger of doom for the sport’s cultivation. But perhaps the 9.5 percent drop in Pop Warner participation between 2010 and 2012, as reported by ESPN, is something more troubling for the sport.
The NFL and its legion of certified messengers of pigskin prosperity, like Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, can’t bear to hear such figures, mostly because of what they mean for them.
The death of their sport.
“Our game is great. People that say, ‘I won’t let my son play it’ are fools,” Arians said in March at the NFL owners’ meetings. “We have this fear of concussion that is real, but not all of those, I think, statistics can prove anything. We got new helmets coming out. We got safety issues. There are more concussions in women — girls soccer than in football at that age. The Number Two sport for concussions is women’s soccer, but no one says, ‘We gotta stop playing soccer.’ So it’s the same thing with knee injuries. There are more knee injuries at eight to 12 in soccer than in football. You can find all the statistics you want if you want to crucify something.”
Except, the NFL has found all the statistics it wants to ignore.
For the integrity of the game, you know.
But for all his determined sense of infallibility in the Deflategate saga, Goodell sings a more uncertain tune in the face of head trauma accusations, tossing normally-rehearsed responses out of necessity, and bumbling on like the duplicitous and artificial head of state that he is.
“From my standpoint, I played football for nine years through high school and I wouldn’t give up a single day of that,” Goodell said during his annual state of Everything is Awesome at the Super Bowl back in February. “If I had a son, I’d love to have him play the game of football because of the values you get. There’s risk in life. There’s risk in sitting on the couch.”
That’s the delusional commissioner of the National Football League, comparing his much-maligned league’s approach to head injuries to watching reruns of Night Court at home.
So, Deflategate and Brady’s suspension dominates the days leading up to the NFL Draft, when dozens of players will shed any wariness on the doorstep of a career in the NFL, however brief it may be. There will be more players in the same boat next year, and the year after that. Not to mention in 2034.
But based on the evidence, we should expect fewer athletes born in 2016 to be aiming for the NFL in 18 years than the league has grown accustomed to.
It’s not that football is evil. It’s that the people in charge of the sport at its highest level refuse to outline the parameters of the impact it has on participants.
That’s why fewer kids are playing. That’s why some of the handfuls who make it to the pros are retiring earlier and earlier after they begin to understand the ramifications.
That’s why the NFL is ultimately in trouble, led by a man too power-hungry and ignorant to look out for anything other than his own hierarchy.
Roger Goodell is, officially, an all-powerful czar. The courts have spoken.
He’s also slowly digging the NFL’s grave.
To that end, hardly anybody speaks.
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