Bengals Failure, Browns Failure

Last night the Cincinnati Bengals gave away a game they basically had won.  After looking lost and overmatched for most of the contest, the team had fought back to take the lead against Pittsburgh, but a fumble and then two inexcusable penalties put the Steelers into position to kick the winning field goal.

This is an old story for the Bengals.  For five straight years, and six years out of seven, they have put together lots of talent, done well in the regular season, and then laid an egg in the playoffs.  The final score of last night’s loss was closer than some of them in that string of failure, but the result was the familiar one:  when the chips were down, the Bengals somehow found a way to lose.

635879849966702883-010916-steelers-bengals-ke-2132-1Cincinnati’s loss and running record of post-season collapse inevitably makes me think of Cleveland — because when you think of losing, you think of the Browns.  And I wonder, which is worse:  an organization so wildly inept that they have become an irrelevancy, or a team that has success in the regular season only to lose, again and again and again, in the playoffs?  Would you rather have your team be a running joke for its absolute incompetence, or the object of scorn because it inevitably chokes in the playoffs?

If I had to choose, as a fan, I would go for the chokers rather than the bungling failures, because fans of the chokers could at least enjoy the regular season and dream of the day when their talented team finally makes it to the playoff mountaintop.  But being fans of the chokers isn’t easy, either.  (As an Ohio State fan who barely survived the Cooper era, I know this deep in my bones.)  Each year you let yourself be convinced that this year’s team is different, and this is the year that the team will take that next step — and then you have your heart ripped out by turnovers and ridiculous penalties and find yourself once again knocked out in week one.

One last point:  last night’s game is an example of how the NFL has become almost unwatchable.  It was a dirty, penalty-filled affair between two teams that obviously hate each other’s guts and didn’t have the discipline to avoid the cheap shots.  The key penalty that let the Steelers get into field goal range was an unforgivable head shot against a defenseless receiver that is a poster child example of why the NFL has a colossal concussion problem.  NFL players are big and fast and amazing athletes, but the thuggish behavior is indefensible and just has to stop — it is ruining the game.

The End Of Football (As We Know It)

Russell has a pretty good eye for a trend.  Recently he was heard to boldly predict that — notwithstanding record ratings and fantasy football websites and huge sales of t-shirts, team jerseys, and hats — the NFL is on the down slope and, ultimately, doomed.

Why?  Injuries, of course.  The players are simply too big, too strong, and moving too fast.  The result is countless players sidelined with concussions, destroyed shoulders, buckled knees, and other year-ending and career-ending injuries — and in the case of concussions, potential future health consequences that are dire, indeed.  Already there is discussion about changing the rules of the game — specifically, to get rid of kickoffs, where players run into each other at full ramming speed — to try to lessen the injury toll.

Russell predicts a ripple effect.  Parents will decide that their kids shouldn’t play football because it’s just too dangerous.  High schools and middle schools will stop offering football because of liability concerns, just as many high schools have forsworn traditional track and field events like the pole vault, the javelin, and the discus because of liability risks.  It will be tougher for colleges to give up football, because it is both a moneymaker and a huge spur to alumni pride and endowment fund donations, but after some horrible injuries and crushing lawsuits take their toll, colleges, too, will begin to drop the game.  And then . . . who will feed the NFL pipeline?  Samoans?  Russians?  Australians?  Kids from poor families who see football as their only chance to get out of a situation of extreme poverty?

And it’s starting already.  CBS News reported today that, in the past five years, the number of kids playing football in high school has dropped by 25,000.  With a few more big-money concussion lawsuits, and a few more high profile injuries and even deaths, the number of schools dropping football will only increase.

I think Russell’s right on this.  I really enjoy watching football, but you simply can’t ignore the fact that, in seemingly every professional game, players are carted off the field or are being given concussion examinations.  The injury impact on college ball isn’t quite as bad, but with the ever-greater emphasis on strength and conditioning and increasing speed more devastating hits, and more resulting injuries, are inevitable.  So what do you do?  Prevent super-big, super-fast guys from playing?  Blame the protective gear that can be weaponized — like plastic helmets — and go back to the leatherhead days?

If you like football, the reality might be:  enjoy it while it lasts.

Wussifying Football

In the first quarter of today’s Ohio State-Iowa game, an Iowa receiver caught a pass on a crossing pattern and got drilled in the chest by Buckeye defensive back Bradley Roby.  The Iowa receiver, to his credit, held on to the ball.

The officials dropped a flag.  They ended up calling a “targeting” penalty on Roby for what certainly looked to me like a clean, if hard, hit, and then ejected Roby from the game.  The explanation for the penalty is that a receiver who catches the ball is “defenseless” and shouldn’t be drilled.

Huh?  This is, or was, football.  The game is all about hard hits.  I’m not in favor of headhunting, or spearing someone who is on the ground, or clothes-lining a receiver in the neck, but Roby’s hit was a classic football hit — shoulder to chest, trying to jar the ball loose.  The fact that Roby was not only penalized, but in fact ejected from the game, for such a hit tells me that the game is changing, and not for the better.

At last week’s Browns’ game we saw a similar call.  As the Lions were driving for a score to try to put the game away, a Browns player hit the Lions QB in the chest just as the ball was released.  The pass was incomplete, but the Browns were called for an unnecessary roughness penalty, and the game was over.

I’m sure these rules changes are being made, at least in part, in order to protect players and to avoid the concussions that have plagued football at every level.  I also suspect, however, that the motivation, at least in part, is to favor the offense.  In the Ohio State game today, one Iowa running back typically put his head down and used his helmet to try to batter the would-be tacklers.  It’s a time-honored football technique — but why should the offensive player be able to lead with his head when a defensive player can’t?

We may be heading toward a day when every football game is a 52-49 affair and offenses move up and down the field to the delight of offensive-minded fans.  If that happens, it’s too bad — because it’s not really football.  I’m hoping that the officials in charge of devising new penalties avoid wussifying football to the point where the sport isn’t really recognizable any more.

Heading Toward A Settlement

On the eve of the 2013 regular season, the National Football League and lawyers representing certain players have reached a preliminary settlement of claims concerning concussions and other head injuries.

The player lawsuits alleged that the NFL had hid information about the effect and potential dangers of head trauma.  In the proposed settlement, the NFL doesn’t admit any liability, but agrees to pay $765 million.  The money will be spread among more than 4,500 players and payments of the money will be made over 20 years, with half of the settlement proceeds being paid in the first three years.

According to the New York Times story linked above, the NFL makes about $10 billion a year, so the payment of $765 million over 20 years — while not exactly chump change — is likely to be only a tiny fraction of the League’s revenue during that time period.  The players, however, get certainty and immediacy, rather than the prospect of continued litigation over the next few years and an uncertain result, which is important if you are battling neurological problem or other issues that you claim were caused by concussions you received during your NFL career.  On the other hand the NFL, which is the most PR-savvy of the professional sports leagues, avoids the sad and unseemly spectacle of crippled and addled former star players parading before a jury to show the degree of their mental injuries.

The American public loves football and loves the big, bone-jarring hits that the NFL provides; it’s why the NFL is easily the most popular sport in the country.  Those who played the game received lucrative salaries and adulation, but paid a high price.  It’s very troubling to see men who were once premier athletes hobbled, mentally and physically, to the point where they cannot walk unaided or remember what they have done during the day.  I’m not sure that any amount of money is really adequate compensation for what those men have lost.

The High Cost Of Sports Stardom

The New York Times has an interesting article about a number of lawsuits filed by former players against the National Football League and helmet manufacturers.

The lawsuits deal with whether the NFL knew, or should have known, about the effects of repeated blows to the head on athletes.  The article quotes one of the lawyers for the players as arguing that the consequences of multiple concussions — including dementia, disorientation, memory loss, and anger control issues — were well documented.  Counsel for the NFL responds that the League makes player safety a priority and has never misled players.

I never played competitive football, and I can’t imagine what it would be like to have one concussion, much less several.  And if you know anyone who played high-level football, you’ve likely seen the general bodily wear and tear the game imposes — from gimpy walks to scarred legs to gnarled, misshapen fingers.  Regardless of the outcome, the lawsuits should remind everyone that those crushing hits that we cheer on Sundays come at a cost for the human beings inside the uniforms.