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.

The N-Word

Today’s Washington Post has a long, thoughtful piece on the “n-word” — the most hateful, racially charged word in the English language.  It’s worth reading in full.  And here is the uncomfortable issue that the article explores:  can the n-word, which in its a-ending form has become increasingly prevalent in youth culture, be redefined and eventually stripped of its racist connotations, or should the use of the word, in any variation, just be stopped?

This year the National Football League has empowered referees to penalize teams whose players use the n-word.  It’s the NFL’s response to several recent incidents with racial overtones — but the decision to penalize the use of the word has been criticized by many players as out of touch with the common use of the word among younger people of different races.  Indeed, internet search engines indicate that, in its a-ending form, the n-word is used 500,000 times a day on Twitter.  The resurgence of the n-word among young people is often attributed to hip-hop culture, where the word is commonly used in the lyrics, and even the titles, of popular songs.  The Post article recounts a story about a recent Kanye West concert where the performer gave white concertgoers permission to say the word as they sang along with his songs, and they did so.

I don’t listen to hip-hop music, and I was unaware of the extent to which the n-word has been reintroduced in the vernacular of the younger generation.  I think that development is very troubling and unfortunate.  I don’t think American culture should follow the lead of rappers in the use of the n-word any more than it should in adopting the misogynistic, twerking, gunfire-at-every-party elements of hip-hop culture, either.

There is a generational element to this issue; for those of us who grew up during the days of the Civil Rights marches and police dogs being unleashed to attack peaceful protesters, the n-word is unforgivable.  I don’t care if a hip-hop artist gives me permission to say it.  I won’t use the word because I don’t want to be linked in any way to the brutal racists of the past, and I do not believe that — changed ending or not — the word can ever be sanitized and divorced from its violent, terrible roots.

So put me in the NFL’s camp on this one.  It may prove to be impossible to stop the use of the n-word, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.  Young people should be educated about why the word is so hurtful and discouraged from using it.  I agree with Denyce Graves, the terrific opera singer, who is quoted in the Post article as saying:  “I know we will never be rid of this word, [but] I would love to see it just vanish.”  I say, let it die.

The Bloodied NFL Shield

The season hasn’t exactly gotten off to a roaring start for the National Football League. With the release of the infamous Ray Rice elevator video, questions about whether the NFL properly investigated the Rice incident and treated other domestic violence incidents with the seriousness, concern and respect they deserve, and more recently the disclosures about Adrian Peterson’s treatment of his son, the NFL has been battered by bad news.

And now the unthinkable has happened: advertisers like McDonald’s, Anheuser-Busch, and Visa, that previously lined up and paid through the nose to associate themselves with the NFL’s familiar red, white, and blue shield logo, are expressing concern about the League. Nothing is more certain to get the attention of the marketing-driven, multimillionaire NFL owners than the possible loss of ad revenue.

It’s got to be a shock to the NFL, which for years has enjoyed bulletproof status as the most popular sport in America, with a Commissioner ranked as the most powerful figure in sports. Maybe the NFL had a bit of hubris about its position in American society, or maybe it figured that the advertisers, fans, and Super Bowl viewers who love to watch huge men crashing into each other with bone-jarring violence on Sunday afternoon wouldn’t be too troubled by if some of those huge men occasionally engaged in a little domestic violence on the side.

This time, the NFL figured wrong. For every fan who wears a Ray Rice jersey as a sign of support for a guy who cold-cocked his now-wife in a casino, there are countless others, male and female, who are starting to wonder: who are these guys, really? And, more troubling, what has the NFL done to shield them from the consequences of their actions?

NFL Overhype Overload

Could the National Football League be any more overhyped than it now is?  It’s got it’s own year-round network.  It’s fodder for talk radio chatter every day, regardless of season.  Even the NFL combine, when prospects just run drills for a collective group of scouts, gets breathless coverage and instant analysis.

But the annual NFL draft always seems to reach new heights of overhype.  After all, it’s just the mechanism by which NFL teams select new players.  It doesn’t involve anyone playing a game, throwing a pass, or making a hit. Once it was done in a day, in a private room in New York City, without any TV coverage. Now it’s a glittering event, stretched out over three days, conducted live on America’s principal sports network in front of reporters and fans, with newly drafted players trotted out in front of the cameras and prominent players waiting to hear their fate made the subject of endless speculation.  Sports commentators talk about the draft and what teams might do for weeks beforehand, experts perform pointless “mock drafts” and those fake drafts get discussed ad nauseum, and the experts and commentators then criticize the selections the teams do make — all before any player even plays a down.  It’s absurd.

If you’re the NBA or the NHL, you’ve got to be shaking your heads.  You’re in the midst of your playoffs — the most important event in your season — and you’re knocked to the back pages and end of broadcast video clips by the NFL’s mere draft.  What could be a better illustration of the NFL’s popularity dominance?

I’ve long since grown sick of hearing about the NFL draft and wouldn’t watch it, and I’ve started to hear other sports fans say the same thing.  Could it possibly be that the NFL hype machine has gone too far, and people are starting to react to the overload?

Oh, To Win The First Game

Next Sunday, I’ll be up in Cleveland to watch the Browns play their first game of the season.  They’ll match up against the Miami Dolphins, and I’m expecting a Browns loss.  It’s not because the Dolphins are world-beaters — last year they were a mediocre 7-9 — but rather it’s because the Browns always lose their first game.

It’s astonishing, really.  Since the Browns have come back into the NFL in 1999, they’ve consistently flubbed their first game.  In those 14 years, their opening game record is 1-13.  They haven’t won their opener since the first term of the Bush Administration.  Betting that the Browns will somehow find a way to lose their first game is one of the safest bets in sports.  Other teams recognize this fact and relentlessly lobby NFL schedule-makers to let them play the Browns the first week in the season.  Last year, for example, the Browns offense was inept and the defense finally buckled and gave up the winning score against the awful Philadelphia Eagles. It put the team on the road to an 0-5 start and an early exit from playoff contention.

I’m not expecting a better result this year.  The Browns have no depth at running back and their offensive line seems incapable of effective run blocking.  You have to score to win, and that means the Browns are counting on QB Brandon Weedon to make plays.  Given Weedon’s iffy play last year, that approach doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.  The fact that the Browns just cut a bunch of players and picked up a slew of castoffs from the waiver wire also doesn’t say anything good about the team — although it might just mean their coaches and front office recognize the talent deficiency on the team.

I’ll enjoy watching the games with Russell this year but I’m not going to believe things have changed — unless the Browns somehow figure out how to win that first game.

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.

A Brown New Year

Last year was an even year, so it was inevitable that the “new” Browns would fire their head coach.  After all, it happened in 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2010.  And, sure enough, yesterday the Browns gave the boot to Perplexed Pat Shurmur as well as General Manager Tom Heckert.

I’m not defending Shurmur.  His record stank — 9-23 is putrid even by the awful standards the Browns have achieved since they returned to the league in 1999 — and I thought he was overmatched by head coaching duties.  Shurmur’s bad game management decisions, weird use of personnel, and other failings showed he just does not have the unique skill set that successful NFL head coaches possess.  This season’s end-of-the-year collapse sealed his fate.

I’m sorry to see Heckert go, however.  He seemed to have a good eye for spotting NFL-grade talent — and, as the Browns’ laughable draft performance since 1999 shows, that’s not a capability to be sniffed at.  Thanks to Heckert, the Browns are stocked with a number of young players who look like they have real potential.  The Browns obviously are missing a few pieces, but progress on the personnel front definitely was made.  I don’t think Heckert will be easy to replace.

Mostly, though, I greeted the story about the Browns’ housecleaning with a shrug.  It’s hard to care passionately about the Browns, with their consistently bad performance, perennial late-season stumbles, and constant coaching changes.  The Browns organization demands a lot from the team’s loyal fan base and never delivers any reward.  It’s exhausting and deeply frustrating to be a Browns Backer, and it’s hard to maintain the necessary level of commitment.

Every few years the Browns franchise brings in a new regime, promises dramatic improvement, and then repeats its past failures.  The Browns’ new owner, Jimmy Haslam, promises a careful search for a new coach and GM who will establish stability and bring long-term success.  I’m not going to get too excited about it.  I’m tired of new hires that are oversold as saviors; I just want some competent hard-working people who will stop my team from being viewed as the punch line to a league-wide joke.