For a sports league of normal vulnerability, the recent barrage of public-relations disasters being absorbed by the NFL would have caused mass hysteria in the boardrooms, and a massive backlash from the fan base.
But for the bulletproof NFL, it seems that every breaking scandal just adds to the titillation factor and pumps up the ratings even higher. It seems like nothing can cut into the runaway popularity of the sport — and goodness knows, that perception is being put to a severe test.
I don’t even know where to start, but how about with the release last month of the book, “League of Denial,’’ and accompanying “Frontline” documentary, which details evidence of NFL knowledge, and cover-up, of concussion dangers.
Couple that with the latest revelation last week of a star ex-player suffering from the debilitating effects of the progressive degenerative brain disease Chronic Encephalopathy (CTE), in this case Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett. As so many other former players have revealed, Dorsett is dealing with memory loss (Brett Favre told a radio station recently he can’t remember his daughter’s soccer games), and mood swings that have led him to contemplate suicide. Dave Duerson and Junior Seau, among other CTE sufferers, did more than contemplate.
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There was Miami Dolphins center Mike Pouncey being served with a grand jury subpoena in late October, which Sports Illustrated and other media outlets said was related to the investigation into Aaron Hernandez. You know, the Patriots’ All-Pro tight end being charged with first-degree murder.
And, of course, the capper: the ongoing soap opera in Miami, where Pouncey’s offensive-line buddy Richie Incognito is defending himself against charges that he bullied teammate Jonathan Martin — complete with threatening and racially charged text messages — to the point that Martin left the team and checked into a hospital for emotional distress.
I’ve spent the past 25 years primarily covering a league, Major League Baseball, that has seen its popularity severely compromised by two major issues: A work stoppage (that’s now nearly 20 years old) resulting in the cancellation of the World Series, and a PED scandal that has resulted in imposition of the toughest drug-testing policy in any of the major sports.
Baseball has other problems, of course, but nothing of the magnitude of pro football, which in short order has dealt with a star player who brutally abused dogs, a cheating incident involving a multiple Super Bowl-winning coach, and another Super Bowl-winning coach being suspended a year in the wake of charges that his players were offered cash bounties to injure opponents.
That’s on top of the other stuff I mentioned earlier, plus a steady stream of its own PED violations. Yet, if you asked fans which league is under crisis, I’d bet most would say baseball.
No one seems to care very much about any of these NFL revelations. More accurately, while there is a general empathy for all the players who are experiencing the gruesome aftermath of years of brutal collisions, it hasn’t quelled the bloodlust for a spectacle that hits all our hot buttons.
NFL football is violent and fast, with graceful athleticism on constant display along with the bone-crushing hits. As with NASCAR, the danger is part of the appeal. And the Incognito reality show, while abhorrent in certain respects, also is undeniably compelling. As Sean Healey, who runs a corporate communications firm, told NBC, “It’s almost impolitic to say it, but it’s only intensified interest in the sport. To me, it just illustrates how popular an institution this is. And gets people excited once the games start again.”
The NFL has two secret weapons ensuring its ongoing popularity — betting and fantasy. They both exist in baseball and other sports, of course, but nowhere near to the extent of pro football. Those two elements ensure an ardent interest in even the most seemingly trivial games. I’m going to pay attention to Monday’s Dolphins-Bucs matchup, the very definition of a meaningless game, because I’m starting the Tampa Bay tight end on my fantasy team — and so will both my daughters, each of whom are in leagues. My son’s in three.
That’s not to say the NFL will stay blessed forever. The concussion issue, in particular, is one that poses a grave threat to its ongoing place in the sports hierarchy. It’s why commissioner Roger Goodell is right to prioritize player safety, even if the cynical would say it’s being done more to cushion the NFL’s legal liability than out of a sincere desire to protect its players.
The scary reality is that the players are getting so superhumanly big and fast and strong that there might be no way to legislate safety, no matter how much we change the tackling rules and improve the equipment. And as the public continues to get hammered with the terrible consequences of concussions, the crisis will manifest itself via kids simply declining to play football.
There was a telling moment in the “Frontline” documentary when Dr. Bennett Omalu, who was at the forefront of studying CTE, claimed that an NFL team doctor warned him to back off. He said the doctor told him, “Bennett, do you know the implications of what you’re doing? If 10 percent of mothers in this country would begin to perceive football as a dangerous sport, that’s the end of football.’’
That backlash might indeed be down the road. But for now, even as the latest NFL scandal continues to percolate, the fans of America are speaking loudly and clearly: Pass the chips, and turn on the football game.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry