It seems like the NFL cannot catch a break. On Saturday, December 1st, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher buried nine bullets in the body of his girlfriend and daughter's mother, then drove to Arrowhead Stadium and in front of head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli, put another gun to his head and pulled the trigger. In the early hours of Saturday morning, it was the Dallas Cowboys who were struck by tragedy. Josh Brent, allegedly intoxicated, hit a curb, and the car he was driving flipped. His passenger, teammate Jerry Brown was dead, and Brent has now been charged with vehicular manslaughter.
While the scope of tragedy isn't likely to be as intense, acute, or damaging as it has been recently, disasters are not something new to the modern NFL. We had Junior Seau, a beacon of life and energy, commit suicide last spring. We had BountyGate, an program run by the defense of the New Orleans Saints, where players where paid for injuring other players in a scheme that was closer in representation to the mafia collecting a debt than professionals playing a game.
Every day in the NFL, we are faced with players who are losing their memory, battling dementia, depression, their lives quickly sliding away. We see the origin of misery on the field each Sunday, earth-shattering hits by earth-defyingly strong players. We see heads jarred, and legs twisted, and carts on the field to take the carnage away. For the most part, for a long time, we've been able to turn the other cheek and focus on the part of the game of football that remains a game. But how much longer can we ignore the creeping violence, the immanent danger, and the understanding that us watching the NFL are subscribing to a business where lives are ruined?
I don't want to use hyperbole, or exaggerate when talking about an issue as serious as what is being discussed here, and I understand that playing football is a choice that people make knowing the risks related. But this isn't about the players. It's about the fans. After all, the fans control the money, and money controls business, and there is no better business in sports right now than the National Football League.
The NFL is at the height of its powers, quite possibly, the peak of its popularity. There is more money, more media coverage, more fan interest, more eyeballs and more thoughts concerning the NFL than any other sport – and it's not even close. The NFL is America's league, and pretty much everyone in America has bought in. The brand of football in the NFL has grown more exciting with, interestingly, rule changes protecting quarterbacks and offenses resulting in more points, more thrills, and more intrigue for the average fan on Sunday. Great players, great teams, great tradition and culture are all around the league.
But there was a time when boxing was our favorite past-time, and while the sport still has a following in the US, it's a profession on life support. Most people are entertained by boxing, but there is no broadcast or even cable TV coverage of the sport and no zero mainstream following outside of big fight-nights. Why? We've come to feel that boxing is revoltingly and shockingly violent. In the time of Ali, Frasier and Forman we knew boxing was violent, but we were able to look past the obvious risks of fighting because the sport was entertaining. Then, somewhere along the line, a generation decided that putting two men in a ring and having them prowl around and punch each other until one man could no longer stand was disgusting, inhumane, a sport for cavemen more than well-to-do society. Boxing has had many other problems since its heyday, but violence is the number one reason the sport has fallen out of the mainstream.
It's hard to know when that turn will be taken, from violent-but-entertaining, to just too violent. The NFL has more support than boxing ever did, and I'm not suggesting the situations of the two sports are similar at all except they are both extremely violent and dangerous. Certainly, the NFL is in a precarious position. There is going to be a time, I would guess soon, where a player will die on the football field, during play. We've seen players paralyzed time after time, and one day, on national TV, a big, big name player will die. Then what? How, in good faith, will we keep watching football, without that image of a body superglued to the back of our collective minds?
The NFL has lawsuits galore hanging over its head from former players crippled by concussions they say the league concealed from them. The league is taking body-blows left and right from player tragedies, and we're ignoring and enjoying our football. We grieve for the players, of course, but we don't stop watching the game. You may say Belcher and Brown's deaths were not related to football. You may be right. But while Macho Camacho's murder wasn't related to boxing, there is no doubt that what the boxer was apparently killed over and the sport that embodies were not directly related and affected to the death itself.
The NFL, with players who are bigger and stronger and run faster and hit harder than college players do, is in trouble. It's on the horizon. We can ignore for so long, for something we love, but something will happen to bring the public past the point of no return with the NFL. In the early part of this decade, we had highlight shows and watched replays of huge hits again and again and again. Now, we barely recognize the big hits, gloss over them. We'd rather see touchdowns and interceptions these days than the bone-crunching hit on the slot receiver by the safety over the middle. I love football, and I've grown up with modern football, the kind where rules have been changed to stop injuries. My generation likes points more than hits. That seems to be the direction the sports world is going. And that's a good thing.
The league is trying to save its players and, in the long run, itself. The NFL has done a great job with its zero tolerance policy for late hits and hits to the head, but the NFL can't escape the fact that on each play, finely tuned physical specimens are colliding with other finely tuned physical specimens, and explosions are happening. All over the field. Time after time after time. It kills the brain. It shreds the body. The players will keep playing. When do we stop watching?
Maybe never. Maybe the league adapts, and the game adapts, and reinvents itself. But I don't see it. Less violent sports, like basketball and soccer, are making themselves forces in the 21st century. Football is still king. But its throne is on death alert. I don't know the timeline for the implosion of the NFL. I don't know if there will be an implosion. It's impossible to predict the future of the NFL. The only thing we know is we don't know where this sport where this sport will be in 20 years. It could still be thriving. Or it could be gone. I see the violence, and the effects of that violence. But I can't say what it means yet. And that's the scariest thing you can say for a business like the NFL.