I wish the NFL would just say it, out loud and in uncomplicated terms, if only so we can feel like they respect us enough to speak obvious truths: Football is unavoidably dangerous. They won't, of course, because admitting you know something you've been playing dumb about for decades is a shaky legal strategy, even when you're not already being sued by thousands of former employees on the reasonable assumption that your league probably isn't run be extremely successful businesspeople who are also completely oblivious.
The truth is damning and probably expensive, so the NFL arrogantly attempts to obscure it, using Costanza's old denial trick: It's not a lie if you believe it. The league's success is owed in part to its unwillingness to compromise -- the way it devours athletes like a fire does coal, the way it dictates to its customers the terms upon which its product will be consumed --which perhaps emboldens its executives to the point they believe they can hide an elephant with a handkerchief. But, um, we can see the elephant and can only assume you think we are stupid.
As a fan of the NFL -- specifically, the part where amazing athletes do amazing things each week, and almost none of the other parts -- I would prefer that we were intellectually honest about what happens every Sunday. Athletes destroy their bodies for our amusement. Beer companies try to sell us their product using talking dogs and gay panic. Dan Dierdorf makes some sounds that might not fall under even the broadest definition of spoken language. Chevy attempts to imbue a hunk of metal and rubber with a sense of solemnity. Silly machismo abounds. A bald eagle majestically navigates a series of explosions. Some of us switch over to hard liquor around the time Rodney Harrison starts talking.
All of this makes us queasy. We wish most of it would change and know it won't, but we're mostly unperturbed. We do things that hurt us and our fellow human beings all the time. We put up with a lot. I'm insulted that the NFL doesn't seem to respect my impressive capacity for shame and rationalization.
In keeping with their negligent, passive-aggressive landlord routine, the NFL -- I assume in response to a rash of knee injuries in the preseason -- recently claimed they will look into hits below the knees. Chief of football operations Ray Anderson stated that "We are always looking at plays that may elevate themselves, and we do include in that category hits on defenseless players ... We have had a couple hits whereby a player was hit below [or at] the knees." As 200-pound Steelers safety Ryan Clark points out, if he's got a 220-pound running back or 240-pound tight end hurtling towards him, the guy's going to be really difficult to stop if Clark can't go low. He might not pause to see if the man he's trying to get onto the ground is looking directly at him. He might tear up his competitor's knee or ankle in the process. That is, as they say, just a football play.
Clark also says some of the predictable things about how the NFL is making his job impossible and might as well just institute flag football rules. All of the stuff Clark says is true, while the garbled double-talk the NFL uses is purposefully not false. If you really want specifics on the matter, Patrick Hruby went long on the issue this past spring. Through talking to players and pointing out the silliness of the NFL's various supposedly safety-promoting rule changes, Hruby sketches out in detail what is readily apparent: Pain is the body telling you something is wrong, and the way NFL players slam into one another each week is painful. You can legislate all you want; until the NFL actually does become a flag football league, some players are going to suffer injuries, both severe and minor-seeming, that will eventually cripple or kill them.
When the NFL throws up barriers and pretends not to understand these things, they only further imperil their labor force. The NFLPA and NFL brass could sit down tomorrow and begin a series of talks about how the whole employer-employee relationship should work, in light of what the NFL obviously knows already, and what the public is coming to understand about the way football wrecks an athlete's body. Instead of facetiously claiming they can make football as safe as, say, basketball or baseball, the league could acknowledge the inherent risk of playing the sport. Hell, they probably know better than anyone precisely how dangerous it is, and they could illustrate it with charts and infographics in history's saddest PowerPoint presentation. They could, in concert with the players, figure out what the information they have means, on both a philosophical and a practical level.
What rules actually do make the game a little safer? What about establishing better mid- and late-life healthcare? How can we take care of the families of retired football players? What is a player owed, exactly, when he enters into a contract with an NFL team? Knowing the most we can about the effect of concussions -- and just the overall wear and tear a player undergoes over the course of an NFL career -- is the only way we can help them, and the only way that we can answer a lot of those questions.
It's almost as if the NFL wants to forestall that question-answering process as long as possible. It can't possibly be that this is motivated by greed and ego, because those are piddling concerns when compared to the wellbeing of an actual human being upon whose crippled back you turn the most lucrative profits in sports.
So what we get, instead of meaningful engagement with the issue at hand, is an NFL exec "looking into" something or other, in exactly the same way a slumlord building owner "looks into" fixing a bedbug infestation. It's bureaucratese for "whatever," and it's another opportunity for the NFL to look superficially like they care about what happens to players. It's another steadfast refusal to admit that there are no best-case scenarios, only less worse ones. If you want to minimize the amount of blows to the head and neck, you have to deal with an increase in lower-body injuries, which means more players than usual on the IR with season-ending ligament tears. This is a concept that can be grasped with even the most basic understanding of how bodies and collisions work, and it's perhaps a sign that the NFL is running out of rhetorical boulders to cower behind.
I don't know what the implications will be when the NFL finally is compelled to come clean. Those outrageous profit margins aren't going to look good, since it won't allow them to claim they couldn't spend more money on research or retirement benefits for players. If Sean Conboy's excellent piece for Deadspin on how the league sanctioned players putting kevlar in the helmets is any indication, some egregiously shield-tarnishing stuff will come to light. The thing about keeping secrets locked in a vault for decades is, you look like a horrible, craven organization when the public finally glimpses those contents.
The conversation that's going to happen in the future, where the NFL and NFLPA reevaluate the parameters of their relationship in light of unequivocal facts, might help the players tremendously. I hope, because I want to believe there's even the scantest bit of justice in the universe, that the two sides will determine that playing football is not a good idea, but that players are allowed to participate as long as they know the risks, and the league and player's association will look after them as best they can. But speculating on how this sort of thing will go is a fool's errand, because we still haven't even reached step one. The NFL still hasn't spoken the truth, out loud and in uncomplicated terms. The longer they pretend not to know, the more contemptible they appear.