The following statements should not be controversial.
Roger Goodell does not dream of ruling the NFL from a throne built from the skulls of dead players. He does not hate his employees and would not willingly send them to a slaughterhouse just to consolidate power or increase revenues by 0.5 percent. He cares at least as much about the welfare of current and former employees as most captains of industry -- perhaps not as much as he should, nor as much as we would like, but more than the comic book villain he is caricatured as.
Concussions are serious injuries that require proper medical attention and treatment, but they are not zombie bites that automatically turn victims into slobbering drones with no hope of recovery.
Youth and high school football, violent games that can cause tragic injuries, are not a plague that turns generations of youngsters into cripples with severe mental impairments. If they were, we probably would have noticed in the last 60 years or so.
While some NFL players succumb to the temptation of HGH and other performance enhancers, pregame rituals do not include players shooting up like Drago from Rocky IV, then ripping urinals from the walls in steroid-fueled fury. The players' union is not delaying HGH testing to protect players with track marks up and down their arms anymore than your local teachers' union is demanding yachts and private jets.
Football has gotten safer in the last 10 years. The NFL's policies toward current and retired players have gotten better in the last 10 years. The NFL and other institutions are headed in the right direction, very belatedly, more slowly than we might prefer, but they are moving.
Football is a major industry with major issues, like every other major industry. It is a part of American life that brings a scary dose of bad with its good, like every other part of American life. But "Football in Peril" is a headline, and football, the unsalvageable scourge on our society is parlor talk. Football is not the root of all evil. It is in danger of neither abolishment nor a mass exodus of fans and potential participants.
This is not an exoneration of the bad things that the NFL has done. It is not a sugar-coating of health risks. It is, however, a heavy brake-pumping on the overheated, sensationalized and lazy football bashing. It's a reminder that the events in League of Denial are what really happened, but they are not what is currently happening. It's a reminder that "football problems" are largely "America problems" in shoulder pads.
This essay is a dose of realistic optimism. Football may be steering itself in the right direction. Loving football does not make you a bad person. If that sounds controversial, it is only because it isn't fashionable to feel that way right now.
Part I: The Concussion Conundrum
There is no answer to football's concussion question.
High-tech helmets will not answer the concussion question. The simple physics of the concussion -- something we have only come to really comprehend in the last decade or so -- dictates that the forces involved are rotational, not linear. The whip of the player's neck provides the acceleration, not the impact with another player or the ground. Short of fusing skull to spine with some kind of Iron Man armor (which would just pose other risks), newfangled helmets can do only a little bit of good. They can provide a little more cushion. They can become lighter, which reduces fatigue, which reduces sloppy biomechanics. They can continue to do what they have always done: prevent cataclysmic skull-crushing injuries. But they cannot answer the concussion question.
Better practice procedures will not answer the concussion question. Coaches have eliminated some drills, shortened others and reimagined a few to emphasize safer techniques. At the youth level, violent head-on drills like the kinds we ran as kids are being eliminated; coaches are beginning to realize how little they actually had to do with real football, anyway. Sixty-two percent of youth sports injuries occur during practices, and college and professional players, coaches and unions know that practices must be regulated as closely as games. The amount of contact and collision during NFL practices has declined drastically in the last 20 years, and the trickle down to lower levels is beginning. Still, there will always be practices with pads, always be one-on-ones between fullbacks and linebackers, always be concussions and CTE-level impact, plus sprains, tears and dehydration. Practice procedures cannot answer the concussion question.
Rule changes will not answer the concussion question. The NFL penalizes head shots over the middle, fines players who lead with the helmet and juggles the rules each year in search of a system that allows forceful tackles while eliminating injurious ones. The NCAA, God bless them, kicks kids whose head may have dropped a bit while making an open-field tackle straight out of the game; they probably shut off the meal card and chuck the kid's stereo out of the dormitory window for the second offense. Anyone who watches a game can see the mish-mash of problems these rules cause. The NFL will never find an ideal rule system for roughness fouls and helmet shots, and it will veer all over the road for years until it finds a workable lane. The new rules have moved the barrier well back from the clothesline-and-hacksaw days of the 1970s. They have raised awareness, forced coaches to act and sent the "break his neck" crowd scurrying for rhetorical cover. They have certainly prevented a lot of injuries that would have occurred if Jack Tatum and Andre Waters still plied their trade the old way, including the self-inflicted injures that killed Waters. But rule changes cannot answer the concussion question.
Protocols and post-concussion treatments cannot answer the concussion question. Sideline concussion tests are imperfect, and there will always be the temptation for coaches (and players) to lie or fudge their way out of game/livelihood threatening tests. Proper rest is the only treatment for a concussion, and it's an effective one, but the risks of multiple concussions and low-level CTE traumas remain. And of course, the treatments kick in only after the injuries. Many concussions have been diagnosed in the past two years that would have been labeled as "got his bell rung" five or 10 years ago. Hundreds of players missed games that they would have returned to before the protocols. Superstars were sidelined for weeks, some of them very reluctantly. The system is far better than the non-system it replaced, though it can still be improved. It will never be perfect, and it will never answer the concussion question.
Better health care and settlements for retired players cannot answer the concussion question. Nor will outreach programs, counseling or any other effort to improve the lots of retired players with CTE symptoms and other infirmities. The barn door was open for too long. All of the money in the world will not make the permanently injured whole again. The NFL's class-action settlement -- which will eventually be approved, in some form not too different than the current one -- will provide financial relief to thousands of players, and it will institute better procedures for connecting players with the benefits and resources they need. But retired players will still slip through the cracks or receive less than they deserve for their sacrifices. And of course, all of the protocols listed above will not stop future retirees from suffering life-shattering afflictions, though each in its turn may lessen the totals. Lawsuits and settlements will never answer the concussion question.
There is no answer to the concussion question. But wait, what if there are multiple partial answers? What if better helmets, better practices, better rules, better diagnosis, better rest and treatment and better safety nets, established at the Pop Warner-through-NFL levels, nibble at the problem from each direction? Could they all be one combined answer to the concussion question?
Wait, what is "the concussion question?"
Is it how do we ensure that no football player ever suffers a concussion again, retroactively heal every player from 1920 through 2010 and lock Roger Goodell in stocks in the middle of Central Park until he admits he is a cruel bastard and renounces football for nondenominational missionary work? Or is it how to we manage and minimize the risks associated with the football industry?
There is no answer whatsoever to the first question. The NFL has provided several partial answers to the second. All are imperfect, self-serving and over-promoted as solutions. At the same time, none of them are the bullsnot they are criticized for being when they are isolated and scoffed at.
The NFL and lower level organizations must keep improving concussion prevention and management programs. They must strive for 100-percent compliance in the existing programs. A fair settlement must be made to help as many retired players as possible. But we also need to let the current procedures take effect over a few years. As of now, we are using the evidence of the past to condemn the present. It's like blaming a new president for past problems on the day after inauguration.
The next time Goodell points to the league's numerous attempts to minimize concussions, perhaps we should do more than write his words off as self-serving propaganda by a captain of industry covering his ass. His words are exactly that. But maybe, just maybe, the efforts are actually legitimate.
If they improve equipment, reduce impacts, outlaw the most dangerous behaviors, improve diagnoses, mandate treatments, raise understanding at all levels and provide financial relief when all else fails, how can they not be?
Part II: For God's Sake Think of the Children
My son, then 9 years old, took a fastball to the side of the head two years ago and crumpled to the ground. He was playing organized youth baseball at the kid-pitch level. You know the deal: The big kid who throws hardest is the pitcher. He learns control on the job. Everyone else learns to get out of the way.
My son was OK. He wore the basic batting helmet from the sporting goods store. To the best of my knowledge, no team of researchers had spent years testing and refining it to make it lighter, more torque resistant or reflective of the most up-to-date medical and scientific research. It looked and felt like the ones I wore in 1978. At least it fit: Some of the other kids wore the helmets the league provided, which wobbled on the heads of the smaller kids.
In phys-ed basketball this year, my son and a classmate chased a loose ball out of pounds. Plunkety-plunk, two unprotected skulls collided, two preadolescent bodies slammed into the hardwood. The school nurse, a properly trained professional, contacted me, ran my son through a basic battery of concussion tests, found no cause for immediate alarm, gave him an ice pack and a medical excuse from his noisy music class and called me again.
My son had a mild headache but a black belt candidate's class that night. We took some ibuprofen and gutted through it. This decision makes me neither the best father on earth nor the worst, simply a representative sample of the real parents making real decisions about non-theoretical children participating in everyday sporting activities.
In other words, BREAKING NEWS: It is possible for children to incur injuries, including head injuries, without playing football.
Roger Goodell spoke with parents at a Football Moms Safety Clinic in October. He discussed concussion symptoms and explained drills and procedures designed to reduce injury risks. Elizabeth Pieroth, a neuropsychologist who consults with several Chicago sports teams, also talked about concussions. At no time did anyone suggest that football was a 100 percent safe activity or that there was no need for alarm. The advice offered was simple common sense. "Basically, breathe and have an open conversation with anybody involved in your kids' development, whether it's coaches, teachers," advised Diane Long, wife of Howie and mother of Chris and Kyle. "Nothing is different between the academics and the athletics. It's just, 'Be aware.'"
You probably read about this event in some opinion piece headlined Roger Goodell Lies to Mothers, Claims Football is Safe. Apparently, the NFL is so terrified that there will be no players available in the year 2030 that the commissioner is going door-to-door, asking mothers to toss their children into a sausage grinder so he can enjoy future breakfasts.
Football is a dangerous part of dangerous childhood. Here are some recent injury statistics for children aged 5 through 14, compiled by the American Association of Pediatricians and cited on numerous children's hospital websites:
Football: 194,000 emergency room visits per year.
Baseball: 117,000. Direct quote: "Baseball also has the highest fatality rate among sports for children ages 5 to 14, with three to four children dying from baseball injuries each year."
Skateboarding: 61,000. Another quote: "The majority of head injuries sustained in sports or recreational activities occur during bicycling, skateboarding or skating incidents."
And then there is the backyard pool, of course: 1,027 children under age 19 drowned in 2010, roughly three-fourths of them at home.
This old mathematician can see all the fudge and distortions in those numbers. Some of the data above is a decade old. Participation rates in sports like baseball and basketball, not to mention activities like cycling, are much higher than for football. Severe injuries are more common in football than in most of the other sports. Football is more dangerous than basketball and baseball, and we have known that for well over 100 years.
What the statistics do not bear out is some qualitative difference regarding the dangers of football, as opposed to basketball, football, wrestling, hockey or soccer, or letting the kids romp in the backyard with trampolines, diving boards and skate ramps. That's what the football world is pushing back against -- not the obvious reality that a violent sport must evolve with evolving awareness of health risks, but the runaway perception that allowing your child to play football is some form of child abuse, while all other sports remain risk-free character building activities. It's an Oprah Winfrey "I'll never touch another hamburger" narrative, not a serious discussion of health risks.
One important football risk is missing from the data above, and it may skew the results. Even the oldest-school dad can spot a severely swollen ankle, and he knows to rush his kid to the emergency room. But few of us understood the signs and risks of concussions when we were younger and told to shake off that ringing sound. So concussions still go undetected, and parents need to understand the risks, know the symptoms, recognize that a hospital visit may be necessary and understand when to be cautious.
Wait, isn't that essentially what Goodell and his staff told those parents in October? As crass public relations moves go, that one hews pretty close to actual corporate responsibility.
Goodell and others sometimes go too far in minimizing the risks of football, but they are the only stewards of any sport that we ever hear acknowledging them. If I were to disengage critical thought and base my parental decisions solely on media saturation, I would be convinced that the only threats to my children's safety were football, pedophiles and that awful, poisonous gluten. Everything else -- a 10-year-old's out-of-control fastball, the gymnasium floor, the karate sparring partner's board-breaking hands and feet, dirt bikes, highways and riptides -- is safe and wholesome. The NFL's public relations machine flies into overdrive because it has to answer charges that, at their worst, border on the outlandish.
For the record, neither of my sons plays football. They have no interest in the sport. They do not enjoy collisions the way the neighbor kids do, the way hundreds of thousands of young boys (and girls) do, the way I did. Pushing a youngster into football is a terrible idea, but pushing eager ones away from it does not make much sense either: the feistiest, orneriest ones will just gravitate toward the next contact sport, if they choose to seek contact through sports at all.
So my children do not play organized football. They play basketball, learn karate and bounce on neighborhood trampolines. Every once in a while, I am faced with an achy child, a concerned school nurse and a demanding sensei, and I must make a decision. I breathe, and have an open conversation with everyone involved.
It's the best advice I ever got. I got it from the NFL.
Part III: The Unnatural Edge.
All football players are juiced.
I have heard this statement often, not just from dudes at bars, but my colleagues. All football players are juiced. All of them? The kickers? Drew Brees? Well, most of them.
Which ones? Come on, you know those bodies are not natural. I don't know. I just watched a bunch of college seniors strip to their underwear for Senior Bowl weigh-ins. Many bodies were ripped. Some looked so unappealingly natural that they looked like mine, a half-foot taller and 20 years younger. Are the ripped ones already "juicing" and the pudgy ones not?
Also, the high school recruiting sites list lots of high school seniors weighing 285-325 pounds. Are all of these kids "juicing," or only the ones who look good in shorts? Did they start at age 12? Are drugs making these kids 6-foot-5, a height at which the first 240 pounds or so come free of charge?
And what is this "juice?" It's not the anabolic steroids of 35 years ago, certainly. Is it human growth hormone? Some mystery powder from GNC? Ray Lewis deer antler? The active ingredient in deer antler is insulin. If insulin could be absorbed through the skin, millions of diabetics would throw their syringes away and jump for joy. The most famous football juice incident of the last year -- it was a year ago this week -- involved a Hall of Famer allegedly squirting himself with a placebo you can buy for $40 on the Internet. If this is the state of "juicing," football players will get better results from the kind that involves oranges and a kitchen machine.
At this point, the colleague shakes his head and says: C'mon, Mike, are you really suggesting that no NFL players use HGH or other banned substances to get an edge?
Of course not. Twenty-eight players were suspended in 2013 for violating the league's substance abuse policy. They represent only a percentage of users, though no one can be sure if it's 10 percent or 90 percent. When HGH testing is approved, which will probably happen in this offseason, more violators will be suspended. These individuals represent the guys driving 100 mph on the turnpike, but that's the way all enforcement systems work, including speed control on the turnpike.
Performance enhancing drugs and drug testing are two more issues that the NFL has addressed and managed to the satisfaction of no one. The NFLPA will not OK HGH testing until the NFL concedes some of Goodell's judge-jury-executioner powers. If you have ever negotiated a union contract, you know that there is nothing unusual in this give-and-take, and if you know anything about NFLPA history, you know that it has been one of the most conciliatory labor unions on earth when it comes to drug testing policies: The NFLPA understood that steroids were a member health problem long before other sports unions admitted there were such things as steroids. "Union Stonewalling to Protect Dirty Players" is a juicy headline, but not an honest one.
HGH testing in football will look a lot like the NFL's other drug testing policies. There will be tiered offenses, the first few of which will occur behind closed doors, then suspensions and appeals. The policy will be the result of compromises between labor and management, and will therefore not pass ethical purity or 100-percent effectiveness tests. But they will work well enough to push the substances to the margins, make examples of the worst offenders and create an environment where 300-pounders can succeed with performance enhancers no more exotic than free weights and bread pudding. Which, despite what the casual pessimists may think, is the environment we currently have.
We can bounce from line item to line item, but we keep seeing the same things. We see real problems, incompletely solved, but addressed and managed in ever-evolving ways. We also see a big picture that has gotten blurry, "the NFL" somehow extended to include youth sports, the League of Denial sins extend to a past before anyone understood long-term concussion dangers and a future that will benefit from football's Damascus moment, drugs and injuries and violence and greed baked into a ball and served sizzling. These diverse problems are only tangentially related, just as Roger Goodell has no real power over local school board decisions. Maybe our problem in fashioning a "big story" out of football's problems is that we have gone too big.
Part IV: The Highest Standard
Football in Crisis. Football: a Sport at the Crossroads. The Rise and Fall of the Football Empire.
As the football season ends, the football bashing season begins. The essays and articles will pop up all over the media realms as soon as there is a lull in the action. Even lovers of the sport take stock in the post-Super Bowl hangover. Like Mardi Gras street-sweepers on Ash Wednesday morning, we come face to face with football's ugly side the morning after. No sober person can ignore or pretend to be satisfied with the game's darkest elements, from criminals in uniform to suicidal alumni, greedy taxpayer-strong-arming owners to violently drunken fans, plus emerging evidence that the sport contains intrinsic, previously unknown health risks.
All of these are serious issues. But lumping them into a convenient "scourge of our civilization" pile actually trivializes them. Each must be addressed, managed and minimized. That cannot be accomplished when we succumb to hell-in-a-handbasket reasoning, and nay saying every potential solution is counterproductive at best. If we want "Football at the Crossroads" to be nothing more than an offseason story hook forever, then the best thing we can do is keep thinking of it as a story hook, not an evolving situation with the potential to actually progress beyond the crossroads.
To create a tagline like "Football in Crisis" is to engage in meaningless sloganeering in the form of "America: Right of Wrong" or "Society: Is it Harming our Culture?" Football is a big thing. It encompasses the NFL and NCAA, high schools and youth leagues all across America and the world. It includes current players and men who retired 50 years ago, plus tens of thousands of men (and women) whose careers ended in high school or college. It involves coaches past and present, folks who scouted, officiated, collected tickets and cooked spaghetti before the last homecoming game. It incorporates principals, athletic directors and school board members who made hard decisions about the sport, town councils and parks-and-recreation officials who approved leagues and managed fields. Plus, of course, millions of fans of every age, gender, race, creed and sexual orientation. Football is America, and if it is really killing us, then we died decades ago.
Football has become one of those big -isms, like consumerism. The NFL is Wal-Mart: ubiquitous, undeniable, and easy to have a severe opinion about. You can hate Wal-Mart, but you must also accept that tearing it down will not resurrect Main Street. The battle between business interests, community interests, labor interests and individual needs has been at the heart of the modern human experience for a few hundred years. The football business is a business like any other in that respect. Stack the worst indictments of League of Denial against those in, say, Fast Food Nation, and the final score in terms of negative impact on the average citizen is not even close.
We expect more of the NFL, and in many ways we should. We should demand that the NFL operate as an ethical business: Covering up serious workplace risks is abominable, and siphoning taxpayer bucks for corporate gains is a terrible thing even if everyone is doing it. But sometimes we expect the football industry to operate as something akin to a government or a faith. Football is expected to solve problems no other social institution has solved. We expect it to be 100 percent safe and 100 percent drug free, 100 percent unbiased and impeccable in its treatment of past employees. High expectations are great, but so are realistic ones.
What is amazing is that the NFL actually does manage to stand tall on the issues it strives to tackle properly. We heard little about the Rooney Rule this offseason as the league quietly hired two minority coaches, with a third (Todd Bowles) so confident other opportunities will soon come that he took himself out of the running for a job he did not want. The NFL's minority hiring policy is not a case of "problem solved," but of problem addressed and improved.
The NFL is in the midst of a 10-year labor peace. My children's teachers have worked for three years without a contract. It is easy to write off the NFL's relationship to the NFLPA as either master-and-lapdog or willing co-conspirators in some multi-billion dollar swindle -- much of this essay has been a debunking of the things easy to write off in our effort to make the NFL an evil zombie-movie corporation -- until you look at the actual progress that has come from their compromises.
Then there is the sexual orientation issue. Is the NFL ready for an openly gay player? Is your state senate ready for an openly gay senator? Is your church ready for an openly gay deacon? For some reason, the NFL is expected to lead our civic institutions on this issue, let alone sports leagues. No one wonders when NASCAR will accept its first openly gay driver, because you cannot drive safely across a frozen-over hell. The NFL and NFLPA are laying a groundwork for progressive treatment of openly gay players, tackling some potential pitfalls before they occur (the union is taking a proactive, unequivocal stance). Football will not stamp out intolerance and bigotry. It may be turning itself into an institution that helps instead of harms.
Sometimes, the NFL is ahead of the curve, sometimes far behind. The NFL has done horrible things, then covered them up in self-interest, then inched toward righteousness like a scolded child getting dragged by the ear to return a stolen candy bar. So has the government I pledge allegiance to. So has the church I take my children to on Sunday. So have the stores I spend money in. Rank the injustices and infractions, and the NFL finishes a distant fourth. Which is not to say that I do not expect, demand, hope and pray for better.
Football is in crisis the way America is in crisis. It faces an endless battle over corporate responsibility and changing societal expectations. It is a vast, complex web of people, activities and attitudes that is too easily stereotyped and homogenized as a big dumb hungry herd when we indulge in cocktail party sophistication. It is beset on all sides by problems, but it is the nature of continents to be surrounded by rough oceans. "Football" is not some thing gladiators do on Sunday afternoons. It is everywhere, it packs a lot of positives with its negatives for millions of people, and it has the capability to get better.
So watch football if you love it, switch it off if you now loathe it. Let an eager child play if you feel comfortable and steer him or her elsewhere if you do not. Loving the sport and letting your child play will not make you an ogre and switching off the television will not result in football fields plowed over and planted with arugula. Football is not in serious peril, and while the NFL has a ways to go before it can feel good about its solutions to the problems caused by its own negligence, its worst sins of the past are now in the past.
Football will be here on Sunday and next September. Players will get hurt and arrested and caught using drugs. The sport will also entertain and inspire millions. The goal is to minimize the first and maximize the second. Many will assert that the NFL and other institutions fall far short of that goal, or even veer away from it. A few would continue watching if the game featured bayonets. The rest will keep watching and recognizing compromise solutions for what they are. Either way, football will keep coming back, because it is too ingrained in our way of life to do anything else.