By Evan Hall
If it's possible to separate the two at all, the NFL's stock as a sport and the NFL's image as a league could not be headed in more geometrically different directions. Even as it remains the most popular professional sport in the country, the NFL is deservedly being attacked for all sorts of human rights' failures. If the NBA took its most nightmarish public relations disaster -- the Donald Sterling fiasco -- and used it as a chance to flex some league power over one of its ongoing social problems, racism, the NFL did as close to the opposite of that as possible. After the NBA immediately and efficiently did everything possible to buy out Donald Sterling, the NFL's suspension of Ray Rice for only two games for, you know, beating a woman into unconsciousness, looks comparatively shameful -- even without a comparison, it stinks of moral cowardice.
Pitting one sports league against another in a morality contest is a fool's errand, of course. There is no way of telling this for sure, but the NBA likely moved so quickly on the Donald Sterling case because of an unprecedented barrage of criticism and calls to action from players, including superstars like LeBron James. There is no way of telling this either, but the NBA, because it's a business, does only as much or as little on social issues like these as it thinks will benefit the sport financially. So to say the NBA is very adept at or even very interested in dealing with its league's institutional flaws would be powerfully deluded optimism. And still: it's better than the NFL.
News broke last Saturday that the NBA was considering extending its All-Star break from a weekend to a full week. Reportedly, it's a response to a conversation commissioner Adam Silver had with LeBron James during last year's All-Star break in which James expressed that for someone like him, who had commitments throughout the weekend, the break was hardly a break. Silver used the conversation as inspiration for a proposed seven-day break in the middle of the season as an extension of All-Star weekend. Again, this is a simple thing, and ulterior motives for Silver's proposal abound. It's a disturbing truth of modern sports that these things are almost never purely altruistic, but it might happen anyway, and that feels like a victory.
I've written about the dehumanizing way with which the wielders of power in pro sports treat the athletes (two entities that are rarely, if ever, the same). The NBA, likely because it's the most dependent on the star power of its best players, maybe values the commodities of the athlete's body the most. Which is not to say that it's guiltless, but you can only feel good about the way basketball treats its players when you're comparing the NBA to the NFL. Silver, after all, talked and listened to one of the players in his league and then turned that session into real proposals for change. This is not evidence of some pre-eminent goodness on his behalf, but it's also not nothing.
Nothing, though, is what the typical NFL player gets from his league, at least in terms of opportunities to have his voice heard. There are more NFL players than NBA players, a difficulty of governance, to be sure. They are also much more interchangeable. Fans may feel a certain loyalty to specific players; guys like Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and more recently, Russell Wilson are still marketable stars. But because of the number of them, and because of the helmets, most NFL players are faceless -- a facelessness that gives an amount of PR cover to NFL executives on issues like concussions, non-guaranteed contracts and player health in general. What does the average NFL fan care about Joe Lineman's mental health ten years after his retirement?
The seven-day break for NBA players is a move to protect player health and player comfort, and never has the difference between these two pro sports and their approaches to protecting their players appeared more sprawling than when you consider the NFL's well-reported desire to extend the regular season to 18 games. Even as the NBA discusses ways to give players more rest during the season, in a much less physically punishing sport no less, the NFL remains interested in doing the opposite. With the advent of Thursday night games on short week's rest, the dream for those atop the NFL hierarchy to make the sport a daily pursuit rather than a weekly one has almost been realized. The nature of the game took away the players' faces, but it's the NFL that's taken away their voices.
The NBA season is still too long, and a seven-day rest in the middle of a season that almost never ends feels a little like a french fry tossed at a starving man. And still, it's the average NBA player who has less at stake physically over that time than the average NFL player. We only have a nebulous understanding of the toll that a game like football takes on a body long-term, but that the game does take a toll is obvious. So too is the NFL's company-line of apathy toward that threat, but it's not just the apathy the players will end up paying for. It's that within their own league, they have no voice to call it out.
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Evan Hall is a freelance writer from Boise, Idaho, who has written for the Classical and Salt City Hoops of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. You can find him on Twitter @the20thmaine.