Each year we want a swifter, bigger, better product, so we get it. Finally, the day for an accounting arrives. The game that helps us cope with modern times becomes so primitive that we wonder if we can endorse it anymore.
The NFL is in a fight for its soul, or maybe for its life. And it knows it.
We won’t grasp for a decade, maybe not for a generation, just how big a problem the NFL has in the wake of its pay-for-injury bounty scandal; which comes on the heels of studies showing the long-term brain damage caused by repetitive blows to the head, even in youth football; which comes on top of lawsuits by former NFL players who feel that premature bad health, mental illness or death may be related to the league’s disregard for their safety.
That’s a mouthful. But there’s a reason. The NFL’s half-century rise to power and profits has always been tied to its limited concern, tantamount to a lack of accountability, for the damage done to its athletes. Violence and danger are a core component of the NFL product. Too much safety is bad for business. Everybody knows it. “North Dallas Forty” came out 33 years ago. We’ve all been enablers. But a business, a sport, is still responsible for itself.
Eventually, as players got bigger, faster and stronger, but the game’s rules and equipment couldn’t keep pace, an inflection point, and a crisis, had to arrive. Once a sport decides that too many quarterbacks and stars are being broken, and that you finally have to calibrate your carnage, how do you control that process, especially when you discover that a Super Bowl champion offers bounties for injuries — and that they won’t stop, even when the entire league threatens them? You can’t. You just cope with the crash.
The severity of Wednesday’s punishment to the New Orleans Saints, their coach, general manager and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has little to do with the league’s ethics and everything to do with its fear. You don’t see the NFL scared very often, but it is now and it should be. This isn’t just a month of reckoning for one team, but a trial for the NFL’s culture.
Tens of millions of us were part of its creation. I endured my dad’s high school football stories; my son tolerated mine. Then we watched the Redskins. But I can feel the ground moving in an unsettlingly familiar way. I grew up a fight fan, too, and was The Post’s boxing writer in the Sugar Ray Leonard era. Now in less than a lifetime, I’ve gone from devoted to utterly indifferent.
Every boxing obituary is different. Mine says the true nature of the sport, at its most talented and lethal pro level, simply became too clear to too many people. We always knew pugs on the undercard didn’t win enough to pay for their dental work. But when Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier became symbols of brain damage, those who could stomach the sweet science fell below critical mass. Mixed martial arts filled the niche market for fractures.