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.
Football is a hundred, or a thousand, times bigger than boxing was. But it’s not invulnerable — from itself. The league’s owners finally have it right, decades after good conscience would have led them to the same conclusion.
The distance between old-fashioned hard-hitting and outright dirty play has always been bright as orange paint to anyone who ever actually played. If you hear an ex-NFL player say it’s a “fine line,” what you’ve learned is that he’s lived in the belly of the big-time football beast for much too long.
However, what we’ve got on our plate now is miles beyond such tame fare. There is a 100-yard-wide “line” between occasional dirty play and what the Saints did: a complete chain-of-command endorsement of trying to inflict “cart-off” level injuries ($1,500 each) with late hits, blows to the head and shots at the knees — all against the rules — all tolerated or even cheered.
The NFL’s corporate response — kneecap the Saints — falls squarely within the sport’s “pragmatic” traditions. Once the general public changes its opinion of the basic nature of a sport, and decides that it’s fundamentally uncomfortable with the values that the game represents, many things can change. Slow but inexorable go together.
Here’s what’s going to stick in the public’s throat longest: The Saints’ reaction to the NFL’s three-year investigation. In essence, they laughed at it. They dared the commissioner to go public, assuming he and the other owners wouldn’t have the guts to take the PR hit. So, we know the Saints view of the NFL’s core culture: anything goes, nobody’s accountable, the rules don’t matter, player safety is a sham and the public will never know.
With that additional info, we have to decide what we now think.
Every major sport has an inherent flaw. Baseball is too slow. Nothing in the NBA matters until the fourth quarter. Too many NHL goals are luck, and you can’t see the puck. Football is too violent. We hate these slurs because pieces of truth lie beneath them. We shrug. Sure, our game isn’t perfect.
But sometimes we can’t shrug. A sport’s flaw becomes a huge problem if it is also a central driver of its popularity. Of team sports, only football suffers from this combination. The more you remove fear and danger, the more you undercut the NFL’s power. Nobody pays to watch touch football.
The NFL is now at its crossroads. Can the sport find the right rules, the improved equipment, the necessary culture change — like the massacre of the Saints — to create a new balance between terror and some semblance of safety and honorable play?
It’s won’t be easy. Egged on for years by many of us, modern pros are so big, fast and inured to violence, they seem like they could lift a car, catch it from behind or eat the passengers if you threw in that extra $1,500.
The NFL has to change. A lot. Can Lions, Bears, Jaguars and Bengals really change their claws, paws, jaws and stripes?
For Thomas Boswell’s previous columns, go to washingtonpost.