NFL business practices don’t warrant cheers

Mike Wise
Columnist May 22

Safely sequestered in Atlanta hotel conference rooms this week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and team owners talked rule changes and Super Bowl host sites, while elsewhere, woozy retired players leveled another devastating class-action suit against the league.

In the hermetically sealed bubble of the billionaire old-boys club, it’s almost as if none of it happened, as if team doctors never gave cocktails of addictive painkillers to three members of the great 1985 Chicago Bears team, as if similar drug-pushing never happened to the 600 co-signers of the suit.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

The owners and their commissioner probably haven’t heard or don’t care that half the U.S. Senate urged its leadership to press the Washington football team to change its nickname, noting that if the NBA has the guts to punitively deal with Donald Sterling’s bigotry, it’s time for the NFL to get its house in order.

“The NFL is a successful, popular business in the United States — and they’re defending one of their teams using a racist name,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said in a telephone interview Wednesday, two weeks after he called for hearings on the matter.

Waxman and Congress once successfully went after Big Tobacco and drug companies. They also brought the financial services industry to its knees. The NFL is now in their sights.

So what’s the real connective tissue, other than we’re now addicted to sanctioned violence like our parents and grandparents were addicted in vast numbers to nicotine?

Greed.

“It’s really like a cult,” actor and former NFL player Terry Crews told Sports Illustrated this week. “I’m going to say it. The NFL is a cult because you’ve been looking at this motto and this logo for your whole life and you believe in it and you’re like, ‘They wouldn’t do anything to hurt me. They never would.’ And, uh-oh, maybe they would.”

The NFL tries to present itself as inextricably woven into the fabric of Americana: the community spirit of a game-day tailgate; the patriotism of unfurling its 100-yard-long Stars & Stripes every September; its close (and genuine) working relationship with the military; and its signature bedrock event, the Super Bowl, America’s annual nod to bacchanalia and betting.

The NFL uses all of those reasons to justify the corporate welfare it inexplicably receives as a nonprofit, tax-exempt, $9 billion colossus.

But really, is there another nonprofit in the world whose CEO makes $45 million a year?

So how does Goodell earn that money? A few years ago, when doctors discovered a progressive degenerative brain disease found in dead NFL players with a history of repetitive head trauma, he didn’t panic. Last fall, when a physician on the league’s own head, neck and spine committee recommended that boys under 14 years old should not play tackle football, he didn’t complain.

Instead, he campaigned.

Goodell went to Chicago, Bears Country, where rugged greats such as Butkus, Singletary and Urlacher bumped helmets for generations of fans at Soldier Field. Hosting a “Football Safety Clinic for Moms” at the team’s training facility in Lake Forest, Ill., in November, Goodell sought to assuage concerns with a clinic and a panel discussion moderated by Goodell’s wife, former Fox News anchor Jane Skinner.

Skinner’s take-away quote? “Kids are more likely to get injured riding their bike on the way to [football] practice than at practice.”

“That statement is categorically foolish and wrong,” Todd Maugens, the division chief of pediatric neurosurgery at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando, said when I related the quote to him Thursday morning.

Next Thursday, Maugens will be in the East Room of the White House as part of a youth-concussion symposium called by President Obama. Maugens isn’t in the camp of physicians calling for youth football to be banned; he feels more medical research involving children is needed before any more arbitrary ages to play are debated. But he knows misplaced priorities when he sees them.

“It’s despicable,” Maugens said. “They’ve made it this huge business. Rather than stay true to the sport, they’ve really only emphasized the business aspects and pure profit opportunities.”

When more than 10 percent of the league’s annual profits are suddenly going to pay off lawsuits settled with former employees . . . when another class-action lawsuit has been filed (a suit that includes a heavy dose of research done by Rick Maese and Sally Jenkins in a Post series on NFL medicine a year ago). . . when owners and commissioners talk about “legacy” and “tradition” while strong-arming poor Buffalo into building a public-subsidized stadium to avoid losing the Bills . . . when every major Native American organization, every major civil rights group, half the Senate and even some players decry a franchise’s nickname as racially insensitive . . .is that really such a swell business?

When a work environment puts employees through a meat grinder but the company abdicates on its long-term health care, is the public being served?

When a business’s first reaction to grave health concerns resulting from its product is to make sure its pool of future employees isn’t scared away, is that business worth cheering?

Football is healthy, we keep hearing. And we mostly keep listening. We won’t stop watching, just as our ancestors wouldn’t stop smoking — until they began dying of lung cancer.

Professional football seems impregnable now, able to withstand any level of criticism — from the halls of medicine to the halls of Congress. Imagining Sundays without the NFL seems impossible right now — just as 20 years ago, it was impossible to imagine a bar without an ashtray.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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