Mike Wise
Mike Wise
Columnist

Super Bowl: NFL confronts the highest stakes

Video: San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh stepped to the podium, smirked a bit, and greeted his first news conference as a Super Bowl coach. "We're super happy to be here," he said Sunday night.

NEW ORLEANS — If he had a son, the leader of the free world says he is uncertain he would let him play football. If one of the most ferocious hitters in the game is right, someone will die on a field and the NFL will become extinct in 30 years or less.

From President Obama to Ravens safeties Bernard Pollard and Ed Reed, who agrees with the president, to the litany of physicians directly linking concussions to an acute brain disease showing up in dead NFL players (some of whom committed suicide), the emotion and the logic all tell us the same thing:

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The most popular sport in America causes irreparable harm to many of its participants, some of whom will stammer through sentences after they retire, lose their memories and have their dinners served to them through intravenous needles.

And again we watched in record numbers, because our medieval need to see the biggest, fastest, strongest men in the world launch themselves like missiles at each other and engage in brain-jarring collisions always defeats the part of our conscience that says enjoying a car accident in pads and helmet is wrong.

If they’re modern-day gladiators, we’re little more than howling, new-millennium Romans — with better-stitched togas and viewing angles. Now armed with more information than ever about football and brain injuries, we think long and hard whether our kids should strap on a helmet and pads.

But we’re glad other parents’ kids do and we conveniently forget that all 110 men voluntarily putting their cartilage and brains at risk on Sunday night are someone’s sons.

Welcome to the Mardi Gras of sanctioned violence, where the two most spine-rattling teams in the NFL collide this weekend on the field that spawned Bountygate, in a city still itching to deck Roger Goodell the way that arrogant judge-and-jury of an NFL commissioner decked their Saints.

For what, they ask in anger? Because some of their players and coaches tried to make a few extra bucks to hurt a guy from the other team and, if they were lucky, cart him off the field? That’s football, Chinstrap Nation screams.

Goodell should just crawl under a hotel pillow and show up for the trophy presentation Sunday because he can’t win. In many ways, he illustrates the quandary of a country questioning its relationship with the sport.

After Obama’s statement to the New Republic, the NFL released its own, maintaining its commitment to the safety and health of its players in an environment that has spawned multimillion-dollar litigation claims against the NFL by dozens of its former concussed players.

But here’s the rub: Almost a year after the Saints were hit with the most punitive suspensions in league history, it’s back to business as usual.

Goodell’s ruling didn’t stand up to an independent arbitrator who happened to be the former NFL commissioner. Sean Payton signed the richest annual coaching contract in league history after his suspension for going along with the pay-for-pain scheme was overturned. Gregg Williams, the mastermind players said ran a similar bounty program in Washington, is just awaiting Goodell’s “indefinite suspension” to be lifted so he can become Tennessee’s new defensive architect.

So much for his potential lifetime ban for desecrating the tenets of the game, huh?

Goodell’s commitment to safety is apparently genuine, but the mixed messages just keep coming. While the rest of the country is figuring out whether they should let their sons play, he’s extremely approving of your daughter suiting up and bumping helmets in the trenches.

The commissioner invited 9-year-old Sam Gordon, the Salt Lake City youth football star whose YouTube video of her running over and around the boys resulted in her smiling visage on a Wheaties box, and her family to the big game this weekend. Sam had 223 carries and 65 tackles last year — in a sport Goodell’s own senior adviser on his head, neck and spine committee says she shouldn’t be playing until she’s at least 14 years old.

Dr. Robert Cantu has done the research. He’s concluded the “bobble-head effect” associated with big heads on the weak necks of children are not conducive to hits the way more-developed brains are.

But hey, Sam: You go, girl.

Some contradictions you can’t make up. Drew Brees lent his voice to “Rush Zone: Season of the Guardians,” an animated series that ran on the kids cartoon channel Nicktoons last fall aimed specifically at linking young boys with the NFL.

It’s about a boy named Ish and his friends who live in Canton, Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Ish and friends have been “tapped as guardians to protect the sport from an evil force trying to capture the essence of the NFL,” according to a marketing department spokesman quoted in the Los Angeles Times last fall.

Brees and the other voiceovers do battle with various villains out to destroy football — the same Brees whom I saw in an interview last year say he would not let his young boys play football until they were over 13.

“He does concussion awareness campaigns, all directed toward children he personally believes should not be playing tackle football because of repetitive head trauma and his awareness of the science,” said Sean Pamphilon, the documentarian who filmed Williams targeting the head and specific body parts of 49ers players last postseason. “So how can an NFLPA member who claims to champion issues of health and safety help the NFL actively target and sell consequences to our children he wouldn’t accept for his own? 

“History will reflect that Drew Brees was Joe Camel in shoulder pads.”

A week before the big game, on the quandary goes — and certainly not in the White House and the Ravens’ locker room alone.

In point of fact, as the 49ers and Ravens brace for media day and prepare for their expected physical meeting Sunday, sometimes it feels like the Lombardi Trophy is less up for grabs this week than the very soul of the game.

For previous columns by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

 
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