The National Football League kicks off its 99th season on uneasy footing. Ratings are down, players are still protesting, and owners quiver in fear of President Trump’s tweets. Colin Kaepernick’s collusion lawsuit continues to advance through the courts, and Nike made him the face of its most recent “Just Do It” campaign, then saw its online sales jump by 31 percent.
None of this would have happened in the league’s heyday in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its multimedia offensive — books, television and lobbying in the corridors of power — convinced Americans not just that professional football was the nation’s most popular sport but also that football embodied the American way: capitalism and democracy in shoulder pads. This image of unity and wholesomeness, though good for business, was a facade that could be upheld only by stifling dissent and obscuring reality. While that impulse hasn't faded, in 2018, hiding the darker side of the business is impossible.
In 1970, St. Louis Cardinals linebacker Dave Meggyesy announced his retirement, warning the San Francisco Examiner that football would soon be obsolete. Meggyesy gave numerous interviews and wrote a book, “Out of Their League,” charging that the NFL encouraged the abuse of prescription drugs, crushed players’ individuality and fomented violence. Even the Cardinals’ orgies, he recalled, were “Jim Crow” all the way. And the rot went straight to the top. “It’s no accident that the most repressive regime in our history [the Nixon administration] is ruled by a football freak,” he declared.
The league sent its team of investigators to probe the situation but decided that Meggyesy posed a public-relations challenge rather than a labor one. Few players, the investigators concluded, would follow his lead. So the league’s media-savvy commissioner, Pete Rozelle, ignored him. But after Meggyesy appeared on “Dick Cavett” and other talk shows, and in Look, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Business Week, Rozelle launched an offensive to defend the NFL’s image.
He trotted out a collection of role models, including just-elected congressman and former quarterback Jack Kemp, to refute the allegation that football warped those who played it. Players and coaches lined up to denounce “quitters and losers,” in the words of University of Southern California coach John McKay. Wally Lemm, Meggyesy’s former coach, mocked him as “an agitator and disruptive force. … St. Louis is better off without him.” Even Vice President Spiro Agnew piled on with multiple dismissals of this “professional malcontent” and “over-publicized drop-out.”
And it worked. Meggyesy was silenced and completely ostracized from football for three decades.
The NFL ignored, then belittled Meggyesy. It attempted to destroy Dr. Arnold Mandell. Mandell, co-chair of the University of California at San Diego’s psychiatry department, was formerly the Chargers’ team psychiatrist. In the mid-1970s, he published work revealing the extent of the team’s amphetamine abuse. He said he had personally handed one Charger 400 pills during the 1973 season, reasoning that he would rather the players take clean drugs than buy them from the Hells Angels. Mandell claimed that he had repeatedly urged the league to sanction the team and drug test players, to no effect beyond the forced resignation of coach Harland Svare and fines for many of the players involved.
His book-length account of the ordeal, “The Nightmare Season,” “could be football’s Vietnam,” predicted Los Angeles Times sportswriter Jim Murray. Mandell blasted professional football as “a game that breaks ribs, ruins knees, twists lives, inflates winners, humiliates losers, and has all its participants live under a dictatorial government right in the middle of the United States.”
This time, NFL security director Jack Danahy led the offensive against a vocal critic of the league. Danahy had been schooled in J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI at the height of its power and its willingness to bend or ignore inconvenient laws. The repressive measures that he undertook emulated Hoover’s.
He blanketed the Chargers with investigators, who looked to apportion blame anywhere but on the league. The NFL Players Association charged that those investigators interviewed players without counsel, threatened them and refused to explain the reason for the questioning at all. One player told journalist Hunter Thompson that Danahy's security forces were “absolutely ruthless.” Danahy’s push prompted Thompson to quip that the NFL was like the NKVD (the Soviet internal-security apparatus) and made “the White House hacks look like amateurs.”
The NFL tried to ruin Mandell. And again, it worked. Mandell had written five books and published 200 articles, won several million dollars in research grants, and advised the president’s Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention and the National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. None of those connections helped.
The league painted him as a pedigreed drug dealer. His medical license was revoked, and he faced criminal charges and was then placed on probation for five years. The court decision was overturned three years later, but the ordeal permanently scarred Mandell. After winning an extraordinarily coveted MacArthur “genius grant” in 1984 worth $240,000, he refused to speak with the press or even be photographed.
These tactics continued into the 21st century. When Dr. Bennet Omalu began to pose questions about the relationship between football and concussions, the playbook remained troublingly similar: The league attempted to get his paper retracted, published fraudulent research to disprove it (the NFL appointed a rheumatologist to run its alleged study of head trauma), omitted evidence from its studies and carried on a sustained campaign of disinformation before finally, grudgingly, admitting that he might have a point.
Though the league has continued to stonewall and delay reckoning with the fundamental damage it wreaks on players’ health, the concussion case marked the first crack in its wall of silence.
But the impulse to destroy its critics remains. During this past offseason, several owners, most notably Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, pushed for the right to silence or punish players who continue to protest during the national anthem. (The league's new policy is on hold while it negotiates with the players union). And, of course, the blacklisting of Kaepernick and safety Eric Reid echoes the ostracism of Meggyesy. The NFL still strives to control its players and image to the greatest degree possible. Although the league hasn’t cleaned up its act, perhaps the cracks that Kaepernick and other protesters have made in its image will allow more of the league's secrets to get exposed.