Is there an activity that Americans give more of their attention to and know less about than professional football? The essence of N.F.L. life is the intense weeklong process of preparation for Sunday, which takes place at the thirty-two N.F.L. team “facilities.” The New York Jets allowed me to spend more than a year with them at their team facility in Florham Park, New Jersey, while I wrote a book, but that was unusual. Most visitors to N.F.L. facilities receive only supervised tours on the order of state visits to Pyongyang. In an era of exposure, the national passion operates in almost total seclusion, apart from the televised games. Perhaps the distance gives it an allure that increases the pleasure. Or, possibly, those who watch wouldn’t like what they’d see if they got too close.
They have reason to worry. For all its present popularity, trouble has been lurking for football. Recent glimpses into the insular culture of the game have revealed bounties promised in New Orleans for injuring opponents, a tight end charged with murder in New England (he’s pleaded not guilty), and particularly abusive hazing in Miami. Most significant, a growing body of scientific evidence and investigative journalism, such as the recent PBS documentary “League of Denial,” and the book of the same title, has found that players are at risk for chronic traumatic encephalopathy—the degenerative brain disease previously more associated with boxers. For decades, the N.F.L. seemed indifferent to the consequences of head injuries, and may even have concealed evidence of the dire long-term cognitive costs of concussions while disseminating more anodyne information to players and their families. This has led to a perception that professional football is the Big Tobacco of sports, a profit-obsessed corporate entity with a callous lack of concern for the human beings who take the big hits.
As a result, many fans are torn. They love football, in part because of the human car wrecks, but they are repelled by the thought of enjoying a blood sport that brutalizes the minds and bodies of players. It used to be easy to say that the players knew what they were getting themselves into. Now that this has proven untrue, at least for the veterans, it’s more challenging for Americans to take uncomplicated pleasure in watching young men, many of whom grew up in poverty, play a sport they’re not sure they want their own sons to pursue. It has been the American way to tolerate our moral misgivings about the public institutions that define us, from Southern segregation to drunk driving. Then, sometimes abruptly, the queasy reservations veer into disgust and rejection. What can the N.F.L. do, going forward, to make fans feel better about the sport?
Since the N.F.L. got itself into this predicament by behaving like an institution with something to hide, it could start by striving to be more transparent. Tackle football will always be dangerous. That’s easier to accept when everyone knows what the true risks are—and can be confident that the N.F.L. is doing all it can to mitigate them.
The N.F.L. usually excels at such problem solving. Much more than, say, baseball, football has embraced invention and change—from the slow-motion replay that, beginning in the nineteen-sixties, made it possible to follow the subtleties of the sport on television, to the in-helmet radio receivers that allow modern coaches to call more sophisticated games. Yet professional football, a high-tech “fast adapter” from Monday to Saturday, is old-fashioned on Sundays. All week, individual teams experiment at their facilities with new innovations as they see fit. Some are looking into simulators that would allow individual players to experience virtual crowd noise, weather conditions, and big hits. Others are wiring players during practices with monitors similar to G.P.S. that provide coaches with data on how far they have run, how many cuts in each direction they’ve made, their average speed, their maximum speed, their heart rate, and more. Something else that can be tracked is the accumulated contact that players absorb, which would seem to be a crucial area of evaluation.
But not every N.F.L. owner wants to invest in technology. During games, when all teams must abide the same equipment regulations, you may have noticed players and coaches studying archaic printed photographs of recent plays. That’s because some owners, fearing an advantage for wealthier teams, refuse to pay for electronic devices, right down to the iPads that many teams use all week as they develop their playbooks and game plans. The N.F.L. has signed a deal to bring Microsoft’s Surface tablets to sidelines and coaching booths next year, but, for now, computers remain banned on game day.
Such a penny-wise approach isn’t sustainable when it comes to player health. The public should have the sense that the prosperous N.F.L. has become the nation’s Institute for Advanced Impact Studies. We should learn that engineers in Detroit look to the N.F.L. as they attempt to design safer cars. One can even imagine the N.F.L. taking over the research and development of its own headwear. (The league may have to because helmet manufacturers are so besieged with lawsuits.)
Prevention is fine, but because injuries are inevitable, the N.F.L. must also do all it can to signal to the public and the players that health care is its first priority. Instead of lawyering up and trying to discredit researchers who worry about the accumulated effects of subconcussive hits, the N.F.L. ought to be out on the medical frontier.
Current N.F.L. head-injury protocol requires every game sideline to be staffed by an independent neurologist who can offer consulting expertise to the franchise’s own medical personnel. There are also “airway” physicians on hand, team doctors wearing red hats who are trained in the emergency response to acute tracheal injuries. This is fine, as far as it goes, but all doctors who treat football teams should work for and report to the league. (This is also an opportunity to treat the players’ union as a partner in this area, rather than as an adversary.) The N.F.L. attracts many excellent physicians, but a football doctor is, at times, a medical referee, who can take a player out or put him in. Just as the N.F.L. would never allow team-employed officials to make judgments during competition, there is an inherent conflict of interest for team doctors whose employers want players on the field in big games. The pressure on doctors can be withering. Spend enough time talking with players around the league, and you’ll hear too many stories of injuries that were suppressed or minimized. “Lot of guys living on a shot, week in, week out…. There’s the hidden aspect to football,” a player (not on the Jets) told me recently. “They’ll tell people, ‘You’re all right,’ withhold information.” He recalled a former teammate who tried to keep playing despite problems with his nervous system, who walked across the locker room and then suddenly fell down in front of him. Players are often complicit in poor medical decisions. The sport attracts young risk-takers and nurtures a gladiator complex. The N.F.L.’s approach to medicine should be even tougher than those players are.
It seems inevitable that football will keep adjusting its rules to protect the heads and legs of “defenseless” players who can’t see that they are about to be tackled or blocked. (Low, so-called “cut” blocks are trip wires that can end defensive linemen’s careers by ravaging their knees.) There’s been a recent emphasis on those who play the game’s most important position, quarterback, but the N.F.L. will likely define a limited “target area” of the body for legal tackling of all players. As the sport becomes less violent, naturally there will be strategic implications. Offenses will continue to spread out across the field, designing attacks featuring smaller, speedier athletes. Skill positions for bulky players, such as middle linebacker and fullback, will become obsolete. This all may prove entertaining for spectators; Americans like touchdowns, and it’s also natural to pull for someone closer to your own size. The increase in scoring will be a boon for fantasy-football enthusiasts, and for the league’s finances; the play breaks after field goals, touchdowns, and kickoffs can generate more television-advertising revenue.
None of this would seem to be good news for defensive players and coaches. The defense’s countering asset has always been physical intimidation. But this moment of defensive crisis means opportunity for defensive-coaching innovators. It will be fascinating to see what masters like Bill Belichick of the Patriots, Rex Ryan of the Jets, Dick LeBeau of the Steelers, and Mike Pettine of the Bills devise.
Perhaps the best thing football can do for its survival is to eliminate some of the mystery. Pro football games depend on secret stratagems, and nobody is suggesting that the devising and installing of game plans become public. Yet part of the enduring appeal of baseball has been that the national pastime is personal: not only are the players and managers easy to see, they have always been accessible enough on a daily basis that fans could grow familiar with them. N.F.L. players wear masks, rosters are large, careers are brief, and there are just sixteen regular-season games, so most fans now recognize only the biggest stars. Everybody else is a video-game avatar. But N.F.L. players and coaches are at work for far more hours than baseball players. It’s a compelling backstage world that I saw at the Jets facility, one filled with admirable people and fascinating workplace rituals. It would be good to allow fans some form of the intimate in-season access to the facility that resembles what they have to the clubhouse and the dugout.
That, after all, is the greatest virtue of spectator sports: they allow us to take pleasure in the accomplishments of others. In our chosen entertainments, we can often see ourselves, and football rewards those willing to sacrifice individual achievement to work for the collective good. As the governing body for such a beloved team game, the N.F.L. ought to exemplify the desire to show affection and concern for those who place themselves in harm’s way for other people’s enjoyment. If we are going to watch them closely, it’s only natural that we care about them all the way down.
Originally posted on The New Yorker.
Photo: Daniel X. O’Neil.