Strange as it sounds, trouble in paradise?
Editor's Note: Following an anticlimactic (to put it kindly), desultory (to put it truthfully) Super Bowl, we received the following letter on the state of pro football from Page 2 founding editor Jay Lovinger and columnist Patrick Hruby. With the Pro Bowl over and the scouting combine more than a week away, now seemed like a safe enough time to publish it.
Editor's Note No. 2: The following reflects the opinions of the authors, and in no way reflects the opinion of ESPN, Disney or any affiliated corporations.
Editor's Note No. 3: That means all complaints and/or hate mail should be directed at Lovinger and Hruby.
Television ratings are swell. Attendance is terrific.
The money keeps piling up, and while the Bill Belichick hoodie hasn't caught on as a national Casual Friday staple just yet, it's only a matter of time. By every conventional quantifiable measurement, the NFL couldn't be stronger, richer or more atop the American sports pyramid, a sun-eclipsing summit for rival leagues to gaze upon ... and despair ... and starve to death because crops can't grow without photosynthesis.
That said, we can't help but wonder if the NFL has jumped the shark.
We know, we know: it sounds strange. But hear us out.
The Super Bowl obviously has become humanity's crowning achievement in self-parody, a bloated carnival of going-though-the-motions excess, one that millions -- including us -- continue to watch, in part because we can't turn away. From the ads to the hype to those pretentious-without-irony Roman Numerals, it's like a sports/pop cultural flea market that all of us have tacitly agreed to keep attending, even though we all know it's terminally tacky and will continue to grow even more so, no matter what anyone does. So why bother to resist, anyway?
In a sense, it's the sports equivalent of global warming.
Beyond the big game, though, is where the real trouble lies. Some of the following issues are bound to give football fans and the general public pause -- if not now, then soon:
• The insanely insensitive reaction by current players, their union, individual teams and the NFL itself to the horrible health and financial issues facing so many former players.
Is the NFL too big for its own good? Is it ignoring the health of its former players? Are sick of the Super Bowl hype and the mediocre product on the field? Vote now on these issues at SportsNation.
You've got Hall of Fame safety Willie Wood, crippled from a series of back, hip and knees surgeries, scraping by at a Washington, D.C., assisted-living center on a league pension that totals about $130 per month. You've got former Buffalo Bills lineman Donnie Green -- one of the human earthmovers who helped make daylight for O.J. Simpson -- reportedly living in a homeless shelter. You've got uber-tough, uber-nasty former Pro Bowl lineman Conrad Dobler, telling HBO's "Real Sports" that his post-playing aches and ailments are so painful, he might have to "check out" entirely -- because, as he puts it, "They shoot horses, don't they?"
So what are football's contemporary powers-that-be doing for the aging, broken-down, cash-strapped gladiators that helped create the sports world's biggest cash cow? Not bloody much. The league claims it pays out $60 million annually in pensions and post-career disability benefits, according to a recent AP story. Thanks to long-ago legal squabbles, most of it goes to players who retired after 1977. Meanwhile, union boss Gene Upshaw said during Super Bowl week that taking care of the pre-1977 group -- guys he played with -- isn't financially feasible, and union president Troy Vincent dismissively complained to reporters that elderly former players won't stop pestering their successors for money. Never mind that the old guard built the league on their fused vertebrae and worn-out hips, and that the house they raised makes billions of dollars. Billions!
We fling the word "disgrace" around in sports almost as recklessly as we fling around the word "great," but this really is a disgrace. And we're sure we're not the only ones in the world truly made queasy by the whole thing. For chrissakes, Jerry Kramer, Mike Ditka and others are selling off their championship rings and assorted memorabilia to raise money for their needy comrades. The gilded-age NFL can't spare another dime? Whatever happened to "no one left behind"?
• This stuff about concussions is really scary and queasy-making, too. In fact, the idea of robust, powerful, iconic athletic figures suffering from chronic headaches, dizziness, memory loss, depression and the inability to live any semblance of a normal post-football life -- or just becoming shambling Alzheimer's victims by the time they hit 50 -- is beyond obscene.
Andre Waters commits suicide; doctors determine football-related concussions left him with the brain of an 85-year-old. Read that one more time. Former Patriots linebacker Ted Johnson recently said his string of concussions have left him cognitively impaired, addicted to the amphetamine Adderall and battling severe depression. Again, what does the league do? As Peter Keating wrote in ESPN The Magazine in January, it creates a medical committee whose scientifically dubious research claims that many concussed athletes can return to play in the same game with no ill effects -- even though almost all of the outside research on the subject claims the opposite. This is the same sort of factual cherry picking that the current presidential administration has used to dance around stem cell research and global warming, the same sort of cart-before-the-horse "evidence" gathering that helped get us into Iraq.
But forget what's right. Focus on what sells. Guys still in their early 50s having oatmeal falling from their lips while their heads loll from side to side -- now that's not cool. And not cool is the greatest contributor to anything jumping the shark. Just look at boxing.
• Tank Johnson and the Bengal Nine.
After a while, these things add up. And to think that the NBA is the league with the "bunch of thugs" image problem. Who's worse -- Ron Artest or Rae Carruth?
• Steroids. The BALCO scandal involved NFL players, too.
The Carolina Panthers 'roid busts -- which included a punter, for crying out loud! -- wouldn't have been out of place in the drug-soaked Tour de France, and probably would have prompted another round of congressional hearings had they taken place in baseball.
Then there's Shawne Merriman. Somebody actually had to point out to the NFL that maybe, just maybe, it sends the wrong message to kids if a steroid-abuser not only makes the Pro Bowl, but also gets serious consideration for Defensive Player of the Year? Really? The league couldn't figure that out on its own?
Look, sooner or later the public is going to care about this. Maybe not about the bad role model thing, but rather the head-in-the-sand ignoring and rewarding of out-and-out cheating. Clever cheating, OK. But getting-caught-with-your-pants-down cheating -- that doesn't go down so smoothly with the average American sportsman.
• Sheer overexposure.
Now it's four nights a week of oft-crappy national games -- Cleveland at Pittsburgh, gack! -- plus bye weeks, year-round draft coverage, etc. Soon we'll have games on every night of the week, more playoff teams, maybe even more teams overall, despite the fact that once-a-week scarcity -- and the accompanying cycle of buildup and catharsis -- is what makes the NFL special compared to other sports. (That, and the violence. Always the violence.) Moreover, the on-field product is slouching toward mediocrity -- this season was an abysmal slog -- and everybody knows it, which is probably why fantasy football keeps getting bigger. That can't be good in the long run, no matter what the ratings look like now.
• The weight of outsized expectations. Too much hype.
This Super Bowl was a perfect example. Bo-rrring -- Manning, the two black coaches and all the other storylines notwithstanding. There had to be millions of people waking up all over America the next day, rubbing their eyes and saying to themselves, "Wow, what was the big deal? It was just a football game, not a very interesting one at that, and it took forever to be played, and that's not even counting the endless buildup that started to feel like fingernails on a blackboard -- or worse, another droning Belichick news conference."
• Self-important, high-handed humorlessness.
The NFL reportedly warned an Indianapolis church against showing the Super Bowl on a big-screen TV, claiming that doing so would violate some arcane copyright law involving television screens bigger than 55 inches. Huh? Isn't it enough to police player sock lengths? Isn't the whole point of sports to have ... fun?
Of course, football culture never had a strong sense of play to begin with -- Bear Bryant denying players water is seen as manly and God-like, not twisted and sick -- but lately, the sport seems entirely drained of spontaneous, childlike joy, let alone a sense of levity and humor. (Chad Johnson's pre-manufactured, Politburo-sanctioned touchdown dances don't count; nor do those NFL Network "tomorrow" ads). From CIA-level team secrecy to sanctimonious, moralizing debates over guys like T.O. to coaches who spew and dissemble in the manner of politicians on "Meet the Press" ... well, it can all feel a bit corporate, military and grim.
No wonder Super Bowl ads have grown increasingly goofy, while every NFL studio show attempts to have four guys sitting around cracking on each other while tangentially mentioning the actual games. After all, who wants to spend Sunday afternoon -- or, God forbid, every other night of the week as well -- watching the alternative?
Your humble NFL dissidents,
Patrick and Jay
Patrick Hruby is a columnist for Page 2. Jay Lovinger is an editor for ESPN.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.