The NFL season kicked off in earnest on Thursday, September 4 on a mild night in Seattle. The Green Bay Packers were visiting an electrified CenturyLink Field on a night the Seahawks were to raise their Super Bowl championship banner to the rafters, and so begin their title defense. For one night, all football fans that sought sanctuary from their daily grind were welcomed. It didn’t matter if you were a Packers backer, or a Seahawks fan. The night was a celebration of football, the game we so sorely missed all spring and summer. America’s most popular sport was back!
Just four days later, all of the momentum the Week 1 games generated for the NFL came to a grinding halt in the wake of scandal after scandal involving some marquee players. The tape of Ray Rice goading his fiancée into a confrontation and striking her with a punishing left hook that rendered her unconscious was released on Monday morning, September 8. The video shined a light on the dark issue of domestic violence, and began a maelstrom of negative publicity for the NFL, as much for the insufficient punishment meted by Goodell as for the act itself committed by Rice. The footage from within the elevator had a profound effect on public perception that forced the Ravens’ and the league’s hand later that day; Rice was released by the Ravens and suspended indefinitely by the NFL.
Some called it a knee-jerk reaction that drew criticism for basically continuing the message that, “We don’t really care if our players are violent and abusive; that will cost them one-eighth of their season. Just don’t get caught doing so on camera, you guys.” It led to renewed questions over the cases of Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy, two men for whom the legal process is still ongoing in their alleged domestic abuse cases. Hardy was deactivated before this past Sunday’s game, but McDonald played. Coach Jim Harbaugh had taken a firm stance on the issue previously, but allowing McDonald to play – and play the most snaps of any defensive player in Week 1 – is quite the about face.
Then, this past Friday, one of the NFL’s highest-wattage stars, Adrian Peterson, was indicted and arrested in a child abuse scandal after news (with pictures) that his 4-year-old son returned home from a visit to Peterson’s Texas home with welts and bruises all over his body from being “whooped” with a switch. Just yesterday, Peterson was again implicated in another, separate instance of child abuse to another 4-year-old son, in which the child was allegedly hit by Peterson while in the backseat of a car, resulting in a scar on his face. It is worth noting that Peterson lost a child in 2013, when a 2-year-old son was beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend at the time. Regardless of an upbringing that may have been filled with what bygone generations referred to as “tough love,” if ever there could be a moment that should open your eyes to the reprehensible nature of corporal punishment, it would be that. It should surely make you reconsider your home’s layout if that floor plan includes a whooping room.
All of these instances have brought about an existential crisis for both the NFL and its fans. The NFL has reached a crossroads of sorts, where they need to define what exactly they stand for. It’s a question that will surely be explored in the coming days and months both internally and externally. Fans are left asking themselves, “Why am I supporting this organization if it’s so at odds with my own morality and standards?” Of course, that quandary doesn’t apply to the woefully tone-deaf woman in Minnesota who paid tribute to the Vikings’ embattled franchise player this Sunday.
When you pull the proverbial camera back to the type of wide-angle view favored by television networks to showcase the tens of thousands of adoring fans on game day, what you’ll see is the common denominator: the NFL has a crisis on its hands, and its name is violence. Since its introduction in the late 1800s, football has been a violent game, serving as a somewhat refined allegory for war. The NFL has done what it can to distance itself from the broadcast-speak of war terminology – “war in the trenches,” quarterbacks as “field generals,” a team with a “punishing ground assault” or “aerial attack,” in an attempt to exhibit sensitivity to the climate in America, having been involved in wars overseas for the majority of the 21st century. What’s more, just this past week, a study paid for by the NFL revealed that about 3 in 10 former NFL players will develop at least moderate neurocognitive problems, and qualify for payment under a proposed concussions settlement. Is there another profession you can name that now forecasts roughly 30 percent of past employees will face decreased neurological function as a result of having worked that job?
In 2010, Russ Grimm, the Hall of Fame lineman, delivered a memorable line in his induction speech at Canton that, to paraphrase, noted that the reason he wanted to play football was because there was no greater feeling than forcing someone to do something against his will. Taken purely in the context of football, that’s badass. However, when viewed through the lens colored by recent events, and applied to the various cases of violence, this takes on a somewhat darker and more sinister meaning. The sentiment of Grimm’s message is not isolated. These are the teachings of coaches at all levels: work harder, prepare better, and impose your will on the opponent. With the knowledge that athletes are often coddled and entitled, you could see how this might be a slippery slope for lessons that could impact other areas of an athlete’s life, especially as they advance toward the pinnacle of sport.
There have been stories of shocking off-the-field violence recently: Dave Duerson’s violent suicide, followed by that of Junior Seau, two of over a dozen recent suicides by former players; The murder-suicide of Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher, and the murder of semi-pro player Odin Lloyd, allegedly at the hands of former Patriots tight end, Aaron Hernandez; There are the stories of Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, men who have gotten into physical altercations over car keys, and threatened to blow up an airport. Going back further, there was wide receiver Rae Carruth, who conspired to murder Cherica Adams, his pregnant girlfriend. Thomas Lake wrote a moving piece for Sports Illustrated about the unborn child who survived that night despite his mother never coming out of her coma; There was the double-murder/obstruction of justice trial involving twice-accused, never convicted domestic abuser, Ray Lewis, Adam “Pacman” Jones’ temporary banishment from the NFL for his role in the shooting and paralysis of a man in a Las Vegas nightclub, rape allegations that Ben Roethlisberger faced twice, and Brandon Marshall’s rap sheet, which includes two arrests for domestic violence. None of these would have had the chance to appear on ESPN’s “Jacked Up!” segment, a misguided celebration of CTE-inducing hits that ended its run back around 2007, but they all involve some vicious and frightening details.
On Sunday, analysts from major outlets all weighed in on the recent headlines. Former linebacker Bart Scott was very forthcoming about seeking mental health support for his rage issues. “We tell everybody how to turn it on, but nobody teaches us how to turn it off.”
There are few businesses in America that are more cutthroat than the NFL. Life for its’ players—not the top one percent, mostly quarterbacks, who endure long and largely healthy careers, and face reduced instances of contact and punishment in practice—is brutal. The NFL is a thresher into which these men venture that, if you’re lucky and can survive camp cut-down and injury for three, four, maybe five years, you pay for in physical pain and reduced capacity (mental and physical) for the remainder of your life. Once celebrated players are gone in an instant once they are no longer useful. Michael Turner, Brian Westbrook, Clinton Portis, Edgerrin James – none of these men who were once franchise-leading running backs received the Derek Jeter treatment on their way out the door. One day, they were important parts of their teams, the next, they were washed up. Very few players get to go out on their own terms. They are punished, and pounded, and fed to the wolves. We are those wolves. Once they can’t perform any more, once they are no longer entertainment, they are put down. It’s a violent end to a violent career.
With all of this now serving to help process my own feelings, I still feel compelled to love football. Football has always been a sanctuary from real life for so many; a way to escape on Sundays (and now Thursdays, and Mondays) from everything else on our plates. But now, as the horrors of everyday life begin to surface across the NFL at an alarming rate, one has to wonder if this sport is the respite that so many hope it can be. And more importantly, whether or not we should keep watching.