The hits keep on coming in the NFL. Not the brain-rattling, bone-breaking blows that can occur during the season on any given Sunday, but wave after wave of negative publicity, mounting lawsuits and critical commentaries. It's all part of our ongoing wrestling match, which pits our love for football against the game's regretful consequences.
When former NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide with a gunshot to his chest earlier this month, it reminded us of former NFL player Dave Duerson, who took his life in similar fashion in February last year. Duerson wanted his brain to be studied, and researchers discovered the same trauma-induced disease — chronic traumatic encephalopathy — found in more than 20 deceased players.
Last week Hall of Fame receiver Art Monk joined the growing group of former NFL players who are suing the league for allegedly failing to protect them against the impact of concussions during their playing careers. According to NFLConcussionLitigation.com, approximately 2,023 plaintiffs are named in 73 complaints against the NFL.
All of that led New England receiver Chad Ochocinco to write an open letter to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, stating that we've reached "a crucial point in the history of football." Ochocinco, who said that "the foundation of the game is in jeopardy" and that Goodell is going to shape the future, suggested that marketing is part of the league's problem.
"One thing I think can help is killing the NFL PR machine," Ochocinco wrote. "Y'all do a darn near perfect job at portraying this game as one played by heroes. But let's be real dad. This is a nasty, dirty and violent game with consequences. Sign up or go get a regular job. Watch it or turn off the TV and go fishing with your kids. It is really that simple."
Of course it's really not simple at all. The NFL generates about $9 billion annually in revenue, and highlighting the repercussions for players isn't good for business. It can lead fans to question their fandom. It can lead a Super Bowl champion to prefer that his sons don't play football. It can lead writers to propose ending high school and college football, or speculate on the NFL's possible demise.
As for the risk of playing in the NFL, "you're talking about a silent killer," former running back Jamal Lewis said in a radio interview with Atlanta's WCNN. "We know that this is a dangerous sport, but I don't remember the last time somebody got killed on the field. But at the same time, it is a dangerous sport, and we do play it and we love the game. But you still should, as a person, have the right to know: 'Hey, if you do get a concussion or you are diagnosed with a concussion, these are the things that you need to watch for.' And I think as a person — as a human being — you should have a right to know that."
Once armed with that information, then what? Will fewer athletes choose to play, opting instead for less dangerous sports? Will the league be able to balance safety and violence to anyone's satisfaction? Will fans absolve themselves of any role and continue to watch?
The NFL would rather hear questions about last month's draft or teams' prospects for the upcoming season. Goodell certainly doesn't want folks focusing on adjectives like "nasty, dirty and violent," regardless of their accuracy in describing his league.
But the hits keep on coming, with no end in sight.