If performance-enhancing drugs were the scandal that shook baseball to its foundation over the past decade, then this surely is the NFL's most provocative moment. How exactly does the pro football community wrestle with this new, intense, up-close scrutiny on the cause and effects of its brutal, gladiator-like nature?
Football, particularly at the professional level, is an incomprehensibly violent sport. The toll that it creates on the human body physically and neurologically is unlike any other sport. And now, with a growing public awareness of the damage that playing in the NFL does — whether the wounds you can see because of broken limbs or torn fiber, or the wounds you can't see from dementia, severe depression and other corrosive brain damage — people in the sport are being forced to ask some very tough questions.
Only you might be surprised by the answers.
Now that the league has cracked down on what it calls the unnecessary violence of helmet-to-helmet contact in the sport, the players whom the league is trying to protect seem to be revolting against the increased protection.
"The skirts need to be taken off in the NFL offices," a rather dismissive NFLPA President Kevin Mawae said recently on ESPN radio.
"Look, I've seen it all my life with my dad playing 13 years in the NFL, multiple surgeries, broken bones, etc," said St. Louis Rams defensive lineman Chris Long, whose father, Howie, was inducted into the Hall of Fame after his career with the Los Angeles Raiders. "We know the risks. We'd like to avoid the injuries. I don't want to be limping around when I'm 55 years old, but like I said, when you play football, there is a risk to it."
"You're playing a game that by its nature is not safe," Long said. "(League officials) are saying they want to make football more safe. Well, that to me doesn't make sense. The whole point of the game is that people are running into each other, hitting each other, hurting each other. When you look at what we do, it's not a smart thing to be doing in the first place. So they can do all sorts of things, but the last time I checked, the object of the game was to slam into each other and knock the other guy down, right? How are you going to make that safe?"
Unless you have ever played in the NFL or witnessed a game up close from the sidelines to actually see the ferocious collisions on every play — or better yet, peeked into a pro football training room on any given Sunday to see the tangible evidence of the game's savage toll — it is impossible to truly understand what sort of mentality is required to survive and thrive in this game.
These men are a different breed. They really are fearless. They really are gladiators, and they quickly weed out the cowards who dare to flinch at the danger that presents itself every moment they're on the field. They not only readily accept the occupational dangers, in many cases they embrace them.
What we see and hear from them is a complicated, occasionally contradictory sensibility. As great and profitable as business has been for the NFL owners and the current players, there doesn't seem to be any interest by the league or the players association to put aside enough of that money to adequately assist former players whose disability coverage and pensions are woefully inadequate.
Yet the same old-school warriors who lament that cold-blooded indifference by the league and the players association over health care on the back end of the violence, rail against the league for at least now trying to minimize some of the damage on the front end.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to former NFL linebacker Tom Jackson, the Emmy-winning commentator for ESPN, about the difference between football now and when he played it three decades ago, and you could hear the sadness in his voice as he talked about how the game is changing. Jackson played at a time when the game was more primeval and less glitz and glamour. The players didn't need or necessarily want the league office to intervene in matters of players crossing the line. Frontier justice they called it.
"What's the best word for the attitude that we played with back then?" Jackson said. "I think it's 'bully.' But you know what, being a bully is OK in football. Back then we didn't have any rules. There was a sense that almost anything was acceptable, and now it's not (anything like that). I miss that. I was proud to be a part of that. I loved that part of the game, man. I really do."
Jackson's attitude epitomizes the mind-set of many current and former NFL players, particularly the defensive guys. They all understand that the league is trying to make the game safer. They're just not convinced that safer football translates into better football.
"The commissioner (today) is trying to get across to people that you can play the game differently, and I understand that," Jackson said. "But we played by our own rules back then. It was just one of those things where we all understood what the rules of the game were, what the risks were. It was a great time to play football when everyone understood the rules of engagement."
At the risk of sounding like an out-of-step Neanderthal, I am in lock step with these guys who excel in this savage world and wonder how anyone can possibly legislate its greatest selling point — its rousing violence — out of the game. I get what they're trying to do, and even applaud it on many levels. But I wish they would spend as much time and effort providing the proper care and benefits for the damaged bodies and brains of their retired players as they now seem to spend attempting to limit their future liabilities on their current players.
The task of making the game safer should not be a one-pronged attack. Back in 2007 before Super Bowl XLI, I spent several days in Miami talking to at least 15 former NFL players, who confirmed that their retirement benefits fall far short of sufficient health-care coverage of all their job-related disabilities. Hall of Famers such as Mike Ditka and Jerry Kramer were so upset with the union that they started the Gridiron Greats Superstar Online Auction to raise money to assist former players in dire need. "We can't wait anymore for the NFL to help," Kramer said then. "I don't know when that will happen, so we have to do something now."
In the meantime, I think we need to accept the inevitable. Football is, was and always will be violent, dangerous and exceedingly popular.
"I get what they're trying to do," said D'Marco Farr, a former Rams defensive lineman and current radio commentator for the team. "But I'm sorry, I just don't think you can make football safer. All you're doing is altering the game. It's like trying to make boxing safer. There are some things that simply can't be done. One of the best stories I ever heard on this subject was from (boxing writer) Bert Sugar, who was talking about Sugar Ray Robinson being on trial for killing a boxer in the ring. And at one point in the trial, the judge asks Sugar Ray, 'So did you know he was in trouble?'
" 'Your honor, it's my job to get him in trouble.' "
Farr nodded his head slowly.
"That's it, man," he said. "That's what we do. That's our job, too."