<
>

Crackdown

BY 1989, Roger Goodell had been working for the NFL for seven years. It was a different time, when men were supposedly men and everyone winked and nudged at the Bounty Bowl that preceded Bountygate, when Buddy Ryan took out Jimmy Johnson's kicker on national TV, leading CBS to advertise the Cowboys-Eagles rematch as "Bounty Bowl II." Ryan made no secret of his disdain for Dallas. Then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue even attended the second game. Many laughed it off.

Seventeen years later, when Goodell succeeded Tagliabue as commissioner, "safety" still had only two primary meanings in pro football: free and strong. Goodell entered his tenure not by standing at the vanguard of player safety but by facing down the scourge of player conduct. Off-field incidents, from Ben Roethlisberger to Donte' Stallworth to Michael Vick, so threatened the game's image and revenue that Goodell's tough stance earned him the nickname of the law-and-order commissioner.


But the NFL's culture of violence simply isn't funny anymore now that lawyers and congressmen are getting involved. Former defensive back Andre Waters is dead, a suicide at age 44. So is former safety Dave Duerson, whose family is suing the NFL for wrongful death after his suicide at 50. At 52, Jim McMahon, the former helmet-banging rebel QB, alleges in a lawsuit that his memory loss is attributable to the NFL's willfully lying about what it knew about the long-term dangers of head trauma. ESPN's Lester Munson reported in March that the NFL is facing at least 659 lawsuits related to injury or concussion. Meanwhile, in the wake of revelations that the Saints offered their players financial rewards for injuring opponents and then lied about it, Senate hearings on NFL bounties and safety are being organized. Judgment day is coming.

In suspending New Orleans coach Sean Payton for a season and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely for their roles in Bountygate, Goodell ostensibly dropped the hammer on the Saints for organizational arrogance and misleading him. But what his response is really about is the future -- the future of what the NFL will look like in three to five years, of how the league will respond in court when it is asked about what it knew about head injuries and what it did about bounties. When the time comes, the commissioner can say he started acting swiftly and decisively, at least at some point.

But even if the NFL wins in court, there's another threat looming. Goodell has one job, to protect the interests of the owners, and no threat is greater to their future than the crystallizing idea that football kills the people playing it. The problem with the game has never been its rogue violent actors: Williams, James Harrison and the Raiders of lore. The problem has always been the game itself -- its inherent violence, the mounting data that suggests it can take as many as 20 years off a player's life and the frightening realization that the players it doesn't kill may suffer an increased risk of Alzheimer's disease, dementia and depression.

If only in the court of public opinion, Goodell has to answer for this. The commissioner obviously cares about players and their safety but far less than he cares about money -- how else to explain his previous insistence on an 18-game season? So understand the complexity of his challenge: He is faced with the difficulty of selling football without pain, to detach its violence, to profit from the commodity of aggression -- even as network cameras zoom in on every team's pregame war dance -- while attempting to distance his sport from the bounty mentality by making its Sunday violence impersonal.

It doesn't work. The game's violence couldn't be more personal. Just listen to the opposing sideline the next time Vick is running wild on it.

But maybe the real problem is that football's hypocrisy is no greater than our own. If the NFL is caught between promoting violence only to decry it as the threats increase, so too does America act outraged at bloodlust while supporting a gun culture glamorized by the cops, the criminals, the video games, television and the movies.

Maybe that explains why the two have been a perfect match all of these years.

Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.