Week 9, 2013 will prove fateful
Dear Flem File readers of 2033:
By the time you read this, the NFL, our longtime and much-beloved national pastime, will probably have been extinct for, I'm guessing, at least a couple of years. I'm sure when this happens it will cause a great deal of anger, introspection and confusion in the sports world and beyond. Which is why I'm writing this time capsule Flem File to you 20 years in the future to help you better understand what exactly happened.
The timing of this letter is not a coincidence. I really believe that the answers to all your questions can be traced back to where I am now: the fateful, historic Week 9 of the 2013 NFL season. That week, you'll soon learn, the world was given an unprecedented and unrelenting glimpse into the true brutality of the sport.
And, as you now know, football was never the same.
The obvious place to start is with the ugly situation in the Miami Dolphins' locker room. But with the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, you'll see that part of the problem with the historically bad Week 9 was the way all the salacious details in Miami turned our attention away from several other issues that, eventually, would do just as much to rot away the soul of the game.
So, before getting to what happened in Miami, I want to draw your attention, first, to Sunday night in Houston, when a nation of football fanatics watched as Texans coach Gary Kubiak was brought to his knees on the sidelines of Reliant Stadium. This is the same place where, earlier in the season, fans had cheered an injury to struggling quarterback Matt Schaub. This time, however, it was Houston's coach who was left twisting in pain by a ministroke after exhausting himself while trying to turn around the 2-6 Texans.
Kubiak's health scare, you'll remember, came right on the heels of Denver coach John Fox undergoing aortic valve replacement. And both incidents reminded me of something former Ravens coach Brian Billick once told me about how, during our era, we've all glorified the workaholic coaching culture of the NFL.
"Fans, owners, you know they want that coach sleeping in the office," Billick said. "But at the same time, those same people are out there going, 'Well, what kind of a father are you that you're never around your kids?' So, really, we're damned if we do and damned if we don't."
It's important to note that in 2013, outside of the NFL, employees were measured by how smartly and how quickly they could complete their work. But inside the twisted world of the NFL, circa 2013, the mentality was: If your opponent is watching game film for six hours, well, dammit, you better find a way to sit in that film room for seven. Or, better yet, make it eight.
Back in our day, outside of the NFL we had a term for managers who needed 100 hours to complete their work each week. We called them "fired." In the NFL we called them: famous millionaire coaches beyond reproach.
So, of course, before Kubiak had even been released from the hospital, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, a guy with an economics degree from Georgetown for cryin' out loud, shrugged (and probably yawned) and said he had absolutely no plans to stop working 100 hours a week.
Yep, that's right. In Week 9 of the 2013 season, we had not one but two head coaches almost drop dead, and what did we learn from that? Absolutely nothing.
We had pretty much the same reaction in Week 9 when lawmakers in Washington, D.C., voted to join Native American leaders and a growing number of fans to call on owner Daniel Snyder to change his team's "racist and derogatory" nickname.
And what did Snyder do?
He did exactly what we and the NFL demanded of him. Nothing.
I bet, like us, you always expected it would take something huge or catastrophic to kill such a popular, profitable and culturally important thing like football. But in the end, what started in Week 9, 2013, was something much, much smaller but far more insidious: indifference.
The events of Week 9 themselves were not cataclysmic. But, over time, our total indifference to them was. We had a chance to stop the destruction of our beloved sport and, at the same time, save you from the mess you're in now (having to watch soccer 24/7), but instead we did nothing.
I guess that's not totally true. We did do something. If you look at your history books, you'll see that this was the first season after the massive concussion lawsuit was settled by the NFL. At the time, we were all supposed to have a new awareness, commitment and hypervigilance regarding player safety and health. So what did we do in Week 9, 2013? We actually reduced the suspension of notorious headhunting safety Brandon Meriweather from two games to one.
Because, the real truth is, in our day we all cared deeply about safety in football -- right up until kickoff. As a result, the carnage really was everywhere in Week 9, 2013. We even saw an unprecedented rash of injuries at quarterback that forced almost one-third of the league's teams to rely on scrubs to man the game's most important position.
Some in my time would argue that this mess culminated with a potential Bears-Packers Lambeau Field classic, which would have featured $100 million marquee talents Jay Cutler and Aaron Rodgers, being transformed into little more than a bad training camp scrimmage between backups Josh McCown and Seneca Wallace.
The injuries didn't stop there, as you well know. The defensive stars of each team -- Lance Briggs and Clay Matthews -- were also out. On top of that, and in a pattern repeated all over the league, the Packers were also without James Jones, Jermichael Finley, Randall Cobb, T.J. Lang and Andy Mulumba.
It should have been obvious to us that given the way the game was structured, even an extraordinarily strong and fit human being could no longer survive this sport for more than a handful of games.
We should have seen that injuries were changing the competitive nature of football, and that luck with injuries was becoming a bigger factor in success on the field than talent, preparation and execution.
We should have stopped paying full price for admission to games played by mostly second- and third-tier players.
We should have stopped listening to the meatheads who growled about the "wussification of America."
We should have been outraged this week when Hall of Famers Tony Dorsett and Joe Delamielleure were found to be living with signs of CTE.
We should have died a little inside when we read in "League of Denial" about how, before his death, destitute Steelers legend "Iron" Mike Webster, his brain ravaged by CTE, had taken to supergluing his teeth back together when they fell out.
We should have stood up and done something, anything, maybe boycott NFL games played on only three days' rest.
Instead, in Week 9, 2013, we did nothing.
This, as you know, turned into a bottomless, endless filthy mess that, I really believe, helped kill something sacred about the sport. The myth we had been sold was that NFL locker rooms were hallowed ground where, through sacrifice and pain, the bonds between teammates were elevated to something more rare and strong and precious than family. That lie served the NFL well for almost 100 years.
But what we found out in Week 9, 2013, was, in Miami at least, the locker room is actually just some room that smells like dirty socks where a lack of institutional control can lead to something out of the "Lord of the Flies": racism, bullying, extortion and an atmosphere in which intelligence and sophistication are considered weaknesses that can be corrected only by, I guess, defecating in each other's mouths.
Of course, you don't really care about all that, do you? You want to know why the incident in Miami in Week 9, 2013, led to the end of the NFL 20 years later.
And here it is.
Several days into the event, even after most of the disgusting details had come to light, the Miami Herald reported that the Dolphins' locker room remained "far more supportive of Incognito than Martin." It was a sentiment shared by a shocking number of players across the league.
When we read that, something just broke.
I guess we didn't realize that by defending Incognito and the culture that created and protected him, we were simultaneously indicting the entire sport of football.
See, much like you, we loved and needed the weekly escape that the violent entertainment of football once provided us. So much so that we were able to drop upward of $10 billion a year on a product that in Week 9, 2013, featured workaholic coaches dropping on the sidelines, the ongoing use of a racist team nickname, injuries changing the competitive nature and quality of the sport, dangerously unrepentant players who continued to lead with their helmets, and a string of beloved Hall of Famers being diagnosed with brain damage.
And for almost a century we were able to justify all the time, money and energy we spent on the sport by believing in the Grand Myth of the Gridiron: that success on a football field is somehow deeply connected to the best, most evolved things about us as a species, such as heart, perseverance, teamwork, team chemistry and moral character.
In Week 9, 2013, I'm sorry to say, we learned differently.
And that, as you now know 20 years later, was the beginning of the end of football.