The risky business of football's future

There has been over the past several years a smugness emanating from many corners of the NFL, largely based on television ratings in which even routine regular-season games have dwarfed baseball's October showcases, the playoffs and World Series. The ratings make for strong evidence, in football circles, that the NFL has no peers.

Revenues and interest have been exploding, reinforcing the perception of the game's invincibility, even as knowledge about the physical danger to its athletes has increased and a number of its best-known stars have committed crimes and other acts of low character. The league, believing in fans' unquenchable thirst for its product, launched its own television network to promulgate the game year-round and subtly stretched its season to the point that playoffs now extend into February.

Somehow football, arguably the sport with the most obvious performance-enhancing drug problem, has never been held accountable for it by Congress or by the press. While steroids in baseball made the headlines, football has been allowed to glorify its players' gladiator persona.

Is it any wonder the NFL has seemed especially pleased with itself.

But lately, perhaps even suddenly, it is becoming clear that football is not impervious to the forces that would chip away at its position atop the nation's hierarchy of sports industries. In fact, the sport is doomed in its current form. A new scrutiny on the speed of the game and the violence of its collisions makes it unlikely that football will exist in 10 years the way it does today.

It cannot be long until an outside body, such as Congress, begins to look at the amalgamation of damning empirical evidence: Technological improvements to equipment designed to facilitate the nature of football as a contact sport; faster, bigger, stronger players; scientific data confirming the devastating effects of the game on life expectancy and brain damage; a performance-enhancing drug policy that has not proven to be a deterrent; and a cultural history that has encouraged football's violence. The conclusion is an obvious one: Football is a death sport.

And in recent months, the personal trouble of former NFL golden children Ben Roethlisberger and Brett Favre has further weakened the credibility of the player as a role model.

Across numerous important fronts, football has lost much of the moral credibility it once possessed. The game might not be going out of business, but it is in grave danger of losing its elevated place in the culture.

All it took was one day. Sunday, Oct. 17, was an afternoon in which a series of vicious hits around the NFL exposed the hypocrisies of the sport, the people who fuel it as a business and the people who watch it for enjoyment.

The day included Atlanta's Dunta Robinson making Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson resemble a crash-test dummy, New England's Brandon Merriwether turning himself into a human projectile against Baltimore's Todd Heap and Pittsburgh's James Harrison using his helmet to knock Cleveland's Mohamed Massaquoi out of the game and the Browns' game the following Sunday. Those hits aren't unique to the sport -- the NFL and its partners have profited from encouraging big hits for years -- but they occurred in short order on the same day, and people paid attention.

Videos of bone-crushing tackles such as those not only have been repeated constantly on television and YouTube over the years, but also in team meetings as a source of pride and intimidation for coaches and players. This is nothing new.

The difference now is the climate in which the hitting occurs. On Oct. 16, the day before the NFL's convergence of helmet-to-helmet collisions, Rutgers University junior tackle Eric LeGrand was paralyzed from the neck down after attempting a special teams tackle against Army. LeGrand underwent emergency surgery to stabilize his spine. The players prayed. His coach, Greg Schiano had tears in his eyes.

LeGrand was in the news cycle for 24 hours and then … the games went on.

In Week 1 of the NFL season, four players were diagnosed with concussions. Dr. Hunt Batjer, the co-chair of the NFL's Head, Brain and Neck Medical Committee, responded that "four concussions don't make a trend."

Over the first six weeks of the season, the number of concussions has doubled from 2009.

Ironically, during a period of time when the safety of the game is being questioned, the NFL has not responded with sober analysis but has answered by undermining its own rhetoric that it cares about safety. The league recklessly endorsed a plan to increase the number of games in a season from 16 to 18, revealing the true sentiment that has existed in the NFL all along: The players are fungible. They are replaceable, temporary assets, and nothing -- not head trauma, not dementia, not Lou Gehrig's disease and not the declining life expectancy rates of the people who play the game -- will get in the way of making money.

Everyone must take a share of the blame for this. The players, undereducated about the health risks and perennially underserved by their union (largely because of their own disunity over the years), parrot the rhetoric that leads to greater profits but physical demise: We all know the risks we take playing this game.

The press and media continue to profit. A few years ago, ESPN's Sunday NFL coverage included a segment called "Jacked Up," in which the network compiled videotape of the biggest, baddest, bone-rattling hits, while commentators declared in unison, as an example, "Todd Heap, you got JACKED UP!" ESPN has since cancelled the segment.

And the NFL, while fining players for excessive hits, has simultaneously profited for years from the sale and marketing of photos and videos of the same violent collisions, glamorizing the intimidation elements of the game. The NFL has sold DVDs of big hits for years.

Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, offers the grave and serious appearance that safety and responsibility are important. But outside of an apology from league spokesman Greg Aiello for a licensed vendor selling photos of the illegal hits that happened on Oct. 17 through the league's own web site, the NFL has taken no concrete action, such as fining itself and announcing a dollar figure to donate to charity as a sign that it has accepted responsibility.

The NFL's problems could be reaching a critical mass. Even numerous professional athletes today, seeing how dangerous football has become, don't want their children playing the sport. During the American League Championship Series, Rangers third baseman Michael Young said he wouldn't let his two boys play football, nor would Yankees' closer Mariano Rivera. Both cited the short-term physical injury potential and the long-term possibility for brain injury.

"No way," Detroit Tigers left fielder Johnny Damon told me, of his son Jackson. Growing up in Florida, Damon was recruited to play football in high school. "The way I look at it this way: If my son has enough talent to play football, he probably has enough talent to play baseball. You get to play longer, and our money is guaranteed."

There is no other American team sport in which the players are as disposable as they are in football. There is no other sport in which star, signature players are discarded faster than NFL running backs are. No sport throws its broken pieces into the garbage like the NFL does.

Troy Vincent, the former Pro Bowl defensive back who served as the president of the Players Association from 2004 to 2008 and joined the league's management labor policy team in February, spoke earlier this month to the University of Southern California football team. Vincent said the right and responsible things to the USC players about staying in school, about avoiding drugs and the off-field quicksand that kills careers and about the importance of receiving a four–year degree.

When the players expressed their desire to play in the NFL, Vincent revealed the depth of the NFL's knowledge of how disposable the players truly are.

Over the past 20 years, Vincent said, quoting statistics compiled by the NFL, 15,018 athletes have played in the NFL, but 631 of them -- 4 percent -- played three or more seasons. The average NFL career lasts 3.7 seasons, but NFL players do not receive health and pension benefits unless they play four full seasons.

In other words, in a sport that can destroy the body, a sport in which the culture -- at the high school and university levels -- encourages its players to gain excessive, often unhealthy weight to play certain positions, 96 percent of NFL players on average over the last 20 years came and went without any future security from a game that studies show can have devastating long-term effects. No form of false concern or public relations spin -- the NFL's Play 60 anti-obesity campaign stands in direct opposition to the demand from coaches that players gain weight -- can change that reality.

And yet, Goodell and the NFL owners are pushing to increase the length of the season.

There may be no way back to moral legitimacy for the NFL. If the league relies on revenue and ratings to justify its decision to avoid significant safety changes, it sends the message that it has chosen profits over the health of its players. After Robinson waylaid him two Sundays ago, the Eagles' Jackson said the hit felt like "being in a car crash." How long will it be until a player dies on the field from a car-crash hit?

As long as Congress stands by and does nothing, it is tacitly admitting that it is comfortable with the bloody nature of the sport, too. Player after player has said he understands and accepts the risks that come with playing professional football, but that is beside the point. The point is that society historically has intervened to curb other unsafe behavior. Adults, for example, have long known the risks associated with smoking or with not wearing a seatbelt or a motorcycle helmet, but rules and laws were enacted to prevent injuries in those areas, nonetheless.

If the league takes an honorable and ethical approach and acknowledges that serious rule and cultural changes are required in the face of football's increasing violence, the onus will fall on the fan to once and for all come to grips with why he or she watches. Many fans are already suggesting that the hitting -- and not, say, the artistic beauty of a fleet receiver beating a defender on a fly pattern -- is why they watch. Those fans might watch less often if the game slows and players tackle with less violence and recklessness. The NHL once tried to eliminate fighting … until ratings plummeted.

In a nation attracted to violence, the NFL has decisions to make that will reveal its courage -- or its greed.

There may be a suspension of disbelief at work that the sports world won't exist without football as king of all its surveys. Yet an easy historical parallel can be made to boxing, which once reigned over much of the American sports landscape but fell victim to corruption, changing times and its own moral illegitimacy. Thirty years ago (and for much of the 20th century), the heavyweight champion of the world was the most visible, popular person in American sports. Now, boxing -- after, among other things, deaths in the ring and executive malfeasance -- has been discredited by a more affluent, less interested public.

Football runs that risk, the risk that it will come to resemble a grotesque sideshow, no different from, say, pornography. People may still want the game to exist so they can continue to watch it -- as long as their kids aren't the ones participating.

Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42