By Ken Reed

From a financial sense, the NFL has never been healthier. Revenue from TV contracts, luxury suites, club seats, ticket revenue, merchandise sales, etc., is going through the roof. As a country, we love watching this violent sport. The most-watched television shows every year are always NFL football games.

However, from a socio-cultural perspective, football in general and the NFL in particular, has never been in more trouble. The violent nature of the game has resulted in thousands of brain injury cases, from the professional level to the youth level. Only once has an autopsy of a former football player’s brain not revealed evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the progressive brain disease which has resulted in many former NFL players suffering from depression, dementia, Lou Gehrig’s disease and other neurological conditions in middle age or younger. Sadly, some of these CTE victims, including stars Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, have committed suicide.

It’s frightening to note that it’s not just concussions that are causing the problems. Multiple studies show that repetitive sub-concussive hits to the brain (such as those resulting from offensive and defensive linemen pounding heads play after play) can result in a variety of short and long-term cognitive problems.

Remember, we’re talking about the brain here, the seat of one’s personality, not an ankle, knee or shoulder injury.

On another negative front for the league, the Ray Rice case has highlighted the fact that the NFL has a violence towards women problem. This is a league that requires its players to be physically violent performers in order to succeed in their football profession. While it’s undoubtedly true that violence on the playing field can be a healthy release for some men it’s also true that too many NFL players have a hard time turning off their violent tendencies in everyday life.

Perhaps the NFL’s biggest problem today is the way it has handled the Rice case. The NFL’s strategy has involved a terrible PR campaign at best, and a coverup all the way to the top at worst.

The video released yesterday by TMZ from the security camera in the elevator in which Rice decked his fiancee (now wife) and then dragged her out while she was unconscious, should’ve put him out of the league and in prison. Instead, Rice initially received a two-game suspension from the NFL and its commissioner Roger Goodell — that’s two games less than an NFL player passively caught smoking marijuana in his family room receives.

After the ugly elevator incident, Rice’s team, the Baltimore Ravens, started a PR campaign to 1) defend Rice’s character; and 2) push some of the blame onto the victim, Rice’s fiancee. It was a classic case of the powerful attempting to comfort the violent and afflict the victim. The NFL’s approach in the Rice case has been driven by ego, arrogance and greed. It results from a profit-at-all-costs, “we must protect the shield no matter what” mentality.

As we look at the Rice case today, it’s extremely hard to believe that the NFL and Roger Goodell didn’t see the video from the security camera in the elevator before giving Rice the initial two-game slap on the wrist. Any routine investigation would’ve included observing the video from the elevator’s security camera. When the Rice incident first came to light, several reporters said that the NFL had indeed seen the elevator video. Also, an employee of the Revel, the Atlantic City casino where the fight took place, has said that the NFL did see the security camera footage before disciplining Rice. If it comes to light that there was a coverup in the NFL offices then Goodell clearly should be fired.

But all of that is just dealing with the symptom, not the cause. The cause is a violent game that too often has brain trauma and domestic violence as side effects. That’s a big problem for the NFL. A problem that the latest glowing financial reports for the league can’t override.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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