NFL’s ter­ri­ble beauty be­gins again

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - SPORT | COMMENT - EA­MONN SWEENEY

THESE are trou­bled times for the NFL. That may sound like a sur­pris­ing state­ment on the face of it. Af­ter all, the league re­mains a be­he­moth in TV terms, last year’s Su­per Bowl wasn’t just Amer­ica’s high­est-rated tele­cast of the year, it pulled al­most three times as many view­ers as the sec­ond-placed event. Sun­day Night Foot­ball and Thurs­day Night Foot­ball are the sec­ond- and third-most watched reg­u­lar shows.

The NFL also boasts the high­est av­er­age at­ten­dances of any league in the world, its 69,487 fig­ure al­most 30,000 ahead of the sec­ond-placed Bun­desliga. And its ap­peal is not con­fined to Amer­ica, there will be four matches in Lon­don this sea­son and a UK-based fran­chise can­not be far away. Yet the NFL is in trou­ble all the same.

Amer­i­can foot­ball has been rocked by the ev­i­dence of brain dam­age caused to the league’s play­ers. A re­cent Bos­ton Univer­sity study, led by Dr Ann McKee, found ev­i­dence of the de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­or­der Chronic Trau­matic En­cephalopa­thy (CTE) in the brains of all but one of 111 de­ceased for­mer NFL play­ers ex­am­ined. The ef­fects of CTE in­clude early on­set Alzheimer’s and de­men­tia and it has been linked to acts of ran­dom vi­o­lence, de­pres­sion and sui­cide. The NFL has al­ready agreed a $1bil­lion pay-out to for­mer play­ers suf­fer­ing from con­cus­sion-re­lated con­di­tions but the lat­est study sug­gests the cases so far dis­cov­ered may just be the tip of the ice­berg.

Amer­i­can foot­ball finds it­self at the same kind of cross­roads which For­mula 1 found it­self at af­ter the ‘killer years’ of the 1960s and ’70s and ral­ly­ing dur­ing the Group B years of the ’80s when deaths soared. It is be­gin­ning to look like a sport which ex­poses its com­peti­tors to un­ac­cept­able dan­gers.

The league’s re­sponse has been to in­sist that its new guide­lines on tack­ling have been re­duc­ing con­cus­sions, though there’s no proof of this, and to sug­gest im­prove­ments in hel­met tech­nol­ogy may be the so­lu­tion. But it has also with­drawn from a part­ner­ship to study CTE with Amer­ica’s Na­tional In­sti­tute of Health, hav­ing ear­lier pres­sured that body to with­draw a grant from a lead­ing re­searcher into the dis­ease. A re­port by mem­bers of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee stated: “The be­hav­iour of the NFL lead­er­ship and their med­i­cal ad­vi­sors is in­con­sis­tent with their pub­lic com­mit­ment ‘to sup­port sci­ence and medicine’.”

That seems about right. The NFL might not be shoot­ing the mes­sen­ger but they’re re­fus­ing to fund or listen to him. In­stead they’ve de­cided to fund a study by a com­mit­tee chaired by Michael McCrory, an Aus­tralian sci­en­tist who has claimed CTE might not ex­ist at all. McCrory’s the­o­ries on brain dis­ease have been de­scribed as “lu­di­crous, mis­lead­ing and em­bar­rass­ing” by Steven DeKosky, one of the world’s lead­ing ex­perts on Alzheimer’s dis­ease.

The study is ac­tu­ally into the ef­fect of con­cus­sions on jock­eys rather than Amer­i­can foot­ballers, though as Dr Wil­lie Ste­wart, a Scot­tish neu­ropathol­o­gist no­table for his re­search into the ef­fects of con­cus­sion on rugby play­ers, points out: “With a jockey on a horse if he comes off there’s a high chance of a con­cus­sion but he’s not im­pact­ing the brain hun­dreds of times in a race.”

One of the most fright­en­ing re­sults of the Bos­ton Univer­sity re­search was that it wasn’t just elite foot­ballers who ended up suf­fer­ing from CTE, that 87 per cent of those who’d played the game at any level showed signs of the dis­ease. It’s not just the pos­si­bil­ity of fur­ther pay­outs which has the NFL run­ning scared, it’s the idea that Amer­i­can foot­ball will be­come a game which par­ents don’t want their kids to play. It may be­come a game played only by the poor and the des­per­ate, those whose prospects are so lim­ited the gam­ble with health seems one worth tak­ing.

Amer­ica’s black com­mu­nity prob­a­bly con­tains more poor and des­per­ate peo­ple than any other. It also pro­vides 70 per cent of the NFL’s play­ers de­spite mak­ing up just six per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Which leads us to the league’s sec­ond big prob­lem. Colin Kaeper­nick’s re­fusal to stand for the US na­tional an­them last sea­son led to him be­com­ing a hero to the left and a pariah to the right. It’s even been sug­gested that his ges­ture helped fuel the con­ser­va­tive back­lash which helped put Don­ald Trump into the White House.

Now Kaeper­nick has suf­fered the tra­di­tional penalty for heresy — ex­com­mu­ni­ca­tion. The for­mer San Fran­cisco 49ers quar­ter­back is not the force he was when lead­ing his team to a Su­per Bowl run­ners-up slot in 2013, but 11 sides will start the sea­son field­ing play­ers with in­fe­rior records in his po­si­tion. A re­cent large protest out­side NFL HQ seems un­likely to change the minds of the league’s own­ers and man­agers. Is the ex­clu­sion of Kaeper­nick a ges­ture of po­lit­i­cal dis­ap­proval or a show of cow­ardice from peo­ple who couldn’t face the has­sle of hav­ing him at the club? Is one of those things any bet­ter than the other?

Last week Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Pack­ers, the NFL’s best quar­ter­back, said it’s “ig­no­rant” to think Kaeper­nick wasn’t be­ing un­fairly treated. “I think he should be on a ros­ter right now. I think be­cause of his protests, he’s not. I’m gonna stand be­cause that’s the way I feel about the flag but I’m also 100 per cent sup­port­ive of my team-mates and any play­ers who are choos­ing not to. They have a bat­tle for racial equal­ity. That’s what they’re try­ing to get a con­ver­sa­tion started around.”

Kaeper­nick of­ten seemed an iso­lated fig­ure last sea­son but other play­ers are fol­low­ing his lead. Dur­ing their pre-sea­son game against the New York Gi­ants, ten Cleve­land Browns play­ers knelt dur­ing the an­them, in­clud­ing one white player, tight end Seth DeValve. Other white play­ers have also shown sup­port which is some­thing the Seat­tle Sea­hawks’ great de­fen­sive end Michael Ben­nett, the most high-pro­file player cur­rently protest­ing, thinks is cru­cial.

NFL play­ers have tended to be a less rad­i­cal bunch than their NBA coun­ter­parts yet Don­ald Trump’s pres­i­dency has had the virtue, its only one, of ex­pos­ing the con­tra­dic­tions in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. An event like the white su­prem­a­cist march in Vir­ginia makes peo­ple think about what side they’re on. The black player in the NFL is in an un­de­ni­ably odd po­si­tion. Eighty three per cent of the sup­port­ers are white as are all the team own­ers, among them men who gave huge do­na­tions to Trump’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Ev­ery game is at­tended by cer­e­mony pay­ing trib­ute to the pa­tri­otic and mil­i­taris­tic val­ues cher­ished most deeply by those who, in the words of No­bel Lau­re­ate Toni Mor­ri­son, want “to make Amer­ica white again”. How long can this con­tinue in the cur­rent cli­mate?

I’ve loved Amer­i­can foot­ball for years but the at­ti­tude of the NFL to­wards player wel­fare and its em­brace of the least-ap­peal­ing side of the Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal char­ac­ter mean it’s be­come some­thing of a guilty plea­sure. Like box­ing, it’s some­thing which can only be en­joyed if you make a de­ci­sion to ig­nore its more eth­i­cally du­bi­ous qual­i­ties.

Yet watch it I will. The very thing which has caused those wel­fare is­sues, the fact the NFL’s play­ers are big­ger, stronger and faster than those in any other sport, is what makes it a game like no other. Its po­ten­tial for drama was never more graph­i­cally il­lus­trated than in last year’s Su­per Bowl where the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots’ Tom Brady-en­gi­neered come­back was the most com­pelling sport­ing story of the year.

The con­tra­dic­tions of the NFL are those of its coun­try. You can shake your head at its in­vin­ci­ble fool­ish­ness one minute while in the next mar­vel­ling at the cul­tural riches Amer­ica’s given us, from jazz to hip-hop to film noir to Broad­way mu­si­cals to the Hol­ly­wood West­ern and the HBO drama se­ries. Amer­i­can foot­ball is a trea­sure to match any of these and like them could have been in­vented nowhere else. In its vi­o­lence, its wild en­thu­si­asm, its ter­ri­ble beauty, its flair, its in­ven­tive­ness, its amoral­ity and its to­tal lack of any sense of pro­por­tion it is Amer­ica writ large on our screens ev­ery Sun­day night.

The NFL is Amer­ica and what­ever else you can say about Amer­ica it’s never dull. So though I’ll feel a bit like a man gam­bling in a casino he knows is owned by gang­sters, I’ ll watch it again this sea­son in the ex­pec­ta­tion of great things.

We might as well en­joy it while it lasts.

It may be­come a game played only by the poor and des­per­ate

A re­cent large protest in sup­port of Colin Kaeper­nick out­side NFL HQ in New York seems un­likely to change the minds of the league’s own­ers and man­agers

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