What the hell is wrong with the NFL?

September 24, 2014 Originally published on San Francisco Chronicle | SFGate

Is it time? Can we all stop pretending now? Can everyone from stunned ESPN reporters to alarmed feminist writers stop feigning bewilderment over the fact that most thuggish and unsophisticated, devoutly sexist, multibillion-dollar pro sport in the western world, one that spends every minute and every advertising dollar making its displays of cartoon violence appear even more amusingly vulgar and outrageous (and hence, lucrative), is catastrophically lacking in dignity and respect WRT women, child abuse, domestic violence and modern social functioning overall?

Let’s say it like this: Expecting the NFL to emerge from all its terrible scandals of late as a smart, respectable bastion of cultural dignity – as opposed to the flamboyant, screaming temple of cash, cover-up, corruption and brain damage it is now – is like asking the NRA to swap bullets for flowers. You must be, like, high.

He speaks, she stays quiet, downcast, meek. Just the way the NFL (and conservatives, and organized religion) like it

He speaks, she stays quiet, downcast, meek. Just the way the NFL (and conservatives, and organized religion) like it

You don’t have to watch much professional football or read about the general foulness of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, a guy with all the charm of a tire iron and all the numb sense to hire Frank Luntz, a nasty Fox News shill to write his lines at a recent press conference, to be struck by just how incredibly tone deaf and out of touch is the NFL, a famously insensitive megacorporation currently rivaling congress and the Catholic church combined for everyday stabs to your better nature. And they just keep coming.

But who, really, was expecting something different? This is how the NFL has always been, no? At its core, modern pro football is a glitzy, crude, ultraviolent game of increasingly brain-damaged gladiators, highly trained in administering bursts of barely controlled violence as intensely as possible, all fueled by exceedingly wealthy, white male team owners who care as much for issues of feminism, child-rearing or social good as the Koch brothers care about the Ebola crisis. This isn’t really news.

But all the cover-ups and lies certainly are. Did you get the big takeaway from last fall’s Frontline special, League of Denial, on brain trauma in the NFL? It wasn’t how little the league (and Goodell) gave a damn about the problem for all those decades, or how a career spent bashing your massive, 300-pound frame into other equally massive humans with enough force to move a city bus will cause all sorts of irreparable harm to brain tissue. That’s obvious.

Did you know casinos had cameras in their elevators? The NFL sure wishes they didn't.

Did you know casinos had cameras in their elevators? The NFL sure wishes they didn’t.

The most disturbing finding was, in part, how brain damage starts appearing almost immediately when you take up the sport, all the way back in high school (playing full-contact sports any younger than that is even more dangerous and irresponsible, they say, and should be banned outright).

You might say football is to the brain what smoking is to the lungs. Except it’s even worse: the lungs can recover. Mental impairment is forever.

Until recently, Goodell’s lies, diversions and denials have helped make the league billions, largely by doing the impossible: turning the sport’s violent inelegance into a marketable asset, a massive, Vegas-grade megaspectacle full of big-name sponsors, snazzy sky-cams and the Blue Angel at halftime. U-S-A!

But then you get the ugly insights, one after another. Then you realize the NFL would have completely buried the Ray Rice domestic violence problem, for example, had it not been for that appalling video. How many more are there? How many abuses never reported? Dozens? Too many to count? Goodell isn’t paid $44 million a year by the team owners for his noble moral conscience, after all.

For an even more sobering take, head over to Mother Jones and read what Tracy Treu, wife of former Oakland Raider Adam Treu, has to say about what it’s really like to be a woman in the NFL’s inner circle, and what she imagines Janay Rice is feeling right about now.

The NFL is a culture that values secrecy. When you’re with an NFL team, the message to you is clear: Don’t f—k anything up for your partner, and don’t f–k anything up for the team. Don’t be controversial. Don’t talk to the media. Stay out of the way. Support the player and be quiet.

This is what Janay Rice was risking [by pressing domestic violence charges]: embarrassing the Ravens, embarrassing her family, screwing his teammates out of their prized running back, losing money, losing security.

In other words, it’s a man’s game, honey. Always has been. Keep your mouth closed and don’t screw up the cash flow.

But I found the most disheartening aspect to be Treu’s conclusion, tragic in its bizarre irony:

I wonder, with the league’s new, stiffer penalties for domestic violence, how many abused women will stay quiet—because that means the end of a career, the end of the insurance, the end of it all.

Wait, what? Did you get that? The league’s new penalties will allow it to appear like it’s addressing the issue of domestic violence, even though, in so doing, abused women are now less likely to come forward for fear of harming their husband’s career, and their own livelihood. Wow.

Meanwhile, the real values the NFL espouses – all of them aimed squarely, as always, at lopsided young males – remain unchanged: loyalty at all costs, keep lots of secrets, be suspicious of outsiders, hide your pain, keep your woman in check, don’t upset the money boys, walk off your brain damage and whatever you do, don’t get caught on video knocking your wife unconscious or whipping your child with a stick. Ah, music to Goodell’s ears.


Mark Morford

About Mark Morford