Yes, pro football is dying.
For the fourth time now, by my unofficial count.
Most of us are familiar with the first time there was a call to kill football. It was after the 1905 college football season when 150 players were seriously hurt and another 18 were killed on the field. A group of six colleges actually voted to abolish football until President Theodore Roosevelt stepped in and proposed rule changes to reduce the carnage and save the sport. They included establishing a neutral zone at the line of scrimmage and outlawing lethal mass-formation plays like the flying wedge. The new rules were seen as a huge success: By 1922, despite increased participation, this time "only" 20 football players had died and "only" 43 had been seriously injured.
The sport was "safe" again, the violence under control. Football lived on.
Continuing on, in cycles of 30-40 years and often preceded by severe economic downturns that squeeze entertainment spending and empower consumers, football has repeatedly inched toward the verge of extinction -- only to adapt, grow and flourish like never before. I first noticed and wrote about this cyclical pattern of football’s so-called imminent demise when I wrote the 2007 book "Breaker Boys" about the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, and again in a 2008 article in ESPN The Magazine on the evolution of offense.
The cycle came around again in the 1930s when the pro game was a low-scoring, sadistic sport that critics lampooned as “paid punting” and a “bloody, brutal, disgraceful affair.” This time the NFL responded by shrinking the ball from its original 27 inches to a more QB-friendly 21, made passing legal anywhere behind the line of scrimmage, established hashmarks to keep the ball in the middle of the field and enacted the first roughing-the-passer rule.
The sport was "entertaining" again, the violence under control. Football lived on.
Fast-forward to 1977. Just a few years after a recession, defenses dominated the league, reducing scoring to its lowest point in 35 years. Right on cue, the NFL made it illegal to bump receivers more than 5 yards downfield, offensive linemen were allowed to open their hands and extend their arms while pass-blocking (also known as: holding), a seventh official was added to monitor pass interference downfield, and refs behind the line of scrimmage were now stopping the play when the passer was "in the grasp." This, in turn, allowed pass-heavy offenses, like the West Coast, to flourish.
The sport was "fun" again, the violence under control. Football lived on.
Thirty-five years later, does the current state of football look at all familiar? In the middle of another economic downturn, after an offseason dominated by the Bountygate scandal, Junior Seau’s suicide and an ever-expanding concussion lawsuit filed by former players, society has once again deemed football to be on the verge of extinction.
I typically use the first Flem File of each new NFL season to talk (read: brag) about the football adventures I experienced over the summer. Plane rides with Mike Vick. The Swiss Alps with Ben Roethlisberger. A Spanish immersion program in Mexico with Tony Gonzalez. You get the picture. (And this is it: I’m a shameless name-dropper who's too cheap to pay for my own vacations.)
This year, though, I spent the last part of the summer in Cleveland working with Browns linebacker Scott Fujita on a story for the Magazine’s NFL preview -- not just from inside Bountygate but more what this scandal says about the current state and the future of the sport.
Not exactly Jungfraujoch, I get it, but here’s what we discovered.
Football isn’t dying -- it’s just changing.
Right on schedule, I might add.
And until we all sort out the changes taking place in the new post-concussion era of football, the lines governing what is and isn’t acceptable with our national pastime will be constantly disappearing, moving and changing. Yes, it’s gonna be a weird, wild, bumpy ride, but football’s not going anywhere.
The sport will evolve, the violence will be brought under control. Football will live on.
That was the first of many revelations, discoveries, thoughts and ideas on the state of football as seen through Fujita’s unique prism from inside Bountygate.
Here are a few more:
1. No matter who you believe, the Bountygate hearings were far from the NFL’s finest moment.
At the mid-June evidence hearing at the league’s offices in New York, Fujita says he marched up to the commissioner, extended his hand and asked, "What the hell are you doing, Roger?" Goodell and NFL attorney Jeff Pash sat at the head of a long wooden conference table. To their right was a row of league officials and lawyers and across from them sat the four players and reps from the NFLPA. According to the hearing transcript, at 10:12 a.m. all 18 people present faced the other end of the table where NFL special investigator Mary Jo White, a former US district attorney, was seated next to a large projection screen that would display the league’s evidence slideshow.
First, though, Peter Ginsberg, the attorney for Jonathan Vilma, and then-NFLPA lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, representing Fujita, Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith, spoke for several minutes about how they were not going to speak. Both attorneys hammered Goodell on what they considered a lack of jurisdiction, due process and his neutrality as an arbitrator. In the hearing transcript, Kessler points out that of the 18,000 documents the NFL says it compiled, only 200 had been made available to the players and these included no witness interview notes or exculpatory evidence. All excellent points, in a court of law. But this was the court of Goodell, where the commissioner rules supreme.
“[We have] multiple, independent sources,” White later insisted. “This is certainly not a one-on-one, he-said-she-said record at all.”
As the hearing opened, however, it seemed to be exactly that. What the NFL claimed was pay-to-injure pools the players said were pay-to-perform kitties, the NFL’s version of helmet stickers. What the NFL claimed was protecting the identity of whistleblowers by not making them available for cross-examination the players said was denial of due process. When Goodell claimed the issue was "conduct detrimental" and therefore under his jurisdiction, the players countered that they were "on-the-field infractions" that required an independent arbitrator.
They bickered over the language of Article 14 of the CBA; the NFL claiming it outlawed pay-to-perform pools, the players saying it only dealt with payments between the team and players that circumvented the salary cap. Also at issue: terms like “cart-off” and “whack” that were central to the NFL’s bounty case. Although it stretches the imagination, players insisted, later under oath, that these all referred to different forms of clean and legal hits.
In the transcripts, the two sides even argued over the proper legal starting time of the hearing. Before a single piece of evidence was shown, the proceedings had already begun to slip toward the farcical. On one side sat the players: angry, silent, arms folded, shooting daggers from their "time out" chairs. On the other side: expensive suits oozing self-assured prosecutorial condescension. Not exactly Giants-Colts in 1958. After one exchange, Pash asked: “Does that mean you’re going to leave?” Kessler's response: “We’ll sit here but we’re not going to participate in any way.”
There wasn’t much need to. Later, when a group of reporters was allowed to examine 16 pieces of the league’s evidence, there were no smoking guns to be found, and Mike Freeman, a columnist for CBSSports.com, graded 13 of the exhibits an F. After a three-year investigation, 18,000 pages of documents and a five-hour hearing that produced a 90-page transcript, the league’s case against Fujita consisted of three short paragraphs and, Fujita says, lasted less than a minute.
In an email response to the Magazine piece, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote: “Our extensive investigation clearly established that the Saints operated a prohibited bounty program that rewarded players with cash payments for plays that resulted in opposing players being injured and ‘carted off’ or ‘knocked out’ of the game. Our information was corroborated by multiple independent sources with firsthand knowledge. The evidence of the program was overwhelming.”
As Aiello states, the league has repeatedly said it has much more evidence, including interviews, witnesses and computer files. But how much sense does that make? You don’t release your weakest evidence to the media; you show your strongest hand. And now that seven witnesses have sworn, under oath, that Bountygate never happened, if the NFL has more evidence or more compelling proof, I’d say it’s time to put those cards on the table.
2. Will we see Mixed Martial Arts Football?
During a long lunch at B Spot, a burger joint near Fujita’s home in Westlake, Ohio, just a few hours before he had to report to camp, we spent some time talking about what football might look like in 20 years. Fujita wants a safer game and healthier players, but he echoes what I’m hearing all over the league: If the NFL’s efforts to save the game by making it less violent go too far, that’s what could end up killing football -- or at least moving it to the fringes, or club level, much like rugby is now.
Let’s be honest, football is our most cherished form of entertainment and we love it because of the violence. Much like Big Oil, we are addicted to the violence of football even with mounting evidence that it’s probably not that good for us. In our society, though, we’re not satiated by less violence, always more. So I think the sport might split much like fighting has: The NFL will legislate the violence and contact out of the game, starting with making quarterbacks untouchable, like punters, and will become more of a video game-come-to-life version of itself. Games will end 85-80. It will look more like basketball on grass.
Meanwhile, just like the MMA did, an uber-violent, bloodier branch of the sport will break off. Players will sign waivers. Careers will last two seasons, maybe three. There will be no such thing as illegal hits or contact. And bounties won’t be outlawed, but encouraged.
Which version of the sport do you think will flourish?
3. The NFLPA made one mistake.
The NFLPA’s ultimate legal strategy was to get the case exactly where it is now: away from Goodell and in front of U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan, who, before Isaac hit, seemed to be searching for legal standing that would allow her to rule in favor of the players. Had the players participated in the league’s Bountygate proceedings, however, NFLPA lawyers believe that in the eyes of the court this would have been seen as the players acknowledging Goodell’s authority and grounds for an immediate dismissal. By not making this strategy clear to the public, though, the NFLPA allowed the league to create the perception that the players’ silence all summer was based on petulance -- or, worse, guilt.
4. The first thing change is the culture.
Some of the most compelling stuff in the Magazine piece is Fujita talking about how, from a very young age, it was ingrained in him, often by coaches he loved and respected, to ignore the brutality of the game. It seems clear you can’t save football from the top down with fines/suspensions/rules issued by Goodell on high. You have to change the culture of the sport from the sandlot up -- by no longer letting coaches, parents or media glorify the violence of football to the point that players learn to value it more than their own safety/health or that of their opponents.
5. Part of changing the culture of football will be toning down the over-the-top, violent locker room rhetoric.
While acknowledging how inappropriate and wrong Gregg Williams pregame “Kill the Head” speech was, Fujita admits that kind of stuff is fairly typical inside locker rooms. His favorite coach at Cal used to instruct players to put their hands around an opponent’s neck and squeeze until the player lost control of his bowels -- a phrase Fujita says he used, and was applauded for, in the student newspaper before playing Stanford. Early in his NFL career Fujita says a coach once showed graphic footage of soldiers gunning down innocent civilians. When the players recoiled at the thought of being motivated by war atrocities, the red-faced, silver-haired coach accused them of being “bleeding hearts, p-----s and f-----s.”
6. Hello, I’m Japanese.
Here’s a link to my first Magazine story on Fujita. Given up by his birth mother at six weeks, Scott was adopted by Helen Fujita, who is white, and Rod Fujita, a third-generation Japanese-American who was born inside an Arizona internment camp during World War II. In a follow-up Flem File, Scott’s grandmother, Lillie Fujita, spoke out about racial profiling in a post-9/11 world.
7. Speaking out on social and political issues runs in Fujita's family.
Among his myriad off-the-field work, Fujita was one of the first pro athletes to support the Human Rights Campaign’s campaign for marriage equality. “Scott’s support was groundbreaking for us,” says HRC spokesperson Charles Joughin. “Pro athletes have been rather quiet on the topic in the past. So Scott’s commitment to what’s right as opposed to what’s popular speaks volumes about his character and the kind of man he is.”
8. One of the more appalling things about Bountygate is how, at times, it has been far less about cleaning up the game than a fight over the commissioner’s power and jurisdiction.
It has always seemed strange to me that the players so willingly accept discipline, fines and suspensions from a commissioner they have no say in hiring and no power to fire. “I haven’t been one of the guys out front yelling about how Goodell gets to be the judge, jury and executioner on this,” Fujita says. “I recognize that’s the way it is, that was part of the deal and that’s the way it has always been in the league. But this is the first time where it’s become a power-run-amok situation -- the first time the commissioner has abused the power that was afforded to him. The only reasonable thing for Roger to do now is admit mistakes were made. That would take courage but I would really respect that and I think that kind of gesture would go a long way to heal a lot of things.”
9. In the thick of Bountygate, Fujita gained valuable perspective by accompanying his friend Steve Gleason to the United Nations technology summit.
Gleason, a former special-teams standout with the Saints, was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. Fujita now sits on the board of Team Gleason, a foundation to raise awareness and help ALS patients. The group’s current goal is to build an ALS home in New Orleans. The night before Gleason spoke, the two friends attended a VIP dinner where they met a former bartender from New York who quit his job to raise millions of dollars to provide clean drinking water in Africa. “That was a chance to step back for a moment and watch and learn and meet people trying to solve real global challenges,” Fujita says. “It was important for me to have moments like that to keep this whole Bountygate thing and football thing in perspective. The trip to the UN made Bountygate feel like a blip on the radar -- for a little while at least.”
10. Here’s Gleason in an email, weighing in on Fujita and the state of football.
“More than any other teammate I've played with, Scott is able to balance the intensity and seriousness of NFL football with a smile,” Gleason writes. “I think that has translated well to what he's dealing with now. In my opinion, with the exception of [NFLPA executive committee member] Sean Morey, no player has done more to create change in the NFL than Scott. His efforts focusing on the health and safety of current players and integration and care for retired players have made a measurable impact for all players including myself. Public awareness regarding football health and safety is on the rise and athletes are becoming more informed about the repercussions of repeated head trauma. The game is changing based on this awareness, and Scott is a catalyst for that evolution.”
11. Gleason was recently honored with a statue outside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome of his famous post-Katrina punt block against Atlanta.
What few people remember was that the blocked punt was set up by a Fujita sack, making him the star and the hero of the rebirth game -- for almost 30 whole seconds.
12. Fujita believes the media has a role in all this.
While there seems to be a healthy amount of skepticism and questioning of the unchecked power of the USADA and its investigation of Lance Armstrong, Fujita believes the media has not been nearly as diligent when it comes to Bountygate. “The initial coverage, spoon-fed to reporters by the league, was so over-the-top and dramatic, and that is imprinted on everyone’s mind forever,” he says. “That was irresponsible. Where are the guys who did that, the guys who went over the top at the beginning, now that we are blowing holes in the league’s investigation? They are nonexistent. They are either embarrassed about it and their role in it or they are unwilling to bite the hand that feeds them.”
13. What’s still at stake for Fujita?
Fujita’s in the final year of a $14 million contract with Cleveland. If he’s on the Browns' active roster at the start of the season, the team owes Fujita his entire 2012 salary. If he’s still suspended, however, the Browns can cut him and bring him back at the league minimum, as a week-to-week temporary employee. One of the last things Fujita told me is that he’s actually worried that the judge will rule in favor of the players, the league will drop the whole thing because of a legal technicality and he won’t ever get to argue the actual merits of the case in a fair and open forum.
14. Finally, meet brain cancer survivor and Browns fan Dakota Bennett, 17.
Bennett and Fujita met in 2010 at a charity event for The Littlest Heroes at Cleveland’s Sushi Rock. In the middle of a sushi-rolling contest against Browns players, Bennett leaned over and asked, “Why can’t you guys try this hard during games?” They’ve been friends ever since, and the relationship inspired Bennett to help The Littlest Heroes by speaking to other kids who are battling cancer around northeast Ohio. “When things go bad, Scott doesn’t talk about what went wrong or what he could have done better; he only talks about what he’s going to do next,” Bennett says. “That’s pure Cleveland right there.”