- Jemele Hill, ESPN.com, ESPN The Magazine
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I'm sure some people believed NFL analyst Troy Aikman was just trying to make headlines when he suggested late last month that the NFL someday wouldn't be the top sport in America.
"The long-term viability, to me anyway, is somewhat in question as far as what this game is going to look like 20 years from now," said Aikman, who was speaking at a forum on the possibility of professional football in Los Angeles.
I'm certainly not ready to predict the NFL's demise anytime soon, but Aikman was on to something when he said the growing concern about concussions will alter football over the next two decades.
The increased attention on player safety, and thus the changing game, would be much easier to accept if it wasn't steeped in hypocrisy.
That's why I've tuned out the moral outrage being directed toward the New Orleans Saints, who are being heavily criticized because a 50,000-page NFL investigative report alleging the team was operating an underground bounty system that rewarded defensive players for making big hits and injuring opposing players.
I don't condone players being hurt maliciously, and there is no question NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has no choice but to levy historic punishments against Saints coach Sean Payton, his former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams -- the alleged point man for the bounty system -- and team owner Tom Benson. Apparently, general manager Mickey Loomis and Payton stupidly chose to ignore Benson and the league's orders that they discontinue the bounty program.
As Bugs Bunny would say, "What a bunch of maroons!"
The NFL has made the game safer than ever, but the selective outrage is worse than ever.
The same NFL brass who will punish the Saints for their behavior will, in the next instance, happily market the violent hits that have fueled the NFL's popularity and turned it into a billion-dollar empire.
Some of the fans who are calling the Saints "dirty" are the same ones who replay vicious hits on YouTube or complain about referees' subjectivity in assessing penalties for such hits.
If you have chastised the NFL for being soft or pouted about defensive players being unable to graze the quarterback without warranting a personal foul, how can you criticize the Saints with a straight face?
Of course, there's a difference between legal, jarring hits and those that cross the line.
The problem is that line is always moving, because fans crave the game's violence. It's just that most remain extremely naive about what it takes to produce that violence.
I've been covering football players at every level for two decades and can attest that while many of them are nice, honorable men, the edgy mentality they adopt to play football is abnormal, to put it kindly.
In a game in which the ability to tolerate and play through unspeakable pain is revered, in which contracts are not fully guaranteed and one play can ruin a career or drastically change a life, barbarousness is so woven into the culture that the idea of being paid a little extra under the table to flatten someone is just considered part of the game.
Here's a badly kept secret about athletes: They compete fiercely, and among each other, it's often for silly stakes. The stories about Michael Jordan's gambling are legendary. He once collected several hundred dollars from teammates because he bet his luggage would be out on the conveyer belt first. Granted, he paid a luggage carrier to rig the bet in his favor, but for Jordan, it wasn't about the money, but the thrill of being rewarded.
Let's not forget that NFL players routinely target other players -- for free. A few of the Giants admitted after beating San Francisco in the NFC Championship Game that they targeted returner Kyle Williams -- who fumbled two punts that clinched the game for the Giants -- because he had a history of concussions. That only made Eli Manning's criticism of the Saints all the more laughable.
Although it's not professional football, in ESPN's 30 for 30 documentary on the dominance of the University of Miami's football program, a former Miami player admitted he promised his teammates he was going to knock out a Texas player on the opening kickoff in the Cotton Bowl. He did it, and Miami went on to win 46-3.
I don't believe NFL players want to see any of their peers permanently hurt, but they are coached from the time they pick up a football to attack vulnerabilities. Defensive players, especially, are driven by a unique, ferocious gear. You think Lawrence Taylor ever entered a game not wanting to knock the quarterback out? Or Ray Lewis?
So is that attitude wrong only if a coach pays a player $1,500 under the table? Or is it simply gamesmanship to differentiate wanting to pulverize someone without an extra financial incentive?
This week a number of current and former players have spoken up, with many admitting that bounties are commonplace -- although not to the extent of the Saints' program.
It doesn't matter how much Goodell eventually fines the Saints or whether he suspends anyone who was involved, because it won't change the code that exists among players.
The game has changed. The rules have changed. The players' mindsets have not.
And if we're being real with ourselves, we would be disappointed if they did.
It's easy to forget that NFL players pay an unspeakable price to entertain us. Yes, they play because they love football -- and a lot are paid handsomely for their sacrifices -- but it strikes me as ridiculous that the violence they exhibit in games is acceptable only as long as it never reminds us of the brutal realities.
We can't have it both ways. Yet it's so frustrating that we never stop trying.
Jemele Hill can be reached at email@example.com.