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Thursday, December 6, 2012
NFL's mixed messages

By Howard Bryant
ESPN.com

Vince Wilfork/NFL 60/Brandon Browner
There's a gap between the NFL's public messaging and its actions.

The lines delineating the NFL's greatest battleground can be seen through the eyes of the children, earnest and in high definition, during every broadcast, every Sunday, all of them pawns. There is the little black girl in the purple Sunday dress endearingly interviewing Ray Lewis. There is the grateful sandy-blond boy with his mom in front of the minivan thanking his local coaches for making football safe and important. There's the kid with the bowl cut, limbering his arm, talking precocious smack to Cam Newton, dreaming to be him.

The kids are the cute but obvious props of a high-powered public relations attempt to soften the edges of a deadly game, providing snippets of humanity in between the Saints-49ers game two weeks ago, where 49ers Kyle Williams and Kendall Hunter were driven away on the same cart at the same time, Williams gone to a left ACL injury, Hunter felled by an ugly ankle injury. Or following an injury timeout during Patriots-Jets on Thanksgiving night, when LaRon Landry buried Julian Edelman, who left the game concussed, unsure whether he was in New Jersey or New Delhi.

On mainstream sports websites -- including ESPN, Yahoo!, Sports Illustrated -- the NFL drop-down menu includes a link to injuries. Maybe it is just a nod to fantasy players and the gamblers and the open secret marriage of football and bookies, or maybe it is a blasé and tacit acknowledgement that knowing whoever gets carried off of the field is as common -- and just as important -- as who is carrying the ball off-tackle. There's an injured Bronco on the field, and we'll be back after this commercial break …

Safety isn't the only front where the NFL is using young people to parry its mortality. The NFL has sunken millions of dollars into its "Play 60" initiative since 2007. This is another Madison Avenue illusion designed -- through hip and clever advertising -- to suggest the NFL is committed to healthy living even while encouraging its employees on the offensive and defensive line to resemble Vince Wilfork. The Play 60 logo is painted on fields and displayed prominently in NFL stadiums.

More telling than PR hocus-pocus, however, are the real numbers. As of Thanksgiving, in a time when American obesity is deadlier an epidemic than concussions, 437 NFL players on active rosters weighed at least 300 pounds, and that figure does not include the practice squad, the injured reserve list or the hundreds of players teams released during training camp. Shadowing the numbers, of course, is premature death waiting for these heavier players, many of whom will never live to see their 50th birthdays.

Creating slick advertising and partnerships with the Ad Council and the American Heart Association to bring attention to childhood obesity without making the obvious connection between the unhealthy business practices currently occurring in the NFL represents the worst kind of cynicism. Spin is more vital than substance. The NFL could impose weight limits to back up its verbal commitments to the long-term health of its players but does not. Nor does its primary talent source, the NCAA, which -- because a minuscule percentage of players will actually play in the NFL -- fattens its players in preparation for a life of outside of the professional game.

The lack of connective tissue between concussions and policy is equally disturbing. After years of denial by players, doctors, coaches and front offices, the NFL can no longer ignore the issue of head trauma, not after some of its former star players, notably Dave Duerson in 2011, committed suicide and not after studies of other deceased players' brains, including Mike Webster's, have documented chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

While the NFL is busy making commercials and forming partnerships, it has also refused to connect the speed and power of its game and its performance-enhancing drug culture and policy. Initial suspensions have remained at four games for years, and players are now treating that like a simple speeding ticket. Three more PED suspensions were handed out in the past two weeks -- Seahawks defensive backs Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman (who is appealing) and Redskins defensive back Cedric Griffin -- making it 23 since Jan. 1.

Aqib Talib
Aqib Talib's suspension sidelined him for four weeks, during which time he got a new job with an perennial playoff team.

The suspensions come and go without outrage by the league, the fans, the players or the teams, which seem to sign players understanding that the chance of losing them for four games is merely the price of doing business. The Patriots acquired Aqib Talib from Tampa Bay as though he were recovering from a sore elbow when he was actually serving out a drug suspension. Players don't even bother patronizing the public with half-hearted statements expressing apology for letting down teammates and the organization, all while the collisions grow more violent, the PR firms rake in more money from the commissioner's office and Roger Goodell is, amazingly, praised for "taking steps toward making the game safer."

Contrast, for a moment, the world of baseball, where the Hall of Fame discussion is and for years will be essentially less about accomplishment and more about mopping up the steroids era. Melky Cabrera lost a chance to play in the World Series, his comeback and name disgraced. Cabrera was granted a full share of the Giants' championship winnings and then was left to find a new home. He signed with Toronto, a team that is making moves but will have a much tougher time contending than the team he just left.

Football's leadership has not shown any interest in confronting its drug culture or acknowledging that a four-game suspension is no deterrent. It's clear, when comparing home run numbers of recent seasons with those a decade ago, that the sanctions and stigma Cabrera faced have an impact on what and how players use. As baseball VP Rob Manfred said of the game's increased suspensions, "The goal isn't to catch people. The goal to keep them from doing it."

There's certainly no external pressure on football. The NFL and its fans made a deal with each other long ago. The fans would suspend their disbelief and accept that it is very difficult if not impossible to play football without some form of performance enhancement either to stay on the field or run exceptionally fast in exchange for the pleasure of tailgating any given Sunday. This is their bargain.

The league, however, is engaging in a public relations game that could not be more cynical. The NFL knows that health and safety are the twin threat that could someday bring it down, but if the league cared about head trauma and slowing down the weekly car crash that is pro football, it might consider making its PED policy a real deterrent instead of monthlong detention at which everyone laughs. If it actually cared about the health of its players and the little fat kids who grow up to be obese adults (diabetes is the fastest-growing disease in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), it wouldn't encourage linemen resembling the SUVs they drive home in.

The league is getting its money's worth. As the next guy gets carted off the field and the TV goes to a break, at least the commercials are well made.