The politics of the NFL debate

Within the span of a few days this month, the lines in football's concussion saga coalesced, hardening toward a new and equally critical phase.

Ted Johnson, the former New England Patriots linebacker who retired due to head trauma and has since suffered from depression, said the death of Junior Seau represented for him a tipping point in the conversation, prompting Johnson to speak publicly. He said that admitting debilitating injury was once a great sign of weakness to him as a football player, that doing so sometimes made him feel like less of a man.

Cris Carter, Roddy White, Deion Sanders and Chad Ochocinco began offering the contrarian view: The concussion issue is both possibly exaggerated and the simple price of willfully playing a rewarding but brutal game. Sanders said the concussion risk has been overstated in youth football; the issues may be as simple as fathers not teaching their sons to tackle properly. White tweeted that players who made money and reputation playing football were ungrateful to now criticize and sue the game.

On its face, a rising defense of the game, which challenges the growing orthodoxy that football is a death sport, might be a positive exercise in democracy, but it really is nothing more than a clever attempt at filibuster. Like cigarettes and steroids, the seriousness of concussions is really no longer open for debate. For decades, the tobacco industry challenged the notion that cigarettes killed, which is no longer open for debate. Take, for example, this ad for Camel cigarettes that appeared in the Milwaukee Sentinel, April 17, 1951:

How thorough can a cigarette mildness test be? Here's your answer: In a coast-to-coast test, hundreds of men and women smoked only Camels for 30 days, averaging one to two packs a day. Each week, noted throat specialists examined their throats. These doctors made 2,470 careful examinations and reported not one single case of throat irritation due to smoking Camels!

VIC RASCHI: "You can't beat 'em for flavor -- and they're mild!"
BOB LEMON: "Camels are great tasting and mild."
MEL PARNELL: "I like the taste and they get on fine with my throat. It's Camels for me!"

During the 1990s and early 2000s baseball apologists dodged, turned, parried and spun the idea that performance-enhancing drug use was little more than a media creation. Today, a lively argument may exist regarding the effect of drugs on the record books, but it is no longer viable to suggest that a high number of players were not using performance enhancers.

Even in a media world that allows accomplished people to speak without much scrutiny of the facts of their positions, questioning the danger of football or the seriousness of concussions has quickly and appropriately become discredited. There is no debating that repeated blows to the head at high rates of speed over the course of a lifetime playing football is a bad thing.

Ochocinco acknowledged as much and, deliberately or not, illustrated the parameters of the upcoming fight. In a public letter of support addressed to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Ochocinco criticized critics of the game, and said the league is at a "crucial point in the history of football." He's right in his "blunt depiction," and not because in 2012 the NFL suddenly realized the game was dangerous. The league has witnessed career-ending and life-shortening paralysis (the late Darryl Stingley, among others) in the past. What is different now is the litigation, the deaths of former players, the attention on life after the pads come off.

The conversation has entered a new phase. The minimization of the impact of head trauma by the apologist camp is a political move masquerading as a safety debate. Whether the NFL continues to adopt modest new safety measures (knee and thigh pads) or begins a radical re-engineering of the game (on-field cumulative weight limits, seven-on-seven play, the elimination of the three-point stance, touch football), the fight is about what the NFL will look like in the next several years. The rest of the conversation will be the negotiation of degree. In its current form, football can never be made "safe." The question is whether football can be made safe enough to survive thousands of lawsuits by former players as well as the high-profile deaths of enough former players that cannot be explained away as isolated incidents.

The NFL pays big money to people with a special athletic ability, and the league is much less marketable without a thriving college and professional game. At stake is not the desire of talented men to play for lucrative contracts -- even with the facts that the game can take years off their lives, virtually all players say they would make the same choice -- but whether those players will be prevented from playing by governments or insurance companies or a next generation of parents. It is inevitable that the image of young, famous men -- men who were considered to have made it -- fatally shooting themselves in the chest will continue to gain traction, as will the stories of men like Dorsey Levens and Jamal Lewis and Johnson suffering memory loss before age 50.

Class is the final, less mentioned element for defenders of the game. Poor kids from urban and rural communities receive millions of scholarship dollars to attend colleges because of their athletic talent. Theoretically, that talent is supposed to expose them to a larger world -- through higher education -- whether or not they play professional football.

"I tell kids all the time to use football," Carter told me a few weeks ago. "Use football to go to college. Use football to enter into worlds that wouldn't want you without your ability. Use football to get ahead the same way gifted kids in the classroom use math or science. Use football, because football is using you.

"And what happens," Carter said, nodding toward the future far more than to safety, "to those kids who only get to go to college because they can play the game, if there's no game?"

Left unsaid, of course, is the reality of players who aren't prepared for that opportunity, the uncounted injuries and the large number who never earn a degree, and the most forgotten category: the collegiate players who lose their scholarships due to injury.

Safety is but one domino in a chain of many. The political, vocal defense of the game by prominent players such as Carter and Sanders raises questions about how much altering of the game the viewing public will tolerate before choosing to watch and pay for something else. Such a view challenges any regulation that would restrict the talent pool. These men are attempting to prevent the loss of huge financial and lifestyle opportunities. Football gave them a life that wasn't likely available in other professions. It secured financial futures for themselves and their families. It made them celebrities.

Their arguments have social and cultural merit and should not be discounted. They belong in a larger discussion about values. However, creating opportunity, both educational and financial, for young kids of all races and classes is a far different conversation than arguing whether football has a safety problem.

Ochocinco's letter to Goodell, though often bizarre and pandering to a man who holds immense, unchecked power over players, nevertheless illustrated a central truth: The game is under scrutiny. The structure of the game, through its own physical and violent evolution, is being threatened. Arguing the validity of the concussion issue is a lot like defending the Camel mildness test, an appropriately lost battle that inhibits solutions instead of furthering progress. These positions need to be seen for what they actually are: maneuvering today in an attempt to massage the consequences of tomorrow.