Is The NFL Too Big To Fail?

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To quote the legendary West Canaan High School quarterback Johnny “Mox" Moxen (played superbly by Dawson Van Der Beek), “I love football, when it’s pure. But this, this isn’t pure.”

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In Varsity Blues, one of the best lazy Sunday afternoon movies about high school football, the morally rich Moxon is able to take this wholesome point of view and use it as both leverage to get his corrupt coach to quit and as a motivator to help his team win the state championship. He gives one quick speech about the sanctity of the game and before you can blink, the Foo Fighters “My Hero” has erupted and all that was evil about football has been vanquished by the true spirit of the game.

Unfortunately though, life isn’t a 1999 teen dramedy, and it’s not really that simple…
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We all have our own camels, which all have their own straw-carrying capacity, but recently mine has started to complain about a sore back.

The straw that caused it was my childhood hero (turned temporary bitter enemy) Brett Favre claiming that he doesn’t "remember [his] daughter playing soccer” as a kid because of the brain trauma he suffered while playing football. And while he may have done some horrible things in the past (painkiller abuse, the dick pic, playing for the Vikings), it really shook me to know that the man I once thought of as a superhero was admitting that the effects he’s noticed from a lifetime of playing in the NFL had “put a little fear” in him.

Yeah, it really shook me, I will fully admit that...

But it didn’t change my behavior one bit.

I still checked on my fantasy team immediately after reading the article on Favre, I still pored over game analysis from Grantland’s Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays, and I still put on my Aaron Rodgers jersey before I headed to the local Packers bar to watch the game. But as the week went by, I started wondering a pretty big question:

What would it take for me to stop watching football?

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I have been alive for going on 27 years, and as this adorable picture of me as a kid shows, football has been part of a strong majority of them. Over the course of that relatively brief time, there have been scandals, lawsuits, strikes, lockouts, and generally unseemly events that should have given me enough of a reality check to make me stop watching. But they didn’t, and I haven’t.

In my inaugural Daily Banter piece, I discussed a commercial/documentary featuring RGIII and noted that “sports has undoubtedly become the modern day bread-and-circus.” But has it become something so “sacred" that it can’t ever fail?

Last year, the NFL’s revenue was just short of $10 billion dollars (with Forbes arguing it could easily reach $25 billion soon). And that kind of money has an interesting way of supporting and sustaining itself.

The league just reached a paltry $765 million settlement with the over 4,500 retired players who accused the league of concealing a link between traumatic brain injury and football, Michael Vick donated $200,000 to the renovation of a rundown rec-center after he was released from jail on vicious animal abuse charges, and Von Miller, who is just returning to the field after a six game suspension for PEDs (which he claims was Adderall, though that wouldn’t explain his ability to gain 10lbs of muscle mass while shedding two percent body fat), will be seeing donations to his charity Von’s Vision from video-game maker Ubisoft every time he performs his sack dance on the field during a game. The NFL and its constituents believe in the same system they use to punish their players: if you do something bad, pony up some cash, and it will all be forgotten.

And somehow, they’ve tricked me into believing that’s fine.

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Seeing a news story on the ESPN ticker about a football player being arrested barely registers with me anymore (though Deadspin does do a nice job of putting this in context), and when drafting a fantasy team this year, I remember factoring in Dallas Cowboys wide-receiver Dez Bryant’s arrest record with the same objectivity that I used to look at Torrey Smith’s strength of schedule. Hell, before researching this article, I had almost forgotten that an All Pro tight end who was the future face of the Patriots organization PREMEDITATEDLY MURDERED SOMEONE IN COLD BLOOD.

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And you know why I almost forgot?

Because the Patriots moved on, the NFL moved on, and I keep being told the real story in New England is whether or not Brady is finally losing his magic (spoiler: he is).

Just as a 24-hour news cycle disembowels any chance at real news being covered well, the same goes for the 24-hour sports news cycle. Just watch Sportscenter and you’ll see that glorious topic tracker on the left, reminding you that even the biggest stories will eventually be taken over by highlights and analysis. There’s just too much information to fixate on one topic, no matter how tragic. I the viewer forget all about the Raiders quarterback’s sizzurp addiction because the Top 10 is almost on and holy shit that was a great catch. It’s not complacency or apathy, it’s denial fueled by a short attention span.

Which brings me back to wondering if I will ever actually stop watching…

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Let’s face it, even with all the PED scandals and absurdly inflated salaries and racist team names, the biggest hurdle the NFL will ever have to face is when the inevitable finally happens and a player dies on the field.

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Trust me, it’s going to happen.

Just two weeks ago, I watched Jermichael Finley of my beloved Green Bay Packers lay motionless on a field while doctors checked for feeling in his extremities. It scared the shit out of an entire 73,000-person stadium that had turned pin-drop quiet, because everyone knows one day the player getting carted off the field isn’t going to get up.

But I still don’t know if that’s enough to keep me from the sport I’ve spent a quarter century watching.

In 2010, a player for Rutgers named Eric LeGrand was paralyzed after making a hit on the field (Jason Street style). The crowd wept for him, the talking heads mourned the situation, and we spent a good week or so rehashing the same old injury debates. But then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed him to a symbolic contract and we all felt good enough about the situation to forget about it. As coaches and players always say, we just started looking ahead to next week. Because when it comes to an entity as big as the NFL, one player's life isn’t going to be enough to bring the system to its knees. The league would lose some fans for sure, but in reality, it doesn’t need all the fans it has in order to keep prospering.

What it does need, however, are rosters of players to actually play the game. And that’s something that might be a bit rarer in the future…

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“Would you let your son play football?”

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It’s a common question to hear during sports talk shows or in interviews, and more and more frequently the typical answer has swayed between, “I’d have to really think about it,” and a flat-out “No.” Even President Obama has said that he would “have to think long and hard” before allowing his (hypothetical) son to play.

And while it’s hard to imagine anyone in football hotbeds like the Deep South and Texas telling their kid to drop the pigskin and start kicking around a soccer ball, the talent pool will slowly start to drain someday, if it hasn’t already. Eventually, the information linking football to irreversible brain damage will be irrefutable, and only those who forsake hard science will be able to bury any concerns they might have about their sons playing at even the high school level (sadly, this is where I remind you that 46% of the country believes in creationism).

And this is the one issue that the NFL’s bottomlessly deep pockets can’t fix.

So while I hate to say that at this point it feels like the only way I’d stop watching football is if there’s no football left to watch, that time may be coming sooner than any of us think.