Seven words put the NFL deep into anxious mode

It should have launched shock waves across the Kingdom of Sport and maybe in certain of its locked and sealed boardrooms, it quietly did. It should have rattled the tens of millions of couch potatoes devoted to what’s purported to be “our national game” to their collective core given the clear implication that the days of their mindless passion may just be numbered.

Instead, the immediate reaction was muted; no, make that negligible. In the better newspapers, word of it may have sparked alarm. But where the true yahoos are to be found, like on Sports Center, it produced little more than a yawn, and while one cannot personally testify here’s betting that it received nothing more than a contemptuous wave of indifference from the clientele of America’s jock-talk-radio-shows, which exist only to expound on trivia and nonsense.

But the joke, boys, may yet be on all of you. Your precious game of football, from the imperial level of the National Football League all the way down to the grunt version waged on the sandlots of the republic, may be in graver trouble than anyone anticipated when the great debate on its hazards turned really serious only a couple years ago. 

Does it not sound monumental, old Sport? Well, it is! Because for the first time, an NFL official of true consequence has conceded, essentially without qualification, that there truly is a link between the oft- violent contact of the game and the increasing evidence of degenerative brain disorders like CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) being experienced in their later years by some men who’ve played the game.  

As historical moments go, especially in sports, it was improbable. The occasion was a round-table discussion held at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington by the US House Energy and Commerce Committee. It was Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Illinois, who posed the key question: “Is there a link?”

Doubtless the response from Jeff Miller, the NLF’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, stunned her as much as it has everyone who has been following this complex matter. “The answer to that is certainly, yes,” said attorney Miller and he did so calmly, clearly, and unequivocally.

So why is that a big deal, says you? Because nobody remotely connected with genuine authority in the NFL or at any other important level of football, for that matter (like the NCAA  or Pop Warner’s board of directors), has ever been able to bring himself to make that simple statement so declaratively.

Those who have been obliged, i.e., forced, to comment over the years – led by the NFL’s sitting commissioner – have always found coy ways to hedge and haw, qualify, minimize, and muddle, and yes, equivocate in their responses just enough to water them down legally in order to avoid acknowledging what’s obvious and increasingly irrefutable, thereby increasing exposure to legal redress.

It’s the game within the game they’ve been playing more than a century since Teddie Roosevelt was president and wanted to outlaw football on the grounds that it was too violent. It’s the game that began to intensify around 1996 when ex-players and their medical advisors began to suggest the possibilities of a  link between certain brain-related disorders and violent athletic experiences, especially in football. It’s the game that has been waged in high dudgeon the last few years as the battle over potentially many, many billions in compensation for victims has greatly intensified. Well, mate, at least that game is over.  

In its analysis, the NY Times called Miller’s assertion “a stunning about-face for the League” and termed it “seven words…. [that] could profoundly affect the country’s most popular sport.” The headline on the story spoke volumes to the point, “NFL Shifts on Concussions, and Game May Never Be the Same.”

So stunning was the development that learned media observers were quick to wonder if Miller had simply screwed up, blurting out something he hadn’t intended to say. But the commissioner’s office was just as quick to put an end to such speculation with its PR chief firmly asserting that Mr. Miller’s comments “accurately reflect the view of the NFL.” Doesn’t get firmer or clearer than that nor more amazing, given that it comes straight from the lads who’ve so defiantly stonewalled for so long.

Moreover, Miller is a bright young chap with impressive academic and legal pedigrees who says what he says well, especially compared with the clumsy MO of his boss, Commissioner Goodell, who will be best remembered in this discussion for his astounding quip at the last Super Bowl when, in an effort to lighten the mood and minimize the risks of playing football, he asserted that everything in life entails risk, then added, “There’s risks to sitting on the couch.”

To be sure, especially if one is watching a football game while sitting on said couch. Earlier in the controversy he actually opined that one could as easily get concussed while swimming as by playing football. Don’t you sort of get the impression the league may be trying to take leadership in this matter out of the hands of a beleaguered commissioner with the gift for uttering ill-advised ad-libs?

Why are they adopting this tactic at this time? That’s a key question and one they’re disinclined to answer, one supposes. But it almost certainly has everything to do with the on-going appeal of the massive settlement arrived at last April that would cap the fund and restrict compensation to the players who had filed claims before the 2015 settlement.

The NFL Players Association is appealing on the grounds the eligibility of retired players claiming CTE should not be restricted, nor should there be any restriction on players in the future – including those who have not yet played a down in the NFL – who incur such damages.  A three-judge panel of the US Third Circuit Court heard the appeal last November and the judges continue to ponder their decision. Obviously it will be huge in its implications. Meanwhile the fund remains uncapped. Just think how nervous that makes the NFL owners feel, although they’ll get little sympathy here.

It’s surmised that in having Jeff Miller drop his dramatic statement – emphasized by that key word: “certainly” – out of the blue, the owners are essentially warning all contemporary players and any gluttons for punishment who wish to play this game in this league in the future that they have been clearly forewarned of the potential hazards, thus making this league no longer responsible for any suffering they may incur. They may also be trying to impress the federal appeals court with their newly discovered candor on the matter.

If all that sounds devious, it’s really not; it’s just another of the “games within the Game,” as it were. That the appeals panel might be impressed with such tactics seems a bit of a stretch. But then, what do I know about how judges on a court of appeals thinks or acts? We’ll all know, soon enough.

In the meantime, there may be more cause to wonder about how this latest brazen NFL flip-flop affects the thinking of all the people down the ranks of this game from college to high school to Pop Warner to Pee Wee ball. They’ve been listening to the pros scorn the warnings for decades and accepting what they said as an article of faith and now they’re being told the hazards are even more dire by those who so long denied them. How do you get a grip on that? Not easily!

The issue accelerates. The problem seemed easier to dismiss for so long because the doomed seemed mainly anonymous linemen and defensive backs. When stars fall, that attitude changes. Even ardent fans willing to embrace NFL claims of infallibility waver when the malaise claims a Junior Seau, a Frank Gifford, a Ken “The Snake” Stabler.

Naysayers counter by arguing that of the thousands of ex-players who have filed complaints, less than a hundred have been verified victims of CTE. Conveniently, they fail to note that if you’re thus afflicted, to have your problems verified beyond doubt means you gotta be dead!