Football has ‘issues’ needing attention at all levels

Football is back! Three cheers, as they say. Bursting with record profits, soaring in television ratings, fawned over and adoringly promoted by all the media, and given a free pass by arbiters of the culture’s ethics and mores, our loveable old gridiron wars, in all their oft-mindless fury, float through the popular fancy untouched and untouchable.

Not that there aren’t issues, mind you, most of which would be taken more seriously if they were to be visited in comparable volume on any other endeavor.

At least 5,000 pro football alumni are tripping over their attorneys, all of them aching for a chunk of the long-term injury slush fund that has swollen into billions, with the sky the limit. But the owners, wallowing in runaway riches, don’t even blink. More new rules aimed at curbing on-field mayhem have been introduced. They keep trying to make this game less violent, but it just gets more so. Only stray media sob sisters complain. Lawsuits abound. Even the cheerleaders, some of whom receive only free tickets and a parking space for their services, are suing, claiming they’ve been grossly underpaid in violation of federal law. Who weeps for the cheerleaders?

It was an epic off-season. Domestic violence perpetrated by league personnel reached such proportions that it forced the $32-million-dollar-a-year commissioner, who initially blundering badly on the subject, to issue sweeping and unprecedented guidelines to police the problem. Adding to the embarrassment on the messy behavior front was a rash of off-season DUIs and drug offenses as the league’s image, and that of its many reckless characters, becomes increasingly suspect. Meanwhile, fallen local star Aaron Hernandez lingers in jail awaiting his murder trial.

Welcome to the National Football League, immune to disgrace and coated in Teflon, while leading a charmed life.

But the major problems aren’t confined to the professionals; football is under the gun at all levels. Youth leagues suffer as moms and dads increasingly resist allowing their kids to get maimed while still in grade school. When the likes of a Terry Bradshaw declares that he wouldn’t allow his kid to play the game that made him a legend, you know we’re fast approaching critical mass on this delicate matter. Big-buck injury claims are seeping to the high school level. As more and more lawyers get involved, don’t expect the trend to recede.

It’s at the college level that it gets really serious. There, no less than utter revolution is besetting the game. Admittedly, at the peak, where a half dozen powerhouse conferences have long bagged all the TV dates and played all the bowl games and merrily gobbled all the riches, they’re still whistling “Dixie,” pretending that their happy fiefdoms have never been better off.  But, says I, it’s a classic case of pathetic delusion.

When they wake up, they’ll recognize that the drive for compensation for the so-called student-athletes – mainly in football and basketball – isn’t going to fizzle, and the higher the competition, the higher the compensation. Plus, we now have athletes claiming retroactive reimbursement for past exploitation – their mere images on programs, for example – with a federal court having lately ruled emphatically in their favor. Most ominous of all, the rage to sue over long-term-injury consequences has only just begun to reach this level and if that crusade takes off, you should hope for their sake that the powerhouses have been banking those fabulous profits. Because rainy days are on the way.    

Further and even graver complications at the college level are possible. Many expect it will only be a matter of time before the 600 or so colleges and universities maintaining honorable programs that properly adhere to amateur principles rebel, at long last, against the Division One heavyweights who exercise no restraint. In fact, in its recent decision to change their regulations and virtually abandon any control of the Division 1 powers, the NCAA essentially invited such a rebellion.

It might be hard to organize. But among the schools that still play by the rules and preserve at least the illusion that college athletics are played by bona-fide college students, resentment against the aggrandizement and outright cheating by the powerhouses is huge. Maybe the prestigious academic groves will finally assume leadership in this cause instead of settling for the mere satisfaction of their own righteousness. Are you listening, my dear Ivy and Patriot leagues, service academies, and elite independents? Allowing the big shots to make their own rules, which is what the recent NCAA capitulation essentially amounts to, ought be the bloody last straw. For everyone!    
And by the way: Does all this turmoil herald the demise of the NCAA, so long the chief enabler, promoter, and protector of the powerhouses that disdain the fundamental norms of amateur sport that the very same NCAA allegedly espouses? That, old Sport, is the question! The ranks of learned observers who think it’s inevitable are fast growing. But I’m not sure we’ll get that lucky.

For all these reasons, football seems to me to be in trouble. But the patrons – and that would be the nice folks who pay the freight – will have none of this. Loopy college fans are in a perpetual “see no evil, ask no questions” world of their own. While NFL yahoos are even more resolute in their willful indifference.

They love this game. It’s that simple. They’re indifferent to the health issues – as long as their kid is not involved. They have little interest in who is profiting, be it the quarterback, commissioner, or voracious owner. And they don’t give two hoots in a rain barrel if the outside linebacker is an unreconstructed, dope-addled, serial killer as long as he makes the tackle. I’m convinced a significant percentage of Patriots’ fans would take Hernandez back in a heartbeat if he’d only say he’s really sorry. Such is the Wonderful World of Sport in our times.   

Against this curious backdrop, the first week of the NFL’s regular season seems limited in meaning, let alone value. But there were uncommonly wild twists in 2014’s unveiling, suggesting that the trail of tears leading to Soupy Sunday might be more raucous than usual. Especially jarring for the vastly spoiled and heavily entitled local patrons was the spectacular ambush of the Patriots in Miami. For only the second time in the Belichick-Brady epoch, which spans the entire millennium, they opened with a defeat, one featuring said era’s most egregious second-half swoon, a lusty 67 yards of total offense. It was all so very, un-Belichickian.

Amusing in retrospect were the many pre-season laments about how we hereabouts were in for another ho hum regular season in which the omnipotent (at least in autumn) Patriots were about to again steamroll the long moribund AFC East as they’ve so casually done the last decade. It was declared the division crown was, as usual, a foregone conclusion. We were essentially advised to take a long nap because it was a boring prospect.

Happily, we needn’t worry about that anymore. The AFC East may jus be alive and well.

In stunning the Pats, the Dolphins, once mighty but lately quite a doormat, pumped drama into this season. Thanks much! The bearded Brady, hammered for four sacks and further humiliated by costly bobbles, never looked quite so mortal. In the end, he seemed dazed, very un-Brady like.

Is the clock ticking?  Are the Dolphins better than expected? And what of the Jets and Bills, who also won impressively in Week 1. Or are the Patriots notably worse? The truth, as usual, probably wanders adrift in the middle of the extremes. In 15 weeks, we’ll have an answer.
But it’s always nice to have a little mystery in the mix. It adds to the thrill of it all, making it easier to ignore all those other messy “issues.” Enjoy! But remember this: It’s later than you think. You heard it here first.