NFL Season Opens Under the Darkest of Shadows

Beneath the fireworks, concerts, and breathless hype that will mark the start of the 2012 NFL season, is a league that’s haunted. It’s haunted by future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau who killed himself in May at the age of 43. It’s haunted by the recent suicides of Ray Easterling, Dave Duerson, and OJ Murdock. It’s haunted by the now widespread knowledge that the country's most popular sport can leave you damaged in ways never before suspected.  What a sign of the times that the start of the season wasn’t punctuated today with chest-thumping and military flyovers but with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s announcement that the league’s owners would be donating $30 million to the National Institute of Health to further study the affects of brain injuries.This recognition of the danger inherent in the sport has sparked a high profile debate across the political spectrum. The terms of the debate are simple: Given all we are learning about head injuries, should football be banned? Should it be the focus of a new prohibition movement? Both sides of this debate, I would argue, leave much to be desired. 

On the right, you have people like Rush Limbaugh saying that any discussion about prohibition, or even mild reforms like rule changes or limiting full-contact drills isn’t about science or the welfare of players but really about a nefarious plot to end freedom. As he said, "It's not going to be long before the wusses, the New Castrati in our society are going to suggest that tackle football be banned.”

Perhaps the best response to this “wuss” argument was Junior Seau himself who said to his friend, Sports Illustrated’s Jim Trotter, "Those who are saying the game is changing for the worse, well, they don't have a father who can't remember his name because of the game, I'm pretty sure if everybody had to wake with their dad not knowing his name, not knowing his kids' name, not being able to function at a normal rate after football, they would understand that the game needs to change. If it doesn't there are going to be more players, more great players, being affected by the things that we know of and aren't changing. That's not right."

But there is one thing Limbaugh is poking at that’s actually true.  A lot of the people who are making the prohibition argument are reasoning that players somehow need to be saved from themselves as well as saved from us, the bloodthirsty mob. The most prominent prohibitionist is probably celebrity author Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell’s argument is that football is like dog fighting, another "barbaric" sport that was once legal but which, as he argues, we now look down upon and criminalize. He implies that players are like the dogs: good people, bred to be violent, who need to be saved. As he wrote in the New Yorker, “In a fighting dog, the quality that is prized above all others is the willingness to persevere, even in the face of injury and pain….A dog that keeps charging at its opponent is said to possess ‘gameness,’ and game dogs are revered. Professional football players, too, are selected for gameness.”

It’s an argument drenched in condescension as well as well as a kind of neo-missionary racism. This is one of those moments when having some perspective is very important. If people like Gladwell want to raise awareness against unsafe working conditions, there are much more productive places to turn to than the NFL. The United States has the most unsafe workplaces in the industrialized world and more US Workers died on the job in 2011 than US soldiers have died in Iraq since 9/11. If you want to see US workers treated like "dogs" visit a non-union auto-plant.

To really get at the fundamental error here, we can go back to another prohibition movement, the movement a century ago to ban alcohol. Prohibition found sympathy among a diverse set of characters including the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs. But Debs never went all in on prohibition.

 In one letter to a prohibition leader, he said, “I admit all you say about the liquor evil, and we differ only in the way this evil will be destroyed. Prohibition will never do it[….] Theft and murder are prohibited but it is to be doubted if these crimes are lessened to any appreciable extent on that account. The world pays too much attention to the effects while it ignores causes and this is as true of the liquor evil as it is of any of the evils that afflict society.”

Apply this reasoning to football. It’s a violent sport that reflects our violent world. If we want to change the culture of the sport, we’d be far better off rolling up our sleeves and getting to work on changing the world.

The best way to understand the NFL is to see it as another of this country’s profoundly unsafe workplace. Efforts by the NFLPA to make it as humane as possible should be supported. The insistence of NFL owners to use untrained replacement “scab” referees should be seen as a direct attack on the health and safety of players. As fans we should also never forget that the people on the field are actual human beings taking a tremendous beating for our entertainment. And here we get to a kind of knowledge that’s very difficult to shake. As Arundhati Roy said in a rather dramatically different context, “The trouble is, once you see it, you can’t unsee it.” For the first time in my life, I could imagine myself drifting away from a game that’s brought me such joy over the years. I can’t unsee Junior Seau and Dave Duerson. None of us should. And if that affects the bottom line of NFL owners, it serves them right for caring so little for so many years about the people we’ve tuned in to watch.

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A few thoughts

The game is inherently violent and to make it safer(not safe) with the existing rules is highly questionable. The game would no longer be recognizable which may be for the better. Concerning the scab refs the owners deserve the majority of the blame but DZ gives the NFLPA a pass they don't deserve. "Efforts by the NFLPA..should be supported", what efforts. Did the NFLPA make any concrete efforts in support of the refs? This reminds me when candidate Reagan in 1980 sent a letter to PATCO(professional air-traffic controllers) trying to solicict their support, and we all know how that turned out. Most unions(not all) just look out for number one. There is no "one for all,all for one"mentality.

It's even worse than that

Malcolm Gladwell is only trying to do to football what he's done to others. If true to form, he's working an inside angle:

Regarding head injuries, let's remember that the owners fought hard for a longer season.

Dark Shadow

While its obvious that head inuries are very serious the NFL also should be ashamed of the way they have treated their Referees and Officials. What they want is such a small amount of the overall NFL take. And let us not forget why we have instant replay and professional officials.... to keep the gamblers happy.... so they have some confidence that their bets are being protected.

Not the same

Dave wrote: "The best way to understand the NFL is to see it as another of this country’s profoundly unsafe workplace."

That doesn't fly with me. Yes, playing football is an occupation and has most of the usual, relevant employer/employee conflicts, but it also has an integral aspect of violence-as-entertainment, and that is consciously pursued by all parties. The dogfighting comparison is apt. Condescending? Willful blindness and denial peddled to me is condescending to me as a thinking person.

I hate the violence inherent in football, always have. I think everyone else needs to acknowledge it, too - especially the enabling fans and sportswriters, whom Dave hesitantly alludes to at the end.


Zirin always gives you something to think about. What's missing from the analysis is the dialectic of the sport. Complaints about violence in football go back to Theodore Roosevelt's time. Over and over again reforms - rule changes, helmets, pads, spikes, etc. - to prevent injury have been introduced, but players and coaches keep developing new techniques and strategies to negate them. Now you have 350 pounders who run 4.8 50s! They are conditioned as never before and they use PEDs like they are going out of style. Plus, the game is so lucrative now that marginal players are willing to go to any lengths to share in the wealth. And yes, violence is the name of the game. It's not just the players - it's us, too. Listen to the stadium when someone is laid low by a savage hit.
Some day, after many more Seaus, Duersons, and BountyGates, the reckoning will come, and football as we know it will be outlawed.
And hey, the NFLPA is acting like a company union. Shame. They should be out with the refs.

Steve Young

Steve Young gave America some real talk.

"Everything about the NFL now is inelastic for demand. There's nothing they can do to hurt the demand for the game. So the bottom line is they don't care. Player safety—doesn't matter in this case. Bring in the Division III officials–-doesn't matter. Because in the end, you're still going to watch the game, we're going to all complain and moan and gripe and say there's all these problems, all the coaches say it, the players say it—doesn't matter. So just go ahead, gripe all you want. I'm going to rest. Let them eat cake.

Violence NOT inherent to football (or hockey, etc.)

IMHO, violence is not inherent to football, itself, but rather to the commodification of the product (entertainment) and the labor of the players, as well as the consumerist goals of its production, and its manipulation for ideological (militaristic) purposes, all the results of the capitalist "production" of the sport. When you go and play touch football with friends on a Sunday afternoon, there is nothing violent about it. With respect to another sport always branded as "violent," I was always impressed when the Soviets played the Canadian all-stars in hockey. The NHL players brought their brawling, violent style, produced by the same factors that generate football violence, to the ice and were thrashed by the speed and finesse of the Soviet players. Whatever its defects, the Soviet Union didn't turn its sports into spectacles for profit.

another era

Someone explain to me how football is not irredeemably violent and unsafe. Get rid of it - someway, somehow. The country and world would be healthier, safer, and culturally improved, as would be a lot of schools.

And if looked at as a mere safety-in-the-workplace issue, there are many immediate dramatic safety improvements that could be made such as player weight limits, softer turf, maybe with long grass to slow people down, abolish kick-offs and punts, ban all hard-edged external protection (since it doubles as a weapon) - that is, pad the outside of helmets, pad the top of shoulder pads, pad the outside of thigh pads, etc. Ban hard footgear and mandate footgear, maybe oversized that slows people down. Abolish all head-down, hand-on-the-ground stances. Abolish the between the legs hike. Doing all of the above, and more, would dramatically improve safety while not extremely changing the look and play of the game.

Of course, collisions and crashes will still occur on every play because that's the inevitable action of the game. So change the game to flag football, or put the players in inflatable rubber suits!, and if that still results in overwhelming debilitating injury, then ban it altogether.

The sport does have a lot in common with dogfighting. And worse. The sport of "football" is from what should be another era. Good riddance.

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Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to
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