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Should the NFL Be Under Further Review?
May 8, 2012  | By Eric Gould  | 4 comments

You could say football is a sport built on violence. But the recent suicide of 20-year NFL veteran Junior Seau brings up even more disturbing questions about the brutal nature America's favorite sport.

Seau was found dead last week at his California home, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The death was ruled a suicide. Seau was believed to have been suffering from depression, a condition some believe resulted from the multiple concussions he received as a pro player.

There are a number of ex-players suffering from debilitating neuro-muscular diseases and chronic depression, and there is some research pointing to multiple head traumas as the cause. A definitive link has yet to be proven. Whether Seau's condition was the result of repeated concussions may never be known.

Seau's death comes on the heels of the shocking New Orleans Saints "bounty scandal" that exposed the ugly underside of NFL culture, and gives us yet one more reason to look at the top-grossing sports entertainment business that, in many ways, rules network television.

Last December, The Wall Street Journal called the NFL "The League That Runs TV." The NFL had just inked multiple extension deals with Fox, CBS and NBC that will pay the league $27.9 billion dollars over the next nine years. That's billion, with a B, just for broadcasting rights.

That's an awful lot of advertisers and investors lining up to pay a lot of money, simply because a lot of people are watching. But at what price? Should the NFL and the viewing public accept these sorts of injuries and tragedies as a regular cost of doing business?

As disturbing as the fates of ex-players who suffer from a host of serious medical conditions - conditions that many attribute to concussions and other game-related injuries - was the troubling news that broke at the end of last season that the New Orleans Saints had established a cash pool in 2009 that rewarded players for targeting opposing players with the intent to injure them or hit them so hard they couldn't finish the game.

And wouldn't you know, in 2009 the Saints went on to win the Super Bowl, a game that is usually television's top-rated show of the year.

It was an ugly story. Quarterbacks, including now-retired quarterback Brett Favre, were prime targets. Favre memorably received numerous hits during the 2009 NFC Championship Game. The photos of the bruises on Farve's ankle and thigh - the result of his injuries from that game against the Saints - were sickening.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has rightly come down hard on the Saints organization. Four players were suspended last week for their leadership roles in the pay-for-injury program. Head Coach Sean Payton had already been suspended from the team for an unprecedented full year, and former assistant defensive coach Gregg Williams, who organized the scheme, was suspended indefinitely from the league.

Hopefully, it will turn out to be life-time ban. Williams should never see a field on Sunday afternoon again, except from the stands.

Football isn't a game for sissies. It never was - and shouldn't be. By nature it's organized mayhem with guys hitting each other as hard as they can. But it’s also a thinker’s game, a strategic match-up between 22 men all going at max speed.

No matter how you feel about the physicality of football, the league has to establish a credible level of sportsmanship - if not for themselves, then for the kids. Young fans ought to believe they're watching the smartest, the strongest and the fastest - not the biggest thugs and cheaters.

In the wake of the bounty scandal, the NFL and television network executives ought to be very concerned with the legitimacy of the game. Fans need to know that what they're seeing is the fairest competition possible. Otherwise, it's just hit squads running amok. Not sports.

It's not inconceivable that football, without cleaning house, could at the least go the way of hockey - a sport that celebrates sucker-punches and bare-fisted knuckle matches. At worst, it can follow pro wrestling - an oiled-up, beefcake soap opera. I doubt people will be lining up to pay $27.9 billion for either.

Considering the the bounty scandal and now the Seau news, it might be advisable for Goodell and the league to start looking at the game differently. Maybe football doesn't need to be monetized to the max. Maybe securing the most expensive air-time, selling the most merchandise and delivering the most bone-jarring, fan-pleasing hits shouldn't be top priorities.

Perhaps they should reign in the coaches and players, change the public culture and figure out a way to ratchet down the brute ferocity. Why not focus on preserving the amazing athleticism that makes the game shine as it does? And while they're at it, perhaps they should focus on protecting players a little more, to make sure they have a life worth living after they leave the game.

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Tausif Khan
There is a scene in Spartacus where the eponymous character dreams he is cut with the blade of the sword and after this happens golden coins spill from the wound. It is then he realizes that he is nothing but a cash cow to his owner and nothing more. I feel that Dave Duerson came to the same realization just before he committed suicide.
May 10, 2012   |  Reply
Tausif Khan
There are differences. The owners of sports teams don't own the participants. However, the lure of money, fame and the hope of freedom through physical labor is something that entraps both into participating in the games.
May 10, 2012   |  Reply
Tausif Khan
People should really watch Starz's Spartacus. Watching that show makes me realize that American obsession with football is not far from the gladiator games of Rome.
May 10, 2012   |  Reply
Thanks for writing this column; this is a subject that needs serious review injury-wise. Perhaps it needs to be done under the jurisdiction of the AMA or the Surgeon General. How many serious blows to one's head constitutes entertainment vs lifelong injuries? And, unfortunately, this is a sport that little boys grow up emulating. Thanks.
May 8, 2012   |  Reply
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