Times are tough for the National Football League. Concussions, racism, criminality, strokes and heart attacks, harassment — the problems keep piling up.
This weekend, things got a little worse.
Two of the best sports journalists in the business raised questions not just about what’s happening in the NFL right now but about the existence of the league — and the sport as we know it.
What is striking about what Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post and Rick Reilly of ESPN.com wrote in their weekend columns is not the litany of sins that the league, its owners and its players have committed but the way in which these journalists are taking it. They’re taking it personally.
Here’s part of what Reilly says: “This is the game I’ve spent 36 years glamorizing. These are the men I’ve spent five decades lionizing. And it turns out I was part of the problem.” Boswell doesn’t go that far, but he almost does: “. . . I’ve enjoyed the NFL since I was a boy 50 years ago. My father, my son and I have watched the evolution of the NFL for generations. . . . But especially in the last couple of years, the deluge of ugly, even horrific news surrounding the NFL has become a source of shock, chagrin and even critical self-examination for many of us.”
Any sport needs its cheerleaders among the ranks of the Scribblers. If these two major league Scribblers find themselves unable to watch — and thus to write — what’s the future of the league? And the sport?
Think about boxing. In the 1920s and 1930s, that sport and baseball were the two most popular pastimes in America. By the 1970s, in the minds of many people, boxing was no longer legitimate.
Could football be traveling down that road?
Here are longer excerpts from Boswell’s and Reilly’s columns, with links to the complete columns:
On Thursday night, I’ll watch when Washington visits Minnesota, just as I’ve enjoyed the NFL since I was a boy 50 years ago. My father, my son and I have watched the evolution of the NFL for generations. It has been the backlighting for Thanksgivings and a cause for phone calls of delight or misery as recently as Sunday. But especially in the last couple of years, the deluge of ugly, even horrific news surrounding the NFL has become a source of shock, chagrin and even critical self-examination for many of us.
Where are we? Where is pro football? The NFL doesn’t have a PR problem. It has a reality problem. And it may be a grave one. Every month — and it seems every few days — the NFL is inundated by new, barely suspected revelations. What has the NFL become? Or is this what it has been for some time? Is the truth coming out of the shadows?
If the NFL doesn’t alter its culture, it won’t be “America’s game” forever. Pro football isn’t going away any more than prize fighting has died. But status among sports can change — a lot. Is the NFL already so violent and infatuated with its own wealth that its phenomenal success will handicap it in facing the breadth and depth of its problems and prevent it from properly protecting its long-term future?
Football is getting harder to watch: Knowing the cost to players strips watching football of any innocence
This is the game I’ve spent 36 years glamorizing. These are the men I’ve spent five decades lionizing. And it turns out I was part of the problem. Howard Cosell stopped covering boxing when his conscience wouldn’t allow it, and yet I go on. I’m addicted.
In Caesar’s day, they filled the 50,000-seat Roman Coliseum to watch gladiators compete. These gladiators trained at special schools. They knew the risk. The glory and the money was worth it to them. If the gladiators weren’t dead at the end of the fight, the emperor looked to the crowd to help him decide: Had the losing fighter fought hard enough to please the people? If he hadn’t, the emperor would give a thumbs down, and the victor would immediately stick his sword into the neck of his opponent.
We are all still in that Coliseum. We are still being entertained by men willfully destroying each other. It’s just that now, the sword comes later.