Monday 23 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: NFL's terrible beauty begins again

A recent large protest in support of Colin Kaepernick outside NFL HQ in New York seems unlikely to change the minds of the league’s owners and managers Photo: Getty
A recent large protest in support of Colin Kaepernick outside NFL HQ in New York seems unlikely to change the minds of the league’s owners and managers Photo: Getty

Eamonn Sweeney

These are troubled times for the NFL. That may sound like a surprising statement on the face of it. After all, the league remains a behemoth in TV terms, last year's Super Bowl wasn't just America's highest-rated telecast of the year, it pulled almost three times as many viewers as the second-placed event. Sunday Night Football and Thursday Night Football are the second- and third-most watched regular shows.

The NFL also boasts the highest average attendances of any league in the world, its 69,487 figure almost 30,000 ahead of the second-placed Bundesliga. And its appeal is not confined to America, there will be four matches in London this season and a UK-based franchise cannot be far away. Yet the NFL is in trouble all the same.

American football has been rocked by the evidence of brain damage caused to the league's players. A recent Boston University study, led by Dr Ann McKee, found evidence of the degenerative brain disorder Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) in the brains of all but one of 111 deceased former NFL players examined. The effects of CTE include early onset Alzheimer's and dementia and it has been linked to acts of random violence, depression and suicide. The NFL has already agreed a $1billion pay-out to former players suffering from concussion-related conditions but the latest study suggests the cases so far discovered may just be the tip of the iceberg.

American football finds itself at the same kind of crossroads which Formula 1 found itself at after the 'killer years' of the 1960s and '70s and rallying during the Group B years of the '80s when deaths soared. It is beginning to look like a sport which exposes its competitors to unacceptable dangers.

The league's response has been to insist that its new guidelines on tackling have been reducing concussions, though there's no proof of this, and to suggest improvements in helmet technology may be the solution. But it has also withdrawn from a partnership to study CTE with America's National Institute of Health, having earlier pressured that body to withdraw a grant from a leading researcher into the disease. A report by members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee stated: "The ­behaviour of the NFL leadership and their medical advisors is inconsistent with their public commitment 'to support science and medicine'."

That seems about right. The NFL might not be shooting the messenger but they're refusing to fund or listen to him. Instead they've decided to fund a study by a committee chaired by Michael McCrory, an Australian scientist who has claimed CTE might not exist at all. McCrory's theories on brain disease have been described as "ludicrous, misleading and embarrassing" by Steven DeKosky, one of the world's leading experts on Alzheimer's disease.

The study is actually into the effect of concussions on jockeys rather than American footballers, though as Dr Willie Stewart, a Scottish neuropathologist notable for his research into the effects of concussion on rugby players, points out: "With a jockey on a horse if he comes off there's a high chance of a concussion but he's not impacting the brain hundreds of times in a race."

One of the most frightening results of the Boston University research was that it wasn't just elite footballers who ended up suffering from CTE, that 87 per cent of those who'd played the game at any level showed signs of the disease. It's not just the possibility of further payouts which has the NFL running scared, it's the idea that American football will become a game which parents don't want their kids to play. It may become a game played only by the poor and the desperate, those whose prospects are so limited the gamble with health seems one worth taking.

America's black community ­probably contains more poor and desperate people than any other. It also provides 70 per cent of the NFL's players despite making up just six per cent of the population. Which leads us to the league's second big problem. Colin Kaepernick's refusal to stand for the US national anthem last season led to him becoming a hero to the left and a pariah to the right. It's even been suggested that his gesture helped fuel the conservative backlash which helped put Donald Trump into the White House.

Now Kaepernick has suffered the traditional penalty for heresy - excommunication. The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback is not the force he was when leading his team to a Super Bowl runners-up slot in 2013, but 11 sides will start the season fielding players with inferior records in his position. A recent large protest outside NFL HQ seems unlikely to change the minds of the league's owners and managers. Is the exclusion of Kaepernick a gesture of political disapproval or a show of cowardice from people who couldn't face the hassle of having him at the club? Is one of those things any better than the other?

Last week Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers, the NFL's best quarterback, said it's "ignorant" to think Kaepernick wasn't being unfairly treated. "I think he should be on a roster right now. I think because of his protests, he's not. I'm gonna stand because that's the way I feel about the flag but I'm also 100 per cent supportive of my team-mates and any players who are choosing not to. They have a battle for racial equality. That's what they're trying to get a conversation started around."

Kaepernick often seemed an isolated figure last season but other players are following his lead. During their pre-season game against the New York Giants, ten Cleveland Browns players knelt during the anthem, including one white player, tight end Seth DeValve. Other white players have also shown support which is something the Seattle Seahawks' great defensive end Michael Bennett, the most high-profile player currently protesting, thinks is crucial.

NFL players have tended to be a less radical bunch than their NBA counterparts yet Donald Trump's presidency has had the virtue, its only one, of exposing the contradictions in American society. An event like the white supremacist march in Virginia makes people think about what side they're on. The black player in the NFL is in an undeniably odd position. Eighty three per cent of the supporters are white as are all the team owners, among them men who gave huge donations to Trump's presidential campaign. Every game is attended by ceremony paying tribute to the patriotic and militaristic values cherished most deeply by those who, in the words of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, want "to make America white again". How long can this continue in the current climate?

I've loved American football for years but the attitude of the NFL towards ­player welfare and its embrace of the least-appealing side of the American political character mean it's become something of a guilty pleasure. Like boxing, it's something which can only be enjoyed if you make a decision to ignore its more ethically dubious qualities.

Yet watch it I will. The very thing which has caused those welfare issues, the fact the NFL's players are bigger, stronger and faster than those in any other sport, is what makes it a game like no other. Its potential for drama was never more graphically illustrated than in last year's Super Bowl where the New England Patriots' Tom Brady-engineered comeback was the most compelling sporting story of the year.

The contradictions of the NFL are those of its country. You can shake your head at its invincible foolishness one minute while in the next marvelling at the cultural riches America's given us, from jazz to hip-hop to film noir to Broadway musicals to the Hollywood Western and the HBO drama series. American football is a treasure to match any of these and like them could have been invented nowhere else. In its violence, its wild enthusiasm, its terrible beauty, its flair, its inventiveness, its amorality and its total lack of any sense of proportion it is America writ large on our screens every Sunday night.

The NFL is America and whatever else you can say about America it's never dull. So though I'll feel a bit like a man gambling in a casino he knows is owned by gangsters, I'll watch it again this season in the expectation of great things.

We might as well enjoy it while it lasts.

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