The NFL season is in high gear — a fact that pleases the roughly 64 percent of Americans who watch football. The season rolls on despite the now constant news about concussions in the sport.
The recent TV documentary League of Denial and the book by the same name claim that for years the NFL had denied and covered up evidence linking football and brain damage. Is the concussion conversation challenging this country’s deep love for the game?
Apparently, not very much. Open a magazine, turn on a TV, and the new NFL ad campaign asks, “Why do you love football?”
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a coach or parent, player or fan. If you love football, now’s your chance to tell your story. Go to togetherwemakefootball.com. If you’re story’s chosen, you could end up at the Super Bowl, just like I did,” a boy says in one ad.
Whether intended or not, the ads have also helped blunt severe criticism facing the NFL in recent years. There was the massive concussion lawsuit pitting thousands of former players against the NFL — the league’s potential liability was enormous. And League of Denial was poised to hit TV screens and bookstores, exposing more darkness.
But a week before the season started, the NFL settled the suit. And by the time League of Denial aired last week on PBS, many more football fans were answering why they loved football, rather than questioning the violence in the game.
Last Sunday, football love was in full bloom at the On Deck Sports Bar in Portland, Ore. On Deck has 34 television sets, each one labeled with a specific game so that NFL birds of a feather can flock to the same screen.
In a booth, in front of the TV labeled “Denver vs. Jacksonville,” John Moretti sat in his bright orange Broncos sweatshirt nursing a beer, waiting for kickoff and explaining why concussion news doesn’t cloud his sunny days.
“I definitely read about it, have concerns about it, you know. I do have empathy — not really pity, but empathy — for the players who get hurt,” Moretti says. “But then again, it’s the life they’ve chosen, and they get paid very well for it.”
With so much media attention on the harmful effects of a violent game, some fans are staking out comfort zones that allow them to stay connected. Moretti, for instance, thinks big hits add to the excitement of football and don’t come close to the mayhem of mixed martial arts.
“Really, if you want to think violence, I’d say climb into a ring, in an MMA ring and, you know, take fist to the body, knee to the body, feet to the body, until somebody basically isn’t moving,” he says.
Most NFL players do move after taking a hit, even a big one. For concussion researchers, that’s not really significant. They’re finding that even the most innocuous contact can do harm. But for fans like Erin Kilpatrick, a veterinarian parked in front of a Seattle Seahawks game at On Deck, it means she can keep enjoying the game she grew up watching with her father and grandfather.
“I would say if it happened more often … like in really violent movies, I might stop watching. As long as it doesn’t look intentional, then I would say they’re just out there, they’re playing a sport, it happens,” Kilpatrick says.
Football love is hard to kill. Mind you, fans are getting an assist from the league during this time of increased concussion awareness. And it makes sense — the fruit of that love is an estimated $10 billion in annual NFL revenue.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made player safety a priority. He’s enacted new rules and frequently talked about changing football’s culture. It helps appease the fans, says former Denver Broncos tight end Nate Jackson, but remains a tough sell for players.
“You’re sitting in these meeting rooms watching film of your game or your practice,” Jackson says. “Roger Goodell’s not in those meeting rooms. Your coach is the one who’s leading those meetings, and he’s telling you in no uncertain terms what it takes to be on the team and to have a job on the team. And that is bringing that man to the ground by any means necessary — laying that shot that he’ll remember.”
Jackson remembers when Cleveland linebacker Willie McGinest “nearly decapitated” him in a 2008 game. No hard feelings, though. Every football player accepts the violence, says Jackson — most of the time.
“There’d be times, laying in bed the night before a game, when I’d have this kind of morbid vision of myself getting hit and collapsing into just a pile of bones. My whole entire skeleton just crumbling,” he says. “And it was this flash that would come into my mind and then I’d shake my head and say, ‘What are you doing, Nate? Come on, focus. Focus.’ And I was OK.”
Jackson has been out of pro football for four years. He loves watching games and writing about them — his new NFL memoir is called Slow Getting Up. He calls pro football players the best athletes on the planet, engaged in a beautiful dance. For most fans, that beauty outweighs the treachery. For now.