NFL Can Gain Its Conscience Without Losing Its Edge

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NFL Can Gain Its Conscience Without Losing Its Edge
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Does the NFL have to change to become a bigger and better company?

Many fans, as well as older former players, coaches and other employees tend to fight against the idea of changing anything about the league's DNA. To some extent, that makes sense, of course, as the old saying goes: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The league is extremely "ain't broken," and tinkering with the formula for success runs the risk of miserable circumstances. 

While that notion may have some semblance of common sense, there are two things inherently wrong with it. First, the NFL is constantly tinkering with just about everything. Second, and more importantly, the league fits in with the same corporate Darwinism that permeates every facet of business in America: change or die. 

Whether it's issues of safety, locker room culture or any other peripheral matter on the league-wide level, change scares people, and the idea of the NFL we know and love not existing tomorrow is frightening for a lot of fans. 

People need not worry, though, because the NFL can evolve into a 21st-century company and make some of its much-needed changes without becoming any less of the rough-and-tumble league and game we're used to seeing. 

 

Players May Be a Useable Commodity, But They're More Valuable Than Ever

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Dan Marino wasn't suing the league. Then, he was. Now, he isn't.

When it comes right down to it, players are a fungible commodity—they're easily replaced or exchanged.

One guy goes down, and another one pops up—multimillion-dollar dandelions. For every "once in a lifetime" player we've had in the past 20 years, we could probably populate a small village. Every draft has guys billed as "the next..." when that last great player has barely hung up his cleats. 

When one thinks about it that way, it's easy to see the NFL's consistent contention that they are the game—fans root for mascots and organizations. In an age when so many players and coaches are just boats searching for any port in a storm, why get attached?

Yet, the game is expanding. 

Rosters are getting bigger than they used to be, with ideas such as practice squads replacing the old notions of "real" players being only those who were the kinds of iron men who played both ways. Whereas decades ago guys showed value playing receiver, cornerback, kicking and returning kicks, now a team feels comfortable giving a couple of million dollars to a nickel cornerback. 

Players may be quickly growing into plug-and-play, factory-installed, assembly-line models (at least by team estimation), but they're not getting paid any less. Any team putting a million-dollar-plus investment into a guy doesn't want that investment turning sour because of shot knees or a traumatic brain injury. 

The irony is that players are becoming both more interchangeable and more niche within their respective roles, but they're becoming more of an investment for teams than ever before. Of course, much of that has to do with the NFL being forced to face the demons of its past treatment of players. 

Late last year, the League of Denial documentary helped shed some light on the many years that the NFL knew of the long-term risks of concussions but both hid that from players and perhaps even purposefully misled them.

As I wrote at the time:

The question is not whether the NFL is a dangerous game. Players know that. We all know that. 

The question has to be: Did the NFL know more about the game's long-term dangers before players knew, and did the league purposefully obscure those details for its own monetary gain, to the detriment of the players? 

Due to things such as that documentary, a lawsuit (pending an overturned settlement) and a second lawsuit formerly and briefly led by Dan Marino, the league is going to be forced into treating its players less like cogs in the machine and more like partners in this game.

There's also an upcoming Will Smith-helmed motion picture based off the GQ column, "Game Brain"—almost sure to do better at the box office than the NFL-adored Draft Day—and a summit convened at the White House.

Plenty of fans hate what the game has become and long for the days of smashmouth football rather than the wide-open passing attack led by "sissy" quarterbacks (never their favorite team's QB, oh no!) who cry whenever a "mean wittle defensive lineman ruffles that pretty pink tutu."

Mental inertia aside, the game may be changing, but it's still fundamentally the same. The NFL needs to internally change how it perceives, talks about and treats its players—as a part of the game that needs to be protected, rather than the rabble-rousing it needs to be protected from—before outside pressures force the game to do much more than that.

 

A Lesson from History and from our United States Armed Forces

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Back to those sissy players...

Every generation thinks the next generation has gone soft. This isn't just a football thing.

No, think back just to the great generations of our recent history. The "Greatest Generation" of the World War era, the heroes of the scientific and industrial revolutions, the people who put men on the moon and millions of pieces of data on the head of a pin. Each of those generations had a generation right before it that talked about those "shiftless losers" just like baby boomers talked about millennials

In football, too, it's no surprise when the former players on ESPN or NFL Network talk about how guys just aren't what they used to be. Warren Sapp can sit and bash Detroit Lions tackle Ndamukong Suh, and maybe he's right, but know that plenty of former players probably sat in judgement during Sapp's Hall of Fame career—they just didn't have the same platform to do it. 

In the same way, players from the undefeated Miami Dolphins can pop their champagne corks every year as the last team gets its first loss without the self-realization that players today are far bigger and even faster than what they had to deal with. The irony is all of the players from the generation behind the Dolphins probably thought they were scrubs at the time as well. 

One of the biggest things that separates the players from today and the guys of yesteryear is a sense of who these men are. As many times as I've talked to both the league and the union on the subject, I get the same answer: Today's athletes are businessmen. 

These are not young men playing a game. These are grown men running a business that happens to be contained in their immense physical and mental talents. Football is a big part of that business, but it's part, not the whole. After businessman and football player comes (hopefully, by league standards) family man.

That's it...that's the end. Whatever else a player in the NFL wants to be better either fit into one of those categories or be so far down the food chain that it never leaks out into the papers. 

This offseason, the NFL is doubling down on that notion, according to Peter King of MMQB:

The NFL’s executive vice president and chief human resources officer, Robert Gulliver, leads a three-man NFL team into Flowery Branch, Ga., today to meet with all players, coaches and selected executives (owner Arthur Blank will be on hand) to discuss how to improve locker-room culture.

Gulliver and former NFL players Patrick Kerney and Donovin Darius will talk to the 100-plus Falcons at the team complex as part of the league’s efforts to make sure a Dolphins-type hazing situation never happens in an NFL locker room again.

See, the old NFL mentality didn't consider players businessmen—guys who saw themselves that way were few and far between. No, the people in the front office with the checkbooks may be businessmen, but the players and coaches were just men, manly men, ubermensch

Those NFL players weren't Don Drapers sitting on high, sipping scotch and dreaming of being media moguls. No, they were more the kind of caricatures that the Don Drapers of the world drew as paradigms of masculinity like the Marlboro Man, and players who didn't fit in were dispatched if their level of play didn't make up for the headaches they caused. 

In many ways, this reminds me of the "growing up" our nation had to do in terms of hazing right around the turn of the millennium.

Students, soldiers, athletes and children dying because of initiation rights gone wrong seemed to make the headlines every night on the evening news. Organizations and longstanding institutions rushed to change their honor codes and handbooks to make sure they weren't the next on the list. 

Our armed forces were no different, as former U.S. Marine and NFL blogger Matt Ufford of SB Nation explains:

Gen. Charles Krulak, set about changing the culture of a 170,000-person organization where pinning and 'blood striping' (kneeing a newly promoted corporal in the thigh until he couldn't walk) were common at promotion ceremonies. His order, in part, reads:

This is a leadership issue. This is a warfighting issue. Marines do not go into harm’s way, make the sacrifices they always have, or give up their precious lives because they have been hazed or initiated into some self-defined, 'elite' sub-culture. They perform these heroic acts of selflessness because they are United States Marines and because they refuse to let their fellow Marines down...

This was written 16 years ago, and the Marine Corps still struggles with occasional hazing incidents; there are still echoes from older Marines about how the Corps has gotten 'soft,' how it 'babies' young Marines by not allowing NCOs the freedom to abuse and debase their brothers and sisters in arms.

Sound like anything we've been talking about?

Now, realize that neither myself nor certainly Ufford are comparing NFL players to Marines. Rather, the comparison is simply limited to the culture change the Marines went through once upon a time and the NFL is now facing head on. 

My bottom line whenever anyone talks about the game getting soft—due to an increase of care about the player's brain health (also an initiative in the military) or because of the ongoing culture change that makes the Jonathan Martins of the NFL more "normal" or "allowed" than the Richie Incognitos—is that the league isn't going to "become weaker" any more than the U.S. Marines did. 

Frankly, if you're willing to go so far down the rhetorical rabbit hole as to say that the lack of hazing or desire to not get concussions is weakening the best fighting force on the planet, you're probably not coming into the argument with a whole lot of objective perspective. 

 

"Dress for the Job You Want"

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What does the NFL want to be?

The respect younger players have for those who came before them is immense. Ask any rookie who he patterns his game after, and you'll likely get tales of busting spin moves in the living room while watching so-and-so or a high school coach making a mixtape of that guy. It's never just one but rather plenty of giants whom these athletes are trying to balance on the shoulders of.

Ask a veteran—maybe even one named in that above list—and you'll get the same routine just a generation removed. The irony, at times, is when the reverence in the voice of a player talking about his favorite player growing up fails to match the reality that the student has already surpassed the teacher.

As much as League of Denial showcased how little the league valued (and perhaps still values) the generations of players who built this product we know and love, the guys themselves realize the debt they owe to those who came before. 

The league, as a whole, must look back to look ahead. 

In the grand scheme of things, the NFL isn't that far removed from being a backwoods game considered far too violent, dangerous and barbaric to be worth any value to the vast majority of baseball-loving America.

Then, the NFL grew—through change and evolution—into what it was today. 

The league cannot be caught longing for the days when men were allegedly more manly, the game didn't stop over someone getting a little "shook up" with a concussion, the Jonathan Martins and (gasp) Michael Sams of the world weren't welcome in locker rooms and players were measured by their ability to take the mental hits of the locker room more than the physical hits on the field. 

Instead of seeing those days as a paradigm of what the NFL should be, see those days as what they truly were: a stepping stone to where we are now. The NFL is not ruined, nor is it any less pure, entertaining, righteous or masculine than the days of yore. 

Like the college student who has to throw away his ratty old T-shirts to make way for newer business-appropriate wear, the NFL should not seek to dress itself down to what it once was. Instead, it should be aiming for even higher heights than it has currently attained. 

The NFL has changed and has not lost its edge over the years. 

Objectively, it's America's favorite sport—by some margin, per a Harris Poll (via Darren Rovell of ESPN.com). Subjectively, if you're reading this column, you might very well think it's the most exciting. I do, that's why I fell in love with it. The game's growing up, but it's still the sport I love. 

Twenty years from now, the NFL will be a very different place for players, coaches and executives. The money pumped into the sport will continue to skyrocket as long as people keep watching it. The league will keep tinkering to see what works and what doesn't, and fans will still complain about it along the way. 

This doesn't mean the NFL is getting worse for its fans or putting out an inferior product. 

Change can be scary, and the NFL is certainly feeling its own share of change right now. Maybe I'm just a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I don't long for what the NFL used to be. Rather, I choose to be excited about what it can become. 

 

Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.

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