Mike Freeman's 10-Point Stance: Is It Still OK to Love Football?

Mike Freeman@@mikefreemanNFLNFL National Lead WriterMarch 30, 2016

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell gestures during a press conference at the NFL owners meeting in Boca Raton, Fla., Wednesday, March 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Luis M. Alvarez)
Luis M. Alvarez/Associated Press

1. The emotions of football

How should you feel about football? 

This is a big question. This is maybe the sports question of our generation. It's the question the NFL fears many people are asking. Because if many people are asking it—and they are—there's a chance the answer is something the NFL won't like.

This is the answer some of you will have: Shut the hell up with your political correctness. I love football. I LOVE FOOTBALL, and none of this head trauma stuff is going to stop me from loving it. My son's gonna play it, too. You liberals and your agendas. You only present one side. We need more study. Keep out of my sports. The players know what they're getting into.

Yes, there will be that opinion, and it's not an illegitimate one. It's perfectly fine. Except the telling me to shut the hell up.

This is the answer others will have: Football is immoral. We know the game is destroying the minds of the men who play it. The NFL lied about this for 20 years. Can't trust anything it says. When we watch the game, we are sponsoring long-term brain damage to other human beings. Including children. Is this the kind of society we want to live in?

And that opinion is also fine.

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There is, of course, a nuanced middle.

Where exactly does this middle exist?

I have been a lover of the sport since I was kid. Played it constantly. Played it in high school. Was terrible at it, but still, along with being in the military, it was one of the best things to ever happen to me. Both taught me a number of vital lessons, the main one being to do whatever it took to not let a teammate down. These lessons are some of the best ones anything, or anyone, can teach. That is undeniable, and it's a big reason so many players who have suffered from brain trauma due to football still insist they'd do it all over again.

I love the game. I also don't hate Roger Goodell the way some anti-football zealots do. I actually like him. (There. I said it.) I know many of the people in the league office and like them as well.

None of this is personal for me. And I think the NFL makes some fair points, the main one being the science of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) isn't fully developed or absolute.

But I also think the NFL engaged in a vicious and disgraceful coverup of the dangers of football, and that factors into my thinking, too.

I also think that, no matter what the NFL or the football truthers will say, the science is beginning to show almost inarguable proof that football causes long-term brain damage. One scientist with the Mayo Clinic studied 66 brains of people who "had documented participation in contact sports during their youth and young adult years."He found signs of CTE in 21 of those people. In the brains of 198 control subjects "without documentation of participation in contact sports," there was no CTE. That is pretty damming.

How should you feel about football?

The obvious answer is you should feel any damn way you want to feel.

But most rational, even-tempered human beings will feel something like the way I do. I love the sport, and I always will. It's part of my DNA. I'll always watch it and write about it (five books on football and counting). I'll always feel great respect, in particular, for the men who play it. Guys like Ken Stabler, who played hard and loved football with a passion and suffered from CTE, are heroes to me. I don't use that word loosely, and I believe it wholeheartedly.

But there's conflict, and it remains difficult to balance the following two facts with that love and respect: The NFL lied for years, and the science continues to show the violence of the sport might significantly damage the brains of the men who play it.

So, again, how should you feel about football?

Those emotions remain immensely complicated and likely will for a long time.

2. Another player retires

The Chiefs' Husain Abdullah announced his retirement Monday after seven years in the league.

Seven years isn't a crazy long time, but this plays into an increasing notion that players are starting to believe the emerging science on CTE and act accordingly.

This paragraph from Abdullah is highly telling: "There are numerous deciding factors in my decision, with personal health being foremost. Sitting for five weeks last year after suffering the fifth concussion of my career, I had a lot to contemplate. My goals moving forward are to be of benefit to my family, my community, my country and hopefully the world. Having a sound mind will be vital in accomplishing these goals..."

3. Roger Goodell, Jerry Jones and Jim Irsay aren't helping their cause

Michael Conroy/Associated Press

First, Roger Goodell said you can get hurt sitting on a couch. Not sure what couches he sits on, but unless the couch is located in the jaws of a shark, the chances of getting injured are kind of slim.

Then, Jerry Jones downplayed the risks of CTE.

Now, Jim Irsay compares the dangers of football to taking aspirin.

Via the Sports Business Journal's Daniel Kaplan, here's Irsay:

"I believe this: that the game has always been a risk, you know, and the way certain people are. Look at it. You take an aspirin, I take an aspirin, it might give you extreme side effects of illness and your body ... may reject it, where I would be fine. So there is so much we don't know.


"To try to tie football, like I said, to suicides or murders or what have you, I believe that is just so absurd as well and it is harmful to other diseases, harmful to things like ... when you get into the use of steroids, when you get into substance abuse, you get into the illness of alcohol and addiction. It's a shame that gets missed, because there [are] very deadly diseases there, for instance, like alcoholism and addiction. That gets pushed to the side and [a person] says, 'Oh, no. Football.' To me, that's really absurd."

This is bad. Really bad. It all sounds so much like what the tobacco industry stated when it was trying to minimize the dangers of smoking.

I would hope someone like Irsay, who has had well-chronicled battles with addiction, would have sympathy for players who are fighting debilitating illnesses themselves, but, oh well, guess not.

By the way, Irsay's daughter, who is a member of the Colts front office, has expressed similar views. She once told Glamour's Cindi Leive: "A lot of these guys that are claiming they're having these concussion issues, they have alcohol or drug problems that are just going to compound it."

You'd hope someone like her who grew up extraordinarily privileged, someone who had everything, maybe would have some sympathy for those who didn't have her wealth, but, oh well, guess not.

4. Sean Payton on future of NFL

Max Becherer/Associated Press

Sean Payton was asked last week if he was worried about the future of the game. His answer actually surprised me. He was honest about his feelings on this subject, something not a lot of head coaches are.

"Absolutely," Payton said on ESPN Radio's Russillo and Kanell Show (via Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com). "I think the health ramifications and where we need to go, pushing the envelope quickly to catch up to speed with what we're dealing with—I would say, simply, start with the helmet. I would say we're way behind where should be right now with what we're putting on the players."

5. New helmets coming?

Last note on this subject. Payton spoke about what seems to be new helmet technology that could soon be coming to the NFL.

Payton said:

It's amazing to see. If you took the analogy of an automobile in the '60s and '70s and how much of the impact passengers received in a collision and fast-forward to where we are now ... I think the same thing is happening and needs to happen with the helmet that we're wearing. So what we're used to right now as a helmet, I think, is going to change at warp speed right in front of our eyes in the next two or three years. It really is behind.

And it's not until the noise gets real loud that you really see change in any one area. And I think every one of us in this industry hears it, and it's deafening.

I'm skeptical that a helmet—unless it was developed by Leonard McCoy—can help prevent CTE. There's certainly an argument to be made that helmet technology needs updating. The problem with CTE is that no helmet can stop the brain from sloshing in the head.

6. What are the Dolphins doing (part one cabillion)?

Armando Salguero @ArmandoSalguero

Free agent RB Arian Foster has visited the Dolphins and has left without a contract as expected. Remains on radar.

The Dolphins' decision-making on their backfield makes zero sense to me. None. Not a lick.

They had a potential star in Lamar Miller. So what do they do? They let him go, leaving them with Jay Ajayi. He isn't as good as Miller, so now they look at Arian Foster, who is uber-talented, but that sound you just heard was a hamstring popping. He's always injured.

Miami's backfield got worse with the loss of Miller, and the things the Dolphins have done in the meantime to replace him just haven't been all that impressive. In fact, in recent years, the Dolphins haven't done a whole lot that makes sense.

7. The blackout rule will likely never return

NFL owners last week voted to continue for one more year the suspension of the blackout rule, the rule that requires all non-premium seats to be sold within 72 hours of kickoff.

I can almost guarantee this rule won't be back. It's antiquated and irritating to fans, and bringing it back would mean a PR hit for the league.

8. Incredible tattoo

Odell Beckham Jr. got what looks to be a gigantic Planet of the Apes tattoo on his back. Much respect. That movie remains one of the top 10 sci-fi films of all time. Maybe top five.

My only problem with the POTA tat is it needs more Charlton Heston. At the very least, a tat reenactment of the last scene in which he cries before the partially buried Statue of Liberty.

Sorry for the spoiler.

9. Tough road for Panthers

Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The Super Bowl hangover is real. ESPN's Trey Wingo gave this stat on NFL Live this week. It was one that I forgot but is vital when it comes to the Panthers.

Only two teams in the 50-year history of the Super Bowl have won it the year after losing it. And it happened, incredibly, in consecutive years, decades ago. The Cowboys lost Super Bowl V to the Colts, then beat the Dolphins the following year. And then the Dolphins won the Super Bowl the year after that.

That year the Dolphins won it, they had the lone undefeated season in the modern history of the sport.

10. App to help ex-players

There's an app for everything, and now there's one for former players. It does something fairly unique.

"Medical researchers at Harvard University have created an app that lets former players share how on-field injuries may still be affecting their brains and bodies," CNET's Terry Collins reported Saturday.

This app is only the beginning. We're going to see an entire industry of services available to former players that help them in their post-NFL lives. That's because, in some ways, many of them remain drastically underserved. This is the type of thing that can help change that.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.


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