With the new revelations from the recent Frontline episode, League of Denial, the NFL has done the absolute right thing by settling with the players. After legal fees it probably will cost the league closer $1 billion, a hefty amount, but if anything can handle it, it is the National Football League. It is a great PR move, gives the appearance of caring about the well-being of players, hopefully quiets down some of the talks about the dangers of football and it gives a clean slate going forward.
Unfortunately for the league the bad press and questions won’t completely go away. As the evidence continues to mount that no matter the equipment, the tackling technique, the rule changes, football at its heart, what makes it football is an extremely violent, dangerous sport. There are people, including the NFL, who insist there are ways to make football safer, especially for younger players, but those are so much snake oil. Until they can devise a helmet that stops the brain from moving inside the skull or they make the playing surface more forgiving (so that heads hitting the ground aren’t damaged) the game isn’t safe.
Either aware, or willfully ignorant of these dangers, ultimately the fans don’t really care. As the latest poll data shows, 89% of football fans don’t want to see the sport change. This leads to the great conundrum for the NFL and its fans. The violence of the game is its appeal, but I would imagine that most people who answered that poll also don’t want players to get hurt, develop chronic disabilities like ALS or have shortened lives due to CTE and the like. The league wants to be seen as caring about the well-being of its employees. Considering that as recently as 2007 (and not accepting any guilt in the recent settlement) the NFL denied that football caused any brain problems, I don’t know how sincere that is, but PR is a battle that is constantly waged and never won.
So the question becomes clear; how does the game remain the game and yet keep the veneer of concern? At first, the answer seems to be, keep doing what is being done now; keep pushing the idea that the NFL cares, keep putting out the idea there is a safe way to tackle and protect brains and keep clapping in reverence whenever a player is carted off the field. But let’s face it, that is less and less effective and well, kind of a bummer. The fans love the violence, the league really wants to sell the violence and without the violence football becomes some weird, watered down version of rugby. What’s more, people will continue to point out the harm the game does, the media will still run stories about the after-effects of football and most starkly I’m afraid, men will still die as a result of injuries from football. Instead of answering the question, it is time to change the model, change the discussion and make the question a moot point.
In order to do that, we need to find men we don’t care about. There are two populations that spring to mind: prisoners and illegal immigrants. The immigrants, however, are a little too much of a hot button issue for the staid NFL. Also with the Dream Act making inroads into immigration reform, it might be a sign that people are starting to care. So that leaves one option, but a very good one, criminals.
If one wanted to destroy his or her political career, a sure fire way to do that would be to state we do not do enough for our prison population. Quite frankly as a nation we are not about rehabilitation but punishment. There are cases of criminals making a positive change, but they are, unfortunately the exception and not the rule. The amount of recidivism within the United States Justice System is a staggering and sad fact. One study found that 43% of parolees released in 2004 were back in prison by 2007. Taking a look at funding for prisons, however, we don’t seem too willing to change those numbers anytime soon. We, as a nation, spend a great deal on prisons close to $75 billion between the federal and state level. Also we keep running out of room, federal prisons were 41% overcapacity in 2011. To put it bluntly, we don’t care about prisoners.
There is an odd impulse regarding criminals and the NFL as well, a bit of a reverse NIMBY effect if you will. The lengths some fans will go to defend players of their team of wrong doing is simply staggering. There are also certain cases of acknowledging the fact that a player is not a good person, but a good football player and that is enough. For example I’ve heard a person on the radio say that he wouldn’t want Ben Roethlisberger to date his daughter, but he’s a great quarterback for his team. If the NFL started recruiting from the prison population, there would be no need for a defense of bad behavior. The argument would be pointless; we would already know that this was a bad person and to expect otherwise would be foolish.
Speaking of criminal activity and NFL players, there is a fair amount of common ground. In 2013 (so far) there were 42 players charged with various crimes. Granted, some are quite minor (improper window tinting for example) but some are quite severe (first degree murder.) A team carries 53 active players so by December of 2013, it is feasible that an entire team of law-breakers could be a team. I know that as it stands, different positions and such, those arrested in 2013 couldn’t make a real team, but if the teams were actually using the entire prison population as their recruiting ground, then it becomes a much better prospect.
The familiarity of the NFL player with the criminal justice system is only one of the aspects of this proposal that makes it a great solution for the NFL and its fans. The rules that could be relaxed would be a boon for the NFL. All of these regulations protecting players could be thrown out the window. Would fans really care if the armed robber made helmet to helmet contact with the drug dealer? And isn’t getting speared by a linebacker better than serving time in a prison cell? Furthermore, such moves as clotheslining and the flying wedge formation could make a comeback.
This isn’t an entirely new idea, I’m well aware, which I think, adds to the luster of the proposal. The Romans used prisoners, criminals and undesirables for the gladiator arena. As a society, we often make the same comparison, calling football players gladiators and the like. We have the opportunity to make that ancestral link much more realistic. What’s more, like the gladiators of old, we could offer much of the same incentive, “perform well for our pleasure and you will be richly rewarded.” Instead of paying exorbitant amounts of money, freedom as a retiree with an excellent pension would be the great incentive to play. In fact, the NFL could package this as improving troubled young men AND improving society, much like football coaches already promise. Currently, there is much finger wagging about how football often claims to shape young men, only to have those same young men caught in criminal and/or immoral behavior. If players were convicts to begin with, it becomes a win-win for the league. If a player gets busted again, well, at least they tried. If a player becomes a fine upstanding citizen, football can claim yet another success in creating great young men. Also before you poo-poo the Roman comparison because Rome fell, consider how long they lasted before the eventual end of the empire. Perhaps the Romans system wasn’t such a crazy idea.
Speaking of young men, I would suspect that parents wouldn’t be too thrilled seeing their sons go from prep and college football to playing in a league populated by hardened criminals. Also, as the lawsuits are just getting started at the collegiate level, much of the same sticky legal situations that the NFL has put a brake to with the recent settlement are going to arise for the college (and I’d assume the high school) game. What is fantastic however is that this proposal is applicable to colleges and high schools.
Much like the NFL recruiting from the prison population for the adult version of the game, colleges and especially high schools could recruit from the juvenile system for their players. An entire system linked to the criminal justice system for football would eliminate so much of the hand wringing that is currently happening. Especially in the case of colleges, the whole idea of molding young men becomes relevant again. Big time college programs would literally be taking young men from terrible situations (both the juvenile and regular prison ranks) and giving them a true purpose in life, football. Providing them an education wouldn’t be necessary. Wouldn’t it be enough, wouldn’t it be a great example of largess, for say Notre Dame, to take a young man from prison, give him structure and a purpose in life as opposed to leaving him to rot in a cell? What’s more, in the recent case of Ohio State for example, would we care if the players got tattoos? Even more, would the NCAA be necessary because we wouldn’t need to continue with the canard of “student-athlete.”
Of course, I’ve only been discussing the benefits to football. The benefits to the prison system would be significant as well. If a team chooses a young man, they must house, feed, clothe and pay the player for services rendered. The American taxpayer would no longer be footing the bill. Also, if eventually, all players from high school to the pros were taken from the penal system, the overcrowding issues we currently are facing would at least be addressed a little bit. Of course to really get at the overcrowding issue doing away with such draconian measures as three strikes rules and mandatory minimums would need to be addressed. That however, strikes me as a crazy, non-starter kind of idea. If the criminals, like those in my NFL plan, aren’t doing something useful, like breaking their bodies for our pleasure, then I see no alternative to locking them up for a really long time.