NFL Halftime Report

The NFL Under Goodell Is Not Rome Under Caesar
The stadium scene.
Nov. 12 2010 1:30 PM

NFL Halftime Report

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Roger Goodell. Click image to expand.
Roger Goodell

Boxing must have been pretty darn entertaining when bare-knuckled fighters in high-waisted shorts went toe-to-toe for 50 rounds. How about that flying wedge? It was an enormously effective blocking scheme back in the day—fatalities, schmatalities. And even though Ray Chapman was struck in the temple and killed by one, the old spitball sure was a sight to behold. Hoo boy, did it ever dipsy-doodle on the way to home plate!

Stefan Fatsis Stefan Fatsis

Stefan Fatsis is the author of Word Freak and A Few Seconds of Panic, a regular guest on NPR's All Things Considered, and a panelist on Hang Up and Listen

I hear you, Tom. Over the last three decades, the NFL has disadvantaged certain defenders by restricting certain types of hits on certain opponents in certain situations. As our favorite drawings show, players can no longer attempt to decapitate a quarterback or launch themselves like missiles at a prone ball carrier or use their heads to transform the rib cage of a kick returner from convex to concave. And now they have to be more aware of the placement of the helmet when tackling. Cry me a river.

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In the long-time-coming conversation over the health hazards of playing football, we might be missing the Forrest Greggs for the Raleigh Roundtrees. Yes, the Garden of Eden editions of all of our major athletic entertainments would be recognizable to us today. But the details of how the games are played are stunningly different. Sports adapt. And the adaptation football might be making as we send these notes to each other is to better protect the short- and long-term health of its combatants. Not to guarantee their good health, mind you. As Nate wrote in his New York Times op-ed debut—the front four across the top of the section that Sunday: Friedman, Rich, Jackson, and Dowd; the left side of the field was well-covered—the only way to eliminate head (and other serious) injuries from football would be to eliminate football. I don't think the NFL is risking a Teddy Roosevelt intervention. But a few overzealous yellow flags seem to me a small sacrifice for trying to make football at least marginally safer.

This season's Munch-faced injury horrors could potentially change the mechanics of the sport from the pros all the way down to Pop Warner. (I'm sorry: Pop Warner Little Scholars Inc. It also offers cheer and dance! Gregg Easterbrook is stoked!) I thought the most interesting part of Nate's NYT piece was his explanation of how, given the physics of the human body and the nature of the game, the head is central to routine blocks and tackles, not just the most marketable hits. Players are taught from a young age to get their "hat" involved—that is, to ram their facemask into the facemask of the guy across the line. At the urging of Tim Brewster, Nate's old tight ends coach with the Broncos, I tried to take on a tackling pad held by another tight end. "Get your face in there, Fatsis!" Brewster shouted. My neck hurt for days.

Thanks to advances in technology and medicine—and to the reporting of Alan Schwarz of the Times—we're learning more about what happens when football players collide; about the role their equipment (often recycled and substandard, especially at youth levels) plays in those collisions; and about the cumulative effects of those collisions, big and small. The NFL can't prevent damaging contact, because all of the contact is damaging. And no matter what steps are taken, someday, someone will die on an NFL field. And the league's inaction for so many years has been truly unconscionable. But for all of these sad realities, the NFL at least has the ability to impose rules and encourage changes and set examples. It might as well do that. (For its next act, the league and players union should require that all players wear the safest, most-protective helmet on the market. It's absurd that this equipment decision is still left to individual choice.)

In any event, the point isn't when or whether audiences will vanish because the NFL under Goodell is Rome under Caesar. Our horror, as Tom correctly notes, is temporary and possibly disingenuous, which is only human. (But let's not praise Philly fans for their vaunted honesty. You can be pissed off about a call and sensitive to the fact that a human being might be lying paralyzed on the field. They're not mutually exclusive emotions.) The point is that there's plenty that football can do to better protect its gladiators, not just from hellbent linebackers but from early-onset Alzheimer's and coronary heart disease and inadequate health insurance 20 years after the final gun sounds. No matter what the NFL says, the league's billions aren't going anywhere. So if I'm union head DeMaurice Smith, health care reform is priority No. 1 in the current collective-bargaining negotiations.

And speaking of health, Nate, how about the slimmed-down, happy-go-lucky Eric Mangini! The Cleveland Browns head coach is a leaf on the Bill Parcells-Bill Belichick coaching tree, and his reputation as a tightly wound, mean-spirited, petty screamer—in both his bumpy run as Mangenius with the New York Jets and in his current loss-filled tenure by the lake—indicates how much he learned from his mentors. Now it turns out he's a Changed Mangini. You want media narratives? This one is getting a hard ride: Eric Mangini is letting himself be himself.

ESPN the Magazine's Seth Wickersham got the ball rolling with a long feature over the summer. The Times picked up the trend in the fall. And smaller media outlets have followed. In "a lengthy chat with area reporters" this week, it was "obvious" that Mangini "has changed tremendously. ... The relaxed, funny, engaging coach on the other end of the line bore little resemblance to the control-freak automaton who ran the Jets with super-intensive secrecy." Because, as we all know, a man's true nature is revealed on a conference call with sports reporters.

The Browns have beaten, in consecutive games, the world-champion New Orleans Saints and Mangini's old boss's New England Patriots. This weekend, the narrative writers have been rewarded with a Browns-Jets matchup. So it's the New Mangini versus the genuinely happy-go-lucky but not as slimmed-down guy who replaced him, Rex Ryan. We've discussed Ryan before, Nate, but you also spent a few days last year in the presence of the Old Mangini. Can coaches change their spots? And can that really affect how an NFL team performs? Eric Mangini may be drinking Sleepytime and scaling Empire State Buildings on the stair climber, but the Browns are 3-5 and starting rookie Colt McCoy at quarterback. And today, their outstanding linebacker Marcus Benard collapsed in the locker room after practice. Which kind of brings us full circle: As a player, how would it feel to know that Browns fans are likely more concerned about "their" team losing its sacks leader than about a man's health?

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