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The trouble with American football has long been that it takes itself too seriously, with its “winning is the only thing” mentality derived from Vince Lombardi, the sainted coach from another era. Today, the question is whether it can take its manifold problems seriously enough.

I freely confess to liking the game when played at its best. Joe Montana throwing the ball to Jerry Rice for San Francisco was an exercise in skill comparable to the passing exchanges of soccer players Lionel Messi and Andrés Iniesta for Barcelona today. I’ll switch on the television if Peyton Manning, the thinking man’s quarterback, is tossing the ball around. And both the National Football League and the college version have the country in thrall, making for fabulous commercial success.

But, as Thomas Boswell, the Washington Post’s excellent sports columnist, puts it: “The NFL doesn’t have a PR problem. It has a reality problem. And it may be a grave one. Every month – and it seems every few days – the NFL is inundated by new, barely suspected revelations. What has the NFL become?”

In the past few days has come news both sad and vile. Tony Dorsett, the incandescent running back for Dallas of the 1970s and 1980s, announced he had been diagnosed with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, the result of too many blows to the helmeted head. At least 50 former players have died from the affliction over the years. Another, Junior Seau, who had barely hung up his cleats, shot himself last year (his family donated his brain to medical science and it was found to show signs of the disease). There have been a number of other suicides by former players.

It is not only the players who suffer. In the past couple of weeks, two head coaches have been hospitalised, one requiring heart surgery, the other victim of a mini-stroke. These are the haggard, driven-looking men who prowl the sidelines, wired for sound and clutching clipboards, who routinely put in 100-hour working weeks and are excoriated in the sports talk media for anything the team does wrong. I have not seen a relaxed coach since the cerebral Bill Walsh in San Francisco 25 years back.

The vile news came out of the Miami Dolphins camp. Richie Incognito, who is white and, at 310lbs, hardly invisible, stands accused of sending filthy, racist and threatening texts and voicemails to a teammate, Jonathan Martin, another behemoth who happens to be mixed-race and who quit the team and checked himself into hospital under “emotional stress”. Roger Goodell, the NFL commissioner, has appointed a lawyer to investigate. Incognito, a player with a shocking disciplinary record, has been suspended.

The “hazing” under which Martin broke down has long been routine at both the professional and college levels. Rookies are subject to all sorts of indignities, supposed to help shape their characters, though the more recent trend has been to fleece them by making them pay for expensive meals and visits to strip clubs. “Dinner tastes better when it’s paid for by a rookie,” a current player was quoted as saying.

Coaches have long tolerated this, notably in jock colleges such as Nebraska and Oklahoma, training grounds for the NFL. The University of Miami was once commonly known as “Thug U” for the number of times its players – who proliferate in the professional league – ran afoul of the law.

Playing while injured is another longstanding football ethic. Robert Griffin III, the Washington Redskins quarterback, had his knee wrecked in a tackle last season but insisted on going back into the game on one leg. His old-school coach did not stop him and he hasn’t been the same player since.

Hurting the opposition is part of the game, too. A Washington teammate notorious for dirty play emerged from his recent suspension for helmet-to-helmet hits to declare that he’d target the knees in future so he could continue “ending careers”. He was still playing last week. (The Redskins name itself is another controversy, seen as an affront to native Americans.)

Hard men have long been admired in football, as in other sports, and such attempts as have been made by the NFL to rein them in have been derided by many former players as turning the game into one for sissies. After all, there is something warlike about football, with its “bombs” and “blitzes”, and war produces casualties.

But times change, too, though the insular football culture finds it hard to adjust. Wounded warriors returning from conflict, either without limbs or under great emotional stress, used to be hidden from public view but are now recognised for their suffering as well as their service. Hazing – bullying by another name – has received similar attention in schools. There are lessons here for football.


Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.

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