Standing atop a $9 billion hill of blood and bones, Roger Goodell looks into the distance and sees the end of football.
And it’s terrifying.
The NFL Commissioner took swift, harsh and shocking action on Wednesday by suspending New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season, GM Mickey Loomis for half the season and yanking former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from the NFL indefinitely, perhaps permanently, as well as doling out other penalties with more likely to come because the Saints not only defied the NFL’s new world order, they spit in its face.
The Saints are getting smacked down so historically and mercilessly because the league alleges (with apparently undeniable evidence) that New Orleans broke the rule against “bounties” on opposing players, a program which the league says included the Saints giving payments for “knock-outs” and “cart-offs,” plays on which an opposing player was forced to leave the game. At times, the bounties even targeted specific players during the 2009, 2010 and 2011 seasons which have been New Orleans’ glory years, featuring three straight playoff teams and their one and only Super Bowl title.
Bounties have always been a part of football but the game is changing. Only those who adapt will survive and cavemen like the Saints will be left on the frozen tundra of yesterday.
The NFL was built on violence and fans love it. Watching a guy get crushed is a lot of fun. But players are so big and so fast now and so many of them are suffering concussions and losing their memory at a young age and dying young often from suicide due to the effects of head injuries, that the NFL can no longer afford to be the game of Dick Butkus and Ray Lewis. Instead, the league is trying to transform football into something like a very rugged two-hand touch.
It might just be what has to happen.
Football has always been dangerous. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to abolish the game as 18 college players were killed that season alone. Football is certainly safer now because of better equipment, stricter rules and more swift and sophisticated medical response but the game, as unbelievably lucrative and successful as it is, could truly be in danger. Many youth football programs across the country have been disbanded because of lawsuits and liability concerns and who can blame any parent for saying they don’t want their son to play football? If your kid was a great athlete wouldn’t you encourage him to try baseball, basketball, (hockey?) or golf instead?
If more youth programs disappear the college game will suffer and then, soon after, so will the quality of the NFL which already has legions of former players who limp, mumble and die young. What happens to the NFL when a player is killed or left a quadriplegic during a game and the league is then sued by the player, his family or fans? Nothing. But what happens when those groups urge others to tune out and boycott advertisers on ESPN, NBC, CBS and other NFL media outlets?
It could never happen, right? The NFL is too big to fail, right? The average price for a ticket to an NFL game is more than $250. The league is not for beer-drinking, blue-collar guys. It’s for those with deep pockets. And while most fans would rather watch at home anyway, what will happen to a league – any league – that creates a generation in which the vast majority of fans never see a game in person? The love for the game becomes tenuous. The loyalty will lessen.
Roger Goodell can’t change all of this, and probably won’t attempt to, but he does know that his game faces a possible future of having a fan base comprised almost exclusively of the wealthy and the fanatic which are fun groups to party with but the NFL has become a cultural and economic juggernaut because it appeals to everyone. Making football safer won’t drive down ticket prices but it will go a long way toward keeping it a game that most of us will still want to watch even if few of us play.
This is what Roger Goodell can see while standing atop a huddle of one-hundred-dollar bills. This is why he has gone punitive on Mr. Payton and the Saints. Injuries will always happen in football but if they happen deliberately through the actions of a player who was given financial incentive to do so then that’s something the public en masse, the media, and the courts just won’t stand behind.
It nearly seems impossible to think that the NFL could one day go out of business or even get downsized. But Roger Goodell is considering the impossible very seriously. He sees cracks in the walls of the golden castle. He sees sweat, blood and downfall leaking through them.