Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 4, 2016

The Football Story That Isn’t Going Away

It’s said that with football’s enormous popularity the NFL now owns a day of the week; that for devoted fans all across the land Sunday is given over to the faithful following of their favorite team, from preseason games in the heat of summer to the final contest for each franchise. For two teams that ultimate game is the league’s grand conclusion in early February; and if the league owns a day throughout the season then surely it has at the very least a long-term lease on the entire week that begins with the arrival of the two conference champions at each season’s Super Bowl site and culminates with the following Sunday’s big game.

The twenty-one most watched broadcasts in American television history are Super Bowls, a number that is certain to increment in a few days’ time. And like a symphonic movement building to its coda, the conclusion is made more stirring by the elements that precede it. So this year the barely controlled chaos of Media Day, historically held on Tuesday, was moved to Monday evening and recast as Opening Night Fueled by Gatorade. With the NFL Network broadcasting the event, fans who paid up to $30 for tickets crowded into the SAP Center in downtown San Jose to watch from the stands as Carolina and Denver players answered questions from the swarms of media members on the floor of the arena.

Fans actually in the Bay area can spend the week taking in the attractions at the NFL Experience, the equivalent of a football theme park, and at the Super Bowl City fan village. Along Market Street in San Francisco, the 50th Mile features displays commemorating each of the forty-nine previous games. Those not fortunate enough to be able to personally take part in the festivities can tune into Super Bowl related shows during the week, from highlights of earlier contests to a retrospective of the greatest commercials in the long history of Super Bowl broadcasts.

As the media hype builds toward Sunday’s kickoff, the night before CBS presents the NFL Honors Awards Show, a two-hour extravaganza of entertainment during which the winners of a long list of awards will be announced. They range from the readily understood Most Valuable Player trophy to something called the Greatness on the Road Award. The latter is sponsored by Marriott’s Courtyard hotel chain, because a league that has nearly doubled its revenue in the past ten years, to $12.4 billion in 2015, rarely misses a marketing opportunity.

At last the big day will dawn, and it may well seem like the pregame coverage starts right around sunup. After hours of chatter by assorted talking heads, Cam Newton and Peyton Manning will finally go to work, two heroes contrasting sharply in both age and style. Coldplay and Beyonce will make their star turns at the game’s midpoint, even as assorted corporations hope their commitment of millions of dollars for thirty seconds of air time is money well spent. Finally the confetti will rain down on one team, which most pundits predict will be the Panthers, and another successful NFL season will come to a close.

That at least is the plan, and one can be certain that everyone associated with the NFL will do everything they can to make it a reality. Certainly the leaders of other sports don’t question football’s dominance. The NHL got its own All-Star Game out of the way last weekend, while the NBA defers until the week after the Super Bowl. Don’t look for any dramatic offseason announcements from any baseball franchise this weekend. This week’s LPGA tournament began a day early so it can wrap up on Saturday, and final round tee times at the PGA Tour stop in Phoenix are always pushed earlier whenever the NFL plays its ultimate game nearby.

Yet for all its money and success fans were reminded this week that for the NFL not everything always goes according to plan. Days before the chance of a wardrobe malfunction during the halftime show or a blowout game effectively over before that show even starts could materialize, the headlines on sports pages were of a story that surely no one at NFL headquarters on Gotham’s Park Avenue wanted to intrude into this week’s carefully choreographed script.

Wednesday the New York Times reported that researchers at Boston University, after months of examining the brain of the late former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler, had determined that at the time of his death from colon cancer last July Stabler had high Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E. Stabler was the charismatic leader of Oakland teams coached by John Madden in the 1970s. He was the NFL MVP in 1974 and led the Raiders to victory in Super Bowl XI two seasons later. In his final years he was acutely aware of his declining cognitive function. After Junior Seau, the former linebacker for the Chargers, Dolphins and Patriots took his own life in 2012 and was later found to have C.T.E., Stabler directed that his own brain be given for research upon his death.

As the Stabler story spread, fans were reminded of other former players who have been found to have suffered from this progressive degenerative disease with symptoms that include depression, memory loss, impaired speech and deafness. As the evidence grows that C.T.E. is a direct result of repeated blows to the head, even those that fall short of causing concussions, so does that list of victims who once wore NFL uniforms. Seven members of the Hall of Fame are on it, including Seau and Frank Gifford. So too are the Eagles’ Andre Waters and the Bears’ Dave Duerson, both of whom like Seau committed suicide. So too is Chris Henry, who died at age 27 while still on the roster of the Cincinnati Bengals. More than one hundred names in all, a number all the more remarkable when one considers that C.T.E. can be conclusively diagnosed only through a posthumous examination of the brain, scarcely a common occurrence.

The Stabler headline was surely not part of the NFL’s plan for this week, nor was the smaller news that the Boys & Girls Club of Marshall, Texas was ending its tackle football program because of the long-term dangers of the sport. A town of less than 24,000, Marshall has produced at least five NFL players including Hall of Fame quarterback Y.A. Tittle.

Sunday’s game will go on of course, and we fans by the millions will be watching. But knowing what we can no longer deny about the dangers of America’s favorite sport, as we view the spectacle on our oversized flat screens we may all be suffering from a colossal case of cognitive dissonance. To lessen the psychological discomfort, we will tell ourselves that our modern-day gladiators understand the dangers. We will applaud rules changes supposedly making the game safer, ignoring the fact that the number of concussions increased this season. We will convince ourselves that somehow the rewards, the money or the fame or the trophy, make the risks worthwhile. We will do all of that, and we will be wrong.

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