When Trey Parker and Matt Stone see fit to rip you to shreds, you know you're at the center of a pop culture maelstrom. The Washington Redskins took a beating in the 18th season opener of South Park, with the show depicting team owner Dan Snyder making the same plea to an obstinate Eric Cartman that Native American groups have made to him over and over again: "Please, stop using the name 'Redskins.'" It was brilliant satire, as Cartman took over the "Redskins" name and logo -- since the trademark really was cancelled by the Patent and Trademark Office -- and proceeded to defile them, in much the same way that Snyder is accused of defiling an entire race of people with them. As the show proceeded, the entire NFL was put through the wringer: the owners were portrayed as an evil, SPECTRE-like consortium and league commissioner Roger Goodell was, literally, a malfunctioning, platitude-spouting robot.
The South Park skewering is just the latest insult in what's been a very, very bad month or so for the NFL. While the league isn't in any danger of vanishing into a cloud of righteous indignation from its detractors, it's definitely gotten its fair share of lousy press lately, some of it understandable.
It's difficult to deny that the NFL botched the response to Ray Rice's assault on his wife in an elevator in Atlantic City; TMZ has almost single-handedly been Roger Goodell's downfall in the case, revealing not only the video from inside the elevator but word that the NFL had access to that video months ago, when it gave Rice nothing more than a two-game suspension for punching out his then-fiancee. At first glance, it appears as if the NFL has a domestic violence problem. Last month it implemented a new policy to hopefully curb that problem, but given that 85 of the 713 arrests of NFL players since 2000 have been on domestic violence charges. But in reality the number of cases of domestic violence among NFL players is lower than the national average. This isn't to say that any instance of domestic violence should be tolerated, only that the NFL is a massive league and its players are in the public eye, which means that when there's an alleged crime involving one of them, it becomes news.
Tying two of the league's most pressing issues together is this: a new report claims that Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher, who killed himself after killing his girlfriend in 2012, may have suffered from brain damage in the form of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy. As Time magazine reported earlier this week, a neuropathological report prepared in the wrongful death lawsuit Belcher's daughter has filed against the Chiefs revealed that Belcher's brain suffered from "severe decomposition" and buildups of tau protein, which can cause nerve damage within the brain. CTE has been uncovered in the brains of at least 30 deceased NFL players, a few of whom committed suicide. The question then has to be asked: is brain trauma to blame for some NFL players' violent behavior off the field?
The Redskins controversy, domestic violence and investigations into the presence of CTE paint a picture of a beleaguered league -- of football under fire. While no NFL defender should take the tired road of blaming the media for a seemingly ceaseless onslaught of negativity, there's no doubt that the press likes to fixate and draw blood until there's none left. The NFL is a good target right now and as long as there are stories to be written about there will be media outlets willing to write them. CNN in particular just published an investigation questioning whether the NFL, which made $10.5 billion last year, skirted paying taxes altogether because it's a nonprofit. When the press begins focusing on a subject, every one of that subject's warts become visible and available for easy inspection and even dissection.
But as an attorney specializing in sports and entertainment, I feel like there are a few things getting lost in the mix. One is that while the NFL has a responsibility to be an above-the-board organization and to do its part to ensure that its players adhere to a code of good conduct, it's not a police department. If someone is convicted of a crime, that's one thing, but if the league steps in and issues a strict punishment for someone only accused of criminal behavior or misconduct, it's the kind of thing that can influence any potential criminal proceedings and possibly prejudice the player's legal case. That puts the NFL in a tight spot. It has to be serious about making sure its players aren't wife- or girlfriend-batterers -- or any other kind of criminal -- but it can't trump law enforcement.
On the subject of CTE, two years ago CBS Sports put together a list of steps the league can take to help cut down on the number of concussions and dull their long-term effects. Among them: hire independent concussion monitors, mandatory MRIs at the combine, and keep retired players connected to the game to avoid depression. Massive hits mean massive damage and while that's what a lot of fans seem to want, the safety of the players -- and to be honest, those close to them -- has to come first. The NFL can only help itself by implementing changes that better the situation for its players -- and it won't cost much of anything in the grand scheme of things. New concussion protocols were indeed implemented in the league, but it's tough to tell yet how well they're working.
The NFL does a lot of good. That's one of the things most people don't consider because, yes, the league makes a lot of money so it's therefore assumed that it's nothing but a giant profit engine feeding on players and then pumping them out as gristle when they're finished. That's just not the case, though. It devotes both money and its unrivaled cultural presence to environmental causes, the fight against breast cancer, and school fitness. Its philanthropic efforts are nearly unmatched in our country. That's all in addition to bringing Americans the most popular sport in the nation. Say what you will, the NFL isn't in danger of going anywhere for the simple reason that we love football. Just because we love football shouldn't give the league carte blanche to barrel forward without learning and becoming better, but while we're holding its feet to the fire let's not forget the good that it already does.