The NFL Just Can’t Lose

Despite the controversy surrounding chronic traumatic encephalopathy, domestic violence issues and the whole Colin Kaepernick drama, the NFL keeps coming out on top.
Will Dissly #89 and Colby Parkinson #84 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrate a touchdown scored by Parkinson during the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Lumen Field on Sept. 12, 2022, in Seattle, Washington.
Will Dissly #89 and Colby Parkinson #84 of the Seattle Seahawks celebrate a touchdown scored by Parkinson during the second quarter against the Denver Broncos at Lumen Field on Sept. 12, 2022, in Seattle, Washington.
Steph Chambers via Getty Images

Tuesday marks the official end of the first week of the 2022 NFL season, and all was quiet on the protest front. A league so dogged with problems that they are literally the Donald Trump of professional sports –– just somehow keeps right on winning.

For years, the NFL has had a PR problem. Well, they’ve had several PR problems.

There have always been issues with the brutality of the sport, concussions, and the potentially career and life-ending chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). We now know –– thanks to autopsies of the brains of players who have died, that “memory loss, confusion, impaired judgment, impulse control problems, aggression, depression, anxiety, suicidality, parkinsonism, and eventually progressive dementia” are all a result of continuous blows to the head. We also now know that another result of CTE is violent outbursts and self-harm.

Andre Waters retired from football in 1995. Shortly after, he began suffering from CTE symptoms and was later diagnosed with depression. In 2006, Waters committed suicide. He was 44. Waters, a defensive back who spent 12 seasons in the NFL, was the player who brought CTE, and the consequences from it, into the mainstream. Since his death, some 320 former NFL players have been found to have the degenerative brain disease.

The New York Times names a few: “Junior Seau, 43; Dave Duerson, 50; ... Jovan Belcher, 25, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs who killed his girlfriend before shooting himself in 2012; Aaron Hernandez, 27, a former New England Patriots tight end who died by suicide after being convicted of a 2013 murder; and Phillip Adams, 32, an NFL defensive back who shot and killed six people in April 2021 before dying by suicide.”

Former San Diego Chargers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver, Vincent Jackson, was found dead in February 2021. It was later discovered that he suffered from a mild form of CTE. Demaryius Thomas, a wide receiver for the Denver Broncos, began having seizures that ultimately led to his death. He was later diagnosed with CTE in December 2021. He had only been away from football for six months.

There was even a movie about the effects of CTE and the doctor who discovered it, and it led to a lot of hand-wringing from sports pundits about how they might not let their kids play the sport. And then…it just disappeared. A few rules were changed, but by and large, the issue didn’t stop the juggernaut that is the NFL.

Remember in 2014, when the NFL had an issue with domestic violence? We found out (nay, we saw) former running back Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens, physically assault his fiancée (now wife). When the Ravens were the only ones that knew about Rice striking his then-fiancée, they suspended him for two games. When the tape went public, they dropped him from the team. Rice never played another down in the league. Since then, several players have been accused of domestic violence or inappropriate acts against women, and the NFL has done little, if anything to keep those players out of the game.

In fact, Cleveland Browns just made Deshaun Watson one of the highest paid quarterbacks, while he is being accused of sexual misconduct with over 20 women. The Browns even structured Watson’s contract so that he wouldn’t lose much money during the suspension that everyone knew was coming.

But there was heart-searching, tears, even commercials, and then…really, nothing significant happened. Yet another crisis averted.

Next, there was Colin Kaepernick. You know what happened. Kap kneeled, and all hell broke loose. There was another major discussion about race in America, race and sports, race and patriotism. Black Lives Matter stickers were added to helmets and end zones. More commercials. Black folks said they would boycott the league ― they didn’t. Kap, a quality player, never got another job in the NFL.

It changed me. I no longer stand, or put my hand over my heart during the National Anthem. But I’m in a small group, as African Americans make up the largest percentage of the NFL’s viewership at 43%. By comparison, white people make up just 32%.

But there was one major change that the NFL made that we can’t just ignore. In 2019, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell sat down with Jay-Z and created some kind of supergroup that got NFL fans a G-funk Super Bowl halftime show, and the Black folks who said they would never again watch the NFL changed their mind. The NFL came out on the other side unchanged. Nothing substantial happened. Crisis averted, again.

And the NFL remains as popular as ever. All I heard during this summer was how much people missed football. Hell, if I’m being honest, I missed football — and I hate myself for it.

I see all the issues. I care about the issues. I care about concussions. I’ve thought back to the days when I played football in high school, and the way my ‘bell was rung’ many times, and though I’m sure I don’t have brain damage, I’m scared.

I care deeply about domestic violence. I absolutely see how the culture and hypermasculinity of football can spread into aggressiveness off the football field. I even think back to my days in high school football in Oklahoma, and how the boys who played that game were incredibly misogynistic and homophobic, and I did not see anything wrong with that behavior at the time. It was all I knew. It was all I saw.

I care even more about the issue that made Kap kneel. I care about the way Black players are treated, like what William Rhoden calls million-dollar slaves. They are paid well (but not what they are worth), and when they age out of the game, they may be given a job as an analyst or an assistant coach, but the likelihood that they will become a head coach or a general manager is very, very rare. The prospect of them becoming an owner is unthinkable.

All the while, the game continues to grow, and I am at a loss. I also can’t stop watching.

It was silly of me to expect anything to change. I believe the people in charge of the NFL care about the health of their players. I think the changes they made to the game are born of genuine care, but football is a violent sport. It will always be a violent sport. And this violence, which is helpful on the field, is hard to keep at bay. Violent men are needed to play football, and violent men do violent things — on and off the field. So we should not be surprised when these men are violent at home. And let’s be honest: The NFL does not give a damn about women, not really.

If they did, they would have handled what happened to Charlotte Jones Anderson differently. They would have taken seriously the claims that 15 women made against the Redskins and held Dan Snyder’s feet to the fire. They would have never allowed the record-making contract that Deshaun Watson received go through.

And even knowing all of this, even making sure that I am socially responsible and conscious, and I’m on the right side of history, I would be lying if I said that come Sunday football there won’t be at least one TV on in my house ― and I may check in just to make sure my team is winning.