These days I have an uneasy relationship with big name sports on several levels.

Like a lot of people, I’ve been watching pro sports for as long as I can remember. I was a bit of an aberration in my own family, gravitating to baseball as I did when most of the adults in my family were into pro football. But I picked up the NFL bug as well back then. It will amuse and surprise some who know me that in my younger years I was, in fact, a Cowboys fan before I latched onto the Oakland Raiders as my team allegiance.

As I’ve gotten older, I view all revenue sports with a more cynical eye. Big time college football seems a big hypocritical joke to me with its emphasis on maintaining the “amateur” illusion even as the money for BCS games has gone through the roof.  Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit only compounded the issue for me, especially after Jay Bilas clowned the NCAAs selective perception in spectacular fashion.

The guilt (and yes, if I’m honest that is what it is I’m feeling) has been further compounded by the issues the NFL is dealing with now with so many players suffering negative health effects from concussions incurred during games. I remember driving back to the office after a funeral for a friend and co-worker’s mother. A lot of us stopped for a late lunch at Torchy’s on the way back from the service and I checked the news on my phone. That’s when I found out that Junior Seau had committed suicide.

The Seau news stunned me. This was a player who I’d pretty much knew/followed for the entirety of my adult life. He was a rookie my first year at UT. The Raiders weren’t a whole lot to watch back then, and Seau would wreak havoc in the middle against my boys more often than not. He was one of those players who it didn’t matter what team you rooted for, you had to respect his skills and professionalism if not flat out like the guy. He was a big, vibrant personality in addition to being a great player.

And then like that he’s not just gone, but by his own hand as well.

Since then I’ve read every report I can about the studies being done on players who’ve suffered multiple concussions in their playing days and the mental disorders that have afflicted them since retirement. I won’t say the science is definitive, but it is enough that the league is taking the class action lawsuit filed against it seriously. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that when watching an NFL game, I may well be watching men taking years off their lives for my enjoyment.

Which makes the brouhaha from ESPN taking its name off of a PBS investigative special look all the more damning in respect to the league’s efforts at damage control. Fainaru and Fainru-Wada have been doing some of the most extensinve investigative journalism in sports today. If they’re involved in the report, you know you’re getting the real dirt on a subject and I mean that in the best possible way.

But apparently the league can’t have that so they go and have a “talk” with the ESPN execs and the next thing you know ESPN can’t be associated with something they have “no editorial control” over.  And frankly I find using that excuse casts an even more unfavorable light than I think they intended. After all, if they need to exercise editorial control over the final product, how can we take them seriously when they rave about the “bifurcated” structure between business and journalism that one of ESPN’s reporters bragged about as to why you knew you were getting the full story?

As Peter King noted in SI, the NFL really had no recourse against ESPN. Their TV contract is inked well into the next decade. Punishing ESPN with shitty games would only result in the NFL cutting off its nose to spite its face in the end. So really, what did the NFL gain in trying to undermine or perhaps shut down this particular feature? This kind of poor decision making seems to be indicative of a body that’s scared of what may come out of the special and the image it projects on the league’s product.

In my mind, I know that a lot of these players are compensated handsomely for what they do. I don’t feel like that eases my guilt any more in how I feel when I watch a big hit during an NFL game. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be big hits that do it either. Kevin Kolb took what was by NFL standards a relatively minor hit in a game this week. He wound up with the 3rd concussion of his NFL career and speculation seems to be he may be done for his career.

I notice it in hockey too, I sport I barely follow but at least know a little bit about.  Sidney Crosby was going to be the next Gretzky and by all accounts the talent level is there. One concussion was enough to put him out for over a full season. He’s only 26. I know he’s making crazy money but I have to wonder how much he worries about his life and his future after he’s done playing, regardless of how good he is.

I used to mock NASCAR fans for being so avid. I joked that the only thing they really wanted to see were the spectacular crashes. Rubbernecking monetized with corporate logos all over it. Now I find myself wondering if I’m not doing the same thing watching games at the pub. I’m seeing the same spectacular car wrecks, they’re just occurring at much slower speeds.


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