Brunt: Why we can’t quit the NFL

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We just can’t quit it—and it’s a very big “we,” judging by the numbers.

The largest television audience in the history of the United States and more than eight million viewers in Canada—dwarfing everything here outside of a gold-medal hockey game—plus who knows how many people in other corners of the planet, tuned in to watch the 49th Super Bowl.

That’s a testament to the event itself, of course, which always comes with an extraordinary amount of hype, no matter what the matchup. This time, all of the stars aligned—a defending champion versus a dynastic team, good guys and especially bad guys aplenty—and the crazy finish meant that no one was walking away before the end.

But it is even more of a testament to the invulnerability of sport as entertainment/cultural conversation/belief system/narcotic.

You can’t kill it. You just can’t.

If you could, then the National Football League’s just-concluded season horribilis surely would have at least made a dent.

Not on the field—on the field, the entertainment value was pretty darned high. But there were so many off-field issues, so many reasons that a fan might have been moved to make an ethical decision to turn away from the league, that it almost became farce.

Is there anyone left out there who doesn’t believe that football causes brain damage, that those who play the game starting as kids and continuing on to its highest level enjoy worse prospects for a long, healthy life than the non-footballing rest of us? Most casual fans have heard of CTE, know about League of Denial, know about the sad ends of players like Junior Seau—and even if those dots can’t be absolutely connected, even if the impetus to commit suicide is ultimately unknowable, it
has to at least make one consider the toll taken.

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Yet the institution that is the NFL doesn’t seem all that concerned, given the allegations of ethical impropriety among some team doctors, given the settlement of a lawsuit launched by veteran players that will pay them a pittance, and that only in very specific circumstances. And during this past, thrilling playoff run, it was hard to miss both Russell Wilson and Julian Edelman absorbing horrific head shots on the field, looking momentarily stunned, shaking off the cobwebs just the way players did in the bad old days when their bells were rung, and then returning to action with no evidence of a lengthy concussion protocol being enacted.

So there’s that—though history has proven again and again that whatever the moral outrage in the moment, human beings are more than willing to let other human beings hurt themselves for our amusement. Boxers have been beaten to death in the ring on national television and that wasn’t enough to destroy that sport (it is failing now for an entirely separate set of reasons …), so concussions and brain damage aren’t going to be enough to critically wound something far more popular.

There was also the NFL’s tin ear, personified by commissioner Roger Goodell, who this year managed to make a hash of an issue as clear-cut as domestic violence while coming down hard on dope smokers, end-zone celebrators and those who don’t wear their uniforms right. Watching Goodell lurch between bumbling and condescending couldn’t have reassured the fan base.

During the lead-in to the big game itself, there was the spectre of Those Cheating Patriots doing it again, this time with deflated footballs, and Marshawn Lynch either flipping the bird at the entire football-watching world or engaging in an elaborate bit of Andy Kaufmanesque performance art.

To top it off, on the day after the Super Bowl, an ex-player was busted for soliciting a prostitute, a current player was released after being charged with animal cruelty and the Browns revealed that Johnny Football was in rehab.

There is nothing much to love about these guys and their corporate masters. Except the game.

And games matter to us. They matter more now than at any other time in human history. Maybe spectator sport isn’t quite as integral to our culture as it was for Mayans or the Romans, but measured by numbers and measured by dollars, it has to be pretty darned close.

Why? Well that’s a tougher one. The power of a communal experience, the desire for a common faith, the need to be distracted from all of that real world stuff while still investing passion and embracing a rooting interest and becoming part of something larger simply by wearing the colours and tuning in?

We need that, it seems. We need it desperately.

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