NFL’s 100th season not a model for sustainability

David Phillips
Reflections from my Notebook

The NFL kicked off its 100th season this fall, but one has to wonder if it will make it to another 100 years, or even 10. Although it’s still an exciting sport to watch with plenty of fans, cracks are starting to show in the foundation of the game.

Indianapolis Colts star quarterback Andrew Luck’s sudden retirement just prior to the start of the season exposed one. At just 29 years old, Luck was at the height of his career when he walked away from $58 million in the final two years of his contract, although the owner of the team said he might be giving up $450 million in future earnings since he is such a talented player.

The mental and physical toll that injuries have taken on Luck during his career came at too high of a cost for him.

“For the last four years or so, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab,” Luck said at a press conference. “It’s been unceasing, and unrelenting, both in season and in the off-season. I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football. It’s taken my joy of this game away.”

When word got out on social media before his press conference, fans booed him as he walked off the field for the final time as a player. Commentators on social media also criticized him, questioning his toughness.

In another incident, or series of incidents, just before the 100th season began, the Antonio Brown saga unfolded. The star receiver who had demanded a trade from Pittsburgh after last season showed up at what everyone thought was his new home in Oakland. He reported to camp with a frostbite injury on his feet because of an error in a cryogenic session. Then he demanded the league allow him to use his old helmet, which violated new NFL safety rules instituted in an attempt to combat concussions.

Next, he got into a fight with the Raiders management, complained about a fine the team levied against him and released an audio recording of a phone call with the coach. He demanded the Raiders release him, which the team did as he made life impossible for the rest of the players.

Less than 24 hours later, he was signed by the New England Patriots and praised for what he can bring to the dynasty. However, shortly after he signed, Brown was served with a lawsuit accusing him of raping his former trainer.

Although the accusations haven’t been tried in court, Brown’s language in several texts made public are full of derogatory names for women, something that is disturbingly too common among football players, who have also had more than their share of sexual assault and domestic abuse issues.

Defenders of Brown say that with New England, his impulses will be controlled as he adjusts to the so-called “Patriot Way” under no-nonsense coach Bill Belichick. The problem is that the Patriot Way seems to be more about winning than building character.

After all, the team’s owner is Robert Kraft, who became entangled in a prostitution sting in Florida earlier in the year. He issued an apology to women in general, but won’t admit to the two charges against him.

Kraft also won’t provide answers to the question of whether he knew about the charges against Brown before signing him to a lucrative deal. The coach has also been silent and star quarterback Tom Brady merely contributes, “Things that don’t involve me, don’t involve me.”

The Patriot Way didn’t save Aaron Hernandez, a troubled tight end who had incredible success on the football field, but many problems outside of the sport. Despite red flags, the Patriots drafted him in the fourth round in 2010 and, even with observations of erratic behavior as a Patriot, the team stuck with him for three years because he played so well, catching eight passes, including a touchdown, in the Super Bowl to conclude his standout 2011 season.

In 2012, the Patriots gave him the largest bonus ever by an NFL tight end and a contract extension. He played in his final NFL game during the playoffs that year.

In the offseason during 2013, he was arrested for murder, ending his NFL career. In 2015, he was sentenced to life in prison and in 2017, he was found dead in his cell, which was ruled a suicide.

Later that year, researchers at the Boston University Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) Center released a statement diagnosing Hernandez as suffering advanced state 3 CTE, which is a progressive neurodegenerative disease common in athletes. The statement noted that "CTE is associated with aggressiveness, explosiveness, impulsivity, depression, memory loss and other cognitive changes."

Family members sued the Patriots and the NFL for causing the death, arguing that the career of Hernandez had caused "the most severe case of CTE medically seen" in a person at his age. The lawsuit was dismissed earlier this year because the deadline to opt out of a class action suit against the league had been missed.

That there is a class action suit shows this is a real problem for the NFL.

A few years ago, the NFL reached a settlement to pay claims for documented cases of the most serious illnesses linked to football concussions, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and deaths involving CTE. The payouts in the two years the program has been up and running reached $500 million this year, while another $160 million in awards have been approved but not yet paid.

Still, one has to wonder if those payments are worth the damage to their bodies that will be with the players the rest of their lives. The NFL may look the other way to their antics off the field, but the damage on the field will eventually catch up to many of them.

Like Luck, more players will likely decide that the cost to their life isn’t worth the immediate riches the NFL brings to them. The fans may boo their decision, but one has to wonder if there may come a time when there aren’t enough players on the field to cheer.