In 2016 the sport of football, like this country, finds itself somewhere between a crossroads and an existential crisis. SI spent an entire month traveling the U.S., interviewing hundreds of people touched by the many tentacles the game stretches through society. The result: A portrait of today’s sport that answers the question, How do we feel about football right now?
In 2016 the sport of football, like this country, finds itself somewhere between a crossroads and an existential crisis. SI spent an entire month traveling the U.S., interviewing hundreds of people touched by the many tentacles the game stretches through society. The result: A portrait of today’s sport that answers the question, How do we feel about football right now?
Football is under attack, unfairly maligned, too big to fail or already failing. It’s concussions and Colin Kaepernick-on-his-knee; it’s declining youth participation numbers and diminishing TV ratings. It has peaked. It’s $4 billion NFL franchise valuations, $60 million high school football stadiums and $100 million player contracts. Still peaking. It’s oversaturated, unwatchable and fragmented, too expensive to watch and too dangerous to play. Peaked. It’s the lifeblood of small towns, the front porch of universities, by far the country’s most popular and profitable sport. Forever peaking.
Football’s place in American culture in 2016 can be debated from thousands of competing vantage points. Which is why SPORTS ILLUSTRATED dispatched two writers to traverse the U.S., hitting 30-plus states over the course of October, conducting hundreds of interviews with NFL owners, high school coaches, Pop Warner parents, Uber drivers, professional dancers, veterinarians and teachers. . . .
All those disparate voices, all their conflict, all their angst, led to 345 Park Avenue in Manhattan on the day after Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. Trump had said that he would fire the NFL’s commissioner if he won. Yet here is Roger Goodell on Nov. 9, in his sixth-floor office at league headquarters, past the lobby adorned with glass-encased Lombardi trophies and an American flag. The NFL’s insignia, its famous shield, is splashed everywhere. The NFL Network—not one iota of election wrapup—plays on an array of TVs.
Goodell sits at an oak conference table. A framed print of falling confetti hangs on the wall behind him, near another Lombardi trophy. He leans back in a brown leather chair, sipping from a water bottle cradled in his left hand. He’s asked about the election, and if he sees any parallels between the country and its favorite sport—citizens and fans who want change, who don’t trust polls or ratings numbers, who think America has gone soft. “You guys are better to determine that than I am,” he says. “Listen. What’s going on in the country right now, we see it. It’s out in front of us. People are looking for change and improvement, and that’s our constitutional right.”
He pauses briefly and adds, “But I’m happy to talk about football.”
Three days ago, he attended the Eagles-Giants game in New Jersey, and he says the fans he spoke to at various tailgates gave him an earful—but not in the way anyone who’s worried about the game and its health and the safety of its players might expect. He says those fans spoke mostly about their teams, their favorite players and the various ways in which they consume football. They called the game an “escape”—like the Cubs winning the World Series. America needs those sporting diversions, Goodell says, now more than ever.
He’s asked how often he hears about concussions and player activism in his travels. He must, right? “The fans are more interested in football,” he says. “We are the ones who make safety a priority. They support that because they want to see their players play.” But, he adds, “I’d be fooling you if I don’t say: I hear guys that say, Just let them play.”
The conversation unfolds thusly for almost an hour, Goodell defending his sport and deflecting most of the criticisms lobbed its way with increasing furor. Take head injuries, for example. Goodell mentions that his twin 15-year-old daughters play lacrosse; how there’s a debate in his household over whether they should wear helmets. They don’t, he says, because lacrosse officials are afraid that would change the game; it will be become more aggressive. “O.K.,” he says, “but I want my daughters to be as safe as possible . . . and [at the same time] I want our kids to take risks.”
Goodell comes across at times like a job applicant who’s saying that his biggest weakness is “taking on too much.” Everything is perfect. Under control. Nothing to see here. But that’s not how the vast majority of Americans that SI spoke to felt. They said, en masse, that they think concussions are a serious problem. SI polled fans at airports and stadiums and restaurants and classrooms, and in a formal survey found that 94% of respondents believe head injuries in football are a “serious problem.” To this, Goodell points out that the NFL made 42 rule changes focused on player safety in the last 14 years. “The 94% is [reflective] of our effort to make the game safer,” he says. “The NFL has been a leader in this area. What we’ve found is that people don’t truly understand all the things we’ve done to make it safer.”
The ratings drop? That’s the result of a number of factors, Goodell says. Games that went head-to-head with presidential debates. The unpredictable competitiveness of certain matchups. The new ways in which young people watch. “Any theory or any consideration—we look at all that,” he says. “There are still the same number of folks—maybe even slightly more—actually watching. We’re reaching them [in ways other than through broadcast television], and they’re engaging with football.”
He says at least half a dozen times—in response to questions about perception and domestic violence and player discipline and approval ratings—that the league will do everything it can to grow football in the long term. That’s everything from studying the length of commercial breaks to how long it takes officials to review instant-replay calls, from streaming games on Twitter to growing football internationally. “Listen, I understand there are a lot of opinions,” Goodell says. “What we really try to do is get beyond just the opinions and get to what we’re doing to address the issues that have real substance to them.”
Rain falls outside his windows on the Manhattan streets. “Football unites people,” Goodell says. “It brings the country together.”
That’s one take on football in 2016, delivered from a perch high above Park Avenue where one of the sport’s most powerful figures directs the country’s most powerful league. Football in America? From the street level, it’s far, far more complicated.
It’s Sunday afternoon, Oct. 2, outside Mons Venus in Tampa—one of 10 profitable game days the renowned strip club will enjoy in 2016. The Buccaneers and Broncos are about to kick off less than a mile down the six-lane urban highway that hums nearby. Manager Bernadette Notte isn’t a football fan, but she knows the Bucs’ schedule by heart. “In the late summer I put it up on the bulletin board in back so the girls can see it,” she says in a smoker’s rasp. She has spent the week reminding the dozens of dancers in her employ that the place will be packed today with football- and nudity-loving fans and their wallets.
A dancer named Josie approaches. Young and waifish, with a whiff of Goth to her look, Josie makes clear that she and her coworkers are independent contractors; they come and go as they please. “There’s no schedule.” Which means Josie can come in for the pregame rush, leave and do something else for a few hours, then return for more twerking and cash raking later. In total this evening there will be 30 to 40 girls dancing for 100s of patrons, a collision of football and vice that results in what Notte estimates is a 50% spike in business.
“Depends on who [the Bucs are] playing, what city [the guests] are from,” Josie says. Green Bay games mean plenty of loot for everyone. “The Cheeseheads are the best fans who come in here,” Notte interjects. “They’re amazing.” Saints fans too. “I’ll dance for beignets,” Josie says with a giggle that is drowned out by an apocalyptic rumble overhead—a fleet of choppers from nearby MacDill Air Force Base is rattling over Raymond James Stadium in a tribute to football and country.
Across the street at 2001 Odyssey, manager Shawn Douglas, a South Carolina native, likes the Gamecocks and the Panthers, but he loves when Carolina’s NFC South rivals win down the street. Home games increase his club’s usual Sunday haul by “50 to 100%—easy,” he says.
Inside Odyssey’s main door, visitors are greeted by an assault of deafening music and plasma TVs that right now show the Bucs’ offense hurling itself in vain at the Broncos’ defense. The stage is empty. Five performers work the sparse mid-game crowd. A dancer named Shannon sits in a private “champagne room” the size of a minivan’s interior. She is physically beautiful in the ways that most heterosexual men measure such things, but “my last game day I only walked out with $100 for about eight hours [of work],” she says. Shannon is in her 30s and has been doing this since she was 18.
“Denver is really far away, so I don’t expect too many of their fans here tonight,” she says, nodding to the plasma above the stage. “Dallas is usually good. Green Bay. New Orleans. Atlanta—those guys like to spend money. . . . Every girl knows when every game is. Most of us have little pocket calendars.”
Shannon is a football fan, albeit a conflicted one. “I’m definitely a firm believer in this whole CTE movement,” she continues, clad in nothing whatsoever. “It’s like the military—there should be more aftercare. Does the NFL cover them for life?”
No. “They should.”
“Football is an American institution,” she continues. “I don’t think you can have an America without football. If there were more rules to protect the players I don’t think it would make it any less manly or fun to watch—or any less American.”
A man hands Shannon a $100 bill. Her lips unveil perfect teeth. ZZ Top’s “Got Me Under Pressure” comes on and the lyrics might well have been written about the sport flickering silently across the room.
She’s about all I can handle.
It’s too much for my brain.
Later Shannon will point out that she’s a successful small-business owner who works here “because it’s an ego boost.” She says she’s concerned about her younger coworkers, who she says are uneducated and “express themselves poorly. . . . I wonder what their exit plan is.” The club has its Adam Vinatieris, too. “We have a girl who works at night who is 52. Gorgeous. Little bit of fillers around her eyes, but not gross looking.”
Shannon has a teenage son who played football until high school, she says. Despite his broken nose and separated shoulder, “I didn’t mind it at all,” she says. “We have good insurance! . . . My parents always told me to try anything I wanted.”
She might get out a nightstick
And hurt me real, real bad
By the roadside in a ditch.
A blonde stripper barely half Shannon’s age writhes expertly on the pole while, in an upper corner, Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy kneels near midfield, wincing, gripping a freshly injured leg that has ended his day and will keep him out of next week’s game too. The tableau evokes something Bernadette said earlier, about managing the roiling turnover on her roster of entertainers: “We get new girls every day.”
Up the street, halftime of that Broncos-Bucs game features a 10-minute Pop Warner exhibition, as dozens of NFL games do each fall. But in this game a 10-year-old player named Charlee stands out in the areas of foot speed and physicality, not to mention for the brown ponytail that flaps behind Charlee’s helmet.
Charlee Nyquist is a girl, but the most important things to know about her have more to do with her speed and tenacity. The naked eye shows her to be faster than most boys on the field. An outside linebacker, she engages, sheds and swims past blockers despite a thin build and a face that American Girl magazine would kill to put on its cover.
“Because I’m a girl,” Charlee says, “people think, She just wants a touchdown—that’s why she’s playing. That’s not why I’m playing. I play because, first off, I want to be a role model for other girls. I want girls to get playing.” Her second reason for playing, she says matter-of-factly, is “hitting. It’s something that girls think of as scary and just . . . not normal. But I think it’s cool.”
Wearing her grass-stained jersey, without shoulder pads, Charlee sits in an empty concourse inside Raymond James Stadium. A lightning delay has interrupted the fourth quarter of what will ultimately be a 27–7 Broncos win. A mesh bag containing her helmet lies next to her pink-socked feet.
“I’m pretty fast, so next year I might be playing running back,” she says, “but I like hitting because it’s just”—she laughs—“I just think it’s fun. You get this feeling of excitement. Everyone around you is like, Yeeeah!”
Charlee’s dad, Eric, stands nearby, arms folded, beaming. He’s a NASCAR executive, but the most important things to know about Charlee’s dad are that he loves whatever his daughter loves and that he hardly misses a second of it. He isn’t delusional about her dream of playing college football. If anything, he’s frustrated. When Charlee’s out of earshot, Eric, 45, says, “Lingerie football is the only outlet for women who want to play tackle football. That’s ridiculous. Those women are amazing athletes, and there are lot of them. I bet every one of them loves playing the game.” How does this key player in a pro sports juggernaut, a businessman whose first job out of college was a two-year stretch as the NFL’s manager of business planning, recommend this chasm be filled? “If the NFL takes this on, they gotta start somewhere like Orlando or Dallas, where there’s enough collective mass [to sustain a women’s league].”
“I almost had a sack out there,” Charlee says later of her halftime performance, her little-girl lisp belying a confidence that makes her seem 20. “But he only got like a yard. And it [set up] second-and-long.”
Does she ever think about getting hurt?
“Yeah, sometimes, because one kid broke his rib cage. And one of my own teammates—I was substituted out one play, and he went in and broke his arm. And I thought, That could have been me. But it’s football. You’re gonna get hurt; you’re gonna get hit.”
Over the course of 20 minutes Charlee says something along the lines of “I want to be a role model for other girls” 13 times. She lays out her plans to start a league for women and she predicts that in 10 years she’ll be the first female in the NFL, “because it would show women that they’re as strong as men.” Even her dad seems a little stunned by the world-changer he and his wife, Michele, have created. “Our thing is, ‘kind and happy,’ ” he says. “We want our kids to be kind to others—and to be happy. That’s it. All of this,” he adds, waving a hand toward his child and the NFL stadium she just conquered. “All this is. . . .”
He can only shrug.
About 550 miles due north of Tampa lies Presbyterian College, a small liberal arts school in Clinton, S.C., that offers a freshmen class called The Religion of SEC Football.
Professors Terry Barr (English) and Michael Nelson (history) are fans of the Alabama and Arkansas football programs, respectively, although fans is probably too mild a word. So deep is their knowledge of those teams’ three-deep depth charts, so committed are they to the Tide’s and the Hogs’ Saturday kickoff times and the three hours that follow, that these academics often find themselves perplexed by the scale of their own devotion. Hence the course, which in essence asks, Why?
“Two guests today,” the tweed-coated Nelson says at the start of one class. “Dr. Sarah Burns is a PC graduate who went on to Tennessee to get her Ph.D. in psychology. She teaches in our psych department. And Dr. Doug Daniel, who teaches in the math department.” For these two scholarly visitors, Tennessee football is their fixation. What follows is not unlike an AA meeting.
Burns’s dad (last name: Connor) named his daughter so that her initials would be S.E.C. She accompanies her presentation with slides, including one that reads “Jesus is a Volunteer, Galatians 1:4”—a translation that she concedes is “a bit of a stretch.” The bearded Daniel reads aloud from a 10-page essay he wrote recently about his boyhood love for the Vols, which deepened even as he gathered postgraduate mathematics degrees. The harmonic analysis researcher points out that the mathematical chances of Tennessee completing the Hail Mary that beat Georgia four days earlier had been 0.23%.
A bed-headed freshman in the back row takes umbrage. He’s a Georgia fan, and he hasn’t recovered from that Hail Mary sufficiently enough to discuss it, much less joke about it. After the game he blocked the number of every Tennessee fan in his phone.
“We invest more of ourselves into this sport than we do in our faith,” Nelson, 46, points out. “Sometimes our families.” There are chuckles, but one listener disagrees. Burns, 37, cites her familial upbringing and the game’s “regional associations”—the us-against-them of college football—as the sources of her addiction. She talks about the weekly ritual of it, about how “we structure our entire lives around Saturdays.”
The class ends with a brief and sobering discussion about death threats recently directed at LSU’s 21-year-old quarterback, Brandon Harris, who threw a costly interception against Wisconsin. As students gather their books and file out, the sky outside has darkened. The storm that will become Hurricane Matthew—and which will cause Florida’s game that weekend against LSU to be rescheduled, which in turn will cause Florida’s Nov. 19 date with Presbyterian to be cancelled—is taking shape hundreds of miles to the south.
Barr, by email, will note weeks later that “[Presbyterian] is getting somewhere between $350,000 and $500,000 to not play Florida. Is there a price low or high enough to save us from that [beatdown]? . . . Divine intervention, that hurricane, comes through in the end! We are saved from ourselves!”
Few understand the church of Gators football better than Steve Spurrier, who was hired by his alma mater this past summer as an “ambassador and consultant” in UF’s athletic department. In other words: His job is to be Steve Spurrier, the smirking, wisecracking, charismatic face of Southern football. He loves this job. He is, inarguably, good at it.
Wearing khaki shorts and a neon-yellow golf shirt with matching Nikes, the 71-year-old Spurrier pushes a half-eaten turkey sub to one side of his desk. He’s deep inside the stadium that was renamed in his honor over the summer, the muggy 92,000-seat, brick bowl that he started calling the Swamp in the early ’90s, the spot where the country was first introduced to him exactly 50 years ago, when this place was just two sets of bleachers and he was the 1966 Heisman winner.
Why, he’s asked, has our love of football exploded in every direction over the intervening half century? “Because it’s a sport where coaching is so very involved,” the Ol’ Ball Coach explains. “You have a choice of a whole bunch of plays to run, and the defense has a choice of schemes to run—and it’s amazing when we see something that’s never happened before. Stuff happens all the time”—and here he rehashes the controversial final seconds of a recent Oklahoma State–Central Michigan game—“where I’ve never seen that before.”
Also unseen in his time: conference money, TV money, nine-figure contracts for pro players. . . . “I don’t think we ever saw that coming,” he admits with a wistful shake of his head. “I was with the 49ers in the late ’60s and we had just started the players association. One guy with the PA came through and said, ‘Someday NFL players will make around $400,000 a year.’ We were all making 25 or 35 [thousand]. We looked at each other and said, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ And now they make 20-25 million, some of these quarterbacks. My coach here at Florida, [Ray] Graves, the most he ever made I think was $35,000. Now almost every coach in the SEC is making over $4 million a year.” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell makes 10 times that, Spurrier is told. The number—an estimated $44 million in 2012—seems to surprise him when it’s said out loud. Spurrier grins again, adjusts his desk pad a little. “If that’s what the market can bear,” he says with a shrug.
Because of his personality and his college coaching résumé, we have forgotten that Spurrier started 38 NFL games and threw 1,151 passes in the ’60s and ’70s. His NFL career was typified by the 12 starts he made for the 0–14 expansion Buccaneers of ’76, whose members recall Spurrier being treated on the field the way police dogs treat training dummies. Is Spurrier O.K. then with his grandsons playing this sport? “Well, I got one who’s a backup quarterback out at Trinity University, in San Antonio. And I got another one, a ninth grader—he plays JV. . . . I don’t have any problem with them playing.
A beat passes. He senses the questions are over. He relaxes visibly, then hops to his feet, tugs at his waistband and resumes doing the job he loves. “Let me show you all the game balls I got in here! Heck, I had to do something with ’em! These here are all seven of the SEC championship balls. . . .”
Spiritually, it’s a long way from Gainesville, with its SEC titles and its new-money high-rises, to the single-lane roads that traverse Scooba, Miss., with its two gas stations and its population of 716. Scooba is home to a Subway, a motel, a row of boarded-up storefronts and, notably, one of the best juco football programs in America, East Mississippi Community College. Or, as the popular Netflix series filmed here calls it, Last Chance U.
Head west from those pump stations on Johnson Street, past the bank and the beauty salon, and there’s the Lions’ Sullivan-Windham Field, named after Bob “Bull” (Cyclone) Sullivan, EMCC’s coach from 1950 through 52 and again from ’56 through ’69. (Lest you forget him, there’s a 7' 6" bronze statue outside the stadium of the dually nicknamed coach whom Frank Deford, in a 1984 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover story, pronounced “the toughest coach of them all.”) Sullivan favored leather helmets without face masks long after most coaches. He conducted goal-line drills and sprints in a nearby pond, and when one lineman removed his new shoes so as not to ruin them, Sullivan ran him barefoot through blackberry vines and sticker bushes. Another player nearly drowned. “I’ve heard people say [Sullivan] couldn’t coach today’s athlete,” says 60-year-old Nick Clark, who played for the Bull from ’64 through ’66 and who now works as EMCC’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement. “If someone was rolling around with a knee injury, he’d yell, Boy, that damn knee is four feet from your heart! You ain’t going to die! If he did that today, somebody would probably sue him.”
If Sullivan embodies the tough-love, no-water-breaks, what’s-concussion-protocol? football generation, then the current program illustrates the way the game has changed. The Lions play on an all-weather turf field and wear eight different uniform combinations. For the last two seasons they’ve been chronicled on Netflix, whose cameras trail the players one October afternoon as the P.A. announcer leads a pregame prayer, asking God to watch over the teams and the country. There’s no kneeling during this national anthem. Every single player, coach and fan holds hand to heart.
Between EMCC and its opponent this evening, Northwest Mississippi Community College, roughly 50 Division I–caliber football players take the field, including Lions quarterback De’Andre Johnson, who was dismissed from Florida State in July 2015 after a video surfaced showing him striking a woman at a bar. (He accepted a plea deal for misdemeanor battery last December, apologized to his victim on national TV and has since volunteered at a battered women’s shelter. “This,” he says, “is my second chance.”) Fans with camouflage cellphone cases and American flag hats pack the stands as Johnson scores five touchdowns and accounts for 442 total yards in a 51–32 triumph.
Afterward, Netflix cameras roam the field, and Johnson takes a picture with his position coach, Clint Trickett. Like Johnson, Trickett, 25, never expected to settle in a one-stoplight town near the Alabama border. The son of a coach, one of three brothers who now work in football, he played at Florida State and West Virginia and then retired in 2014 after suffering five concussions in 14 months. The Johnson-Trickett snapshot is one of football in modern-day America: a QB kicked out of school after video of his crime went viral . . . a young coach who wants to stay in football despite his concussion history . . . a season chronicled for a popular reality TV show that is streamed over the Internet. . . .
Trickett, though, retains some of Sullivan’s tough-guy coaching ethos. “I hope it doesn’t get to the point where we’re being soft with [this game],” he says. “The second the softness takes away from the integrity of the game, you gotta draw the line.”
“Look,” he continues, “the good [of this sport] outweighs the bad a million to one. I’m fine. Football will be too.”
That seems abundantly clear an hour west, on the campus of Clemson, which on a warm fall day provides a snapshot of a more traditional football player and program. Hunter Renfrow came here two years ago as a 155-pound walk-on wide receiver. Last January, at 175 pounds, he caught two touchdowns against Alabama in the national title game. He knows what it’s like to be on top of the totem pole and at the bottom.
Right now the redshirt sophomore is sitting in a sunlit terrace high above Memorial Stadium wearing a purple-and-orange DREAM THE DREAM T-shirt. Behind him, in the distance, lies a vast construction site, where Clemson’s new, $55 million training facility–palace is being built. The Tigers are unbeaten and ranked No. 3 in the country, but football’s advances stop for no man.
Renfrow, 20, has scored seven touchdowns in his college career and, by his estimation, suffered about that many concussions since he began playing football in grade school. “I played some of my best high school games with a concussion,” he says. “I was watching Last Chance U not too long ago, and Clint Trickett said football has given way more to him than concussions have taken away. I go along with that. I don’t really worry about it too much.”
What Renfrow sees as the biggest threat to college football has nothing to do with the game’s physicality. He hates the idea of scouting combines and Rivals camps, where individual players are valued above their teams. “That’s why some players don’t care about the team.” Clemson weeds out such players, he adds. “No one here thinks he’s bigger than the team.” The reason is “culture,” Renfrow explains.
No one expounds on that notion better than Thad Turnipseed, who is one of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s best friends, as well as his Director of Recruiting. More than any man but Swinney, Turnipseed is responsible for the palace being built adjacent to Death Valley. Today, huge tractors roll across the clay upon which the sprawling edifice is being built, forming orange clouds slightly darker than the jerseys Clemson wore three days earlier in an epic win over Louisville. Before you judge the building for its planned two-lane bowling alley, though, or its nap room, or the massive playground slide that connects the second floor to the ground floor, first listen to Turnipseed, 44, describe the philosophy behind it all. He doesn’t deny that the building’s biggest purpose is to attract recruits. It’s what happens after those recruits arrive that he believes sets Clemson apart.
“Dabo’s challenge to all college football programs is, We gotta start building better people and stop using kids,” says Turnipseed, who likes to show recruits’ parents the 38 surveillance cameras positioned throughout the property. (“This ain’t gonna be Animal House.”) He also shows them where the CU in Life program will be housed (“for training in life skills and community service”) and the future homes of the Fifth Quarter initiative (“for professional development and job mentoring from our alumni”) and the Tigerhood program (“How do you become a good man? How do good men think?”). “This is more about philosophy than facility,” Turnipseed says, adjusting his hard hat amid the whir of power tools.
How does he respond to those who criticize a college football program with a planned 12 plasma panels in its main foyer and a football-shaped couch the size of an end zone? “Right, wrong, or indifferent,” he says, “the front door of your university, at this level, is the football team. There’s no other avenue where you can have 30 to 50 million people engaged with your institution like we had at the national championship game. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m saying that’s reality. . . . It’s not debatable whether a successful football team is good for a university.
“So that’s how I’d answer that.”
At the Residence Inn in Pensacola, Fla., the middle-aged white woman holding down the front desk considers Football in America, same as Trickett and Renfrow, but without the personal investment. “Football is like riding a motorcycle,” she says. “There’s only so much a helmet can do.”
No one knows that better than 74-year-old James Andrews, who works across the Pensacola Bay at the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine and whose cellphone rings nonstop at dawn on Monday mornings in the fall—20 calls one Monday, 45 the next. He puts the device on speakerphone and holds it inches from his face; it’s always a general manager, athletic director, agent, coach. . . . So-and-so hurt himself in our football game last weekend. Can we send you an MRI?
“We’re picking up the pieces from college and pro games that weekend,” sports’ busiest and most famous orthopedic surgeon says. “The wreckage.” Games mean broken bones, torn ligaments. . . . Football, Andrews says, is not a contact sport, as it is often described. “It’s a collision sport. If we started a new sport today and we wrote up the rules and regulations and we called it football, they probably wouldn’t allow it.”
On weekends Andrews attends games with Auburn, Alabama and the Redskins, all of whom he works for. Between weekends he repairs torn ACLs, busted shoulders and savaged rotator cuffs. Even though he’s perhaps best known for his work on baseball players and with Tommy John surgery, football is Andrews’s favorite sport.
Team doctors occupy an odd space in the sports universe. Many of the players they care for don’t want to let on that they’re injured; coaches don’t want to remove their best athletes from the game; fans want championships; universities want revenue . . . and here’s this doctor, whom nobody really trusts, trying to navigate a minefield where money matters most. Down the hall from Andrews, fellow orthopedic surgeon Steve Jordan, who previously worked as Florida State’s team doctor for 24 years, says that the players he encountered in his past rarely talked about head injuries—except for how to navigate around them in order to remain on the field. One player, he recalls, was knocked down, hit in the head right in front of him. “You O.K.?” he asked. The player bounced up, yelled, “Yeah, it’s my ankle,” and ran back onto the field.
“Most [players] were dishonest—a majority,” says Jordan, 60. “As a doctor, you felt the pressure from the player. You feel the pressure from the fans.”
But a doctor’s proximity to the NFL’s best players doesn’t mean he can easily connect with those directly responsible for their health. Back in April, Andrews sponsored a football-injury conference in Destin, Fla. He invited orthopedic surgeons, biomechanists, trainers, therapists . . . and coaches. Guess which group had the smallest numbers? “I’ve tried to get coaches to come and listen to injury prevention talks,” he says. “You almost have to trick them to come.” On the field, he says, “They have a taboo about even talking to the team doctor.”
One group that will listen, undoubtedly: moms. An afternoon’s drive to the northwest, in Atlanta, more than 100 of them—the majority of them African-American, all local—are running go routes behind Rich McKay as the Falcons’ president and CEO explains the difference between the Moms Clinic he’s hosting one October evening at South Cobb High and the slightly patronizing “Football 101” seminars that the NFL has largely moved on from. “[Football 101] went through the basics of what a first down is, the four downs, timeouts. . . . It was more of a social event.” McKay spreads his arms wide, revealing the squadron of mothers behind him. “This is all about health and safety, arming moms with information about the risks of the game and how to mitigate those risks. Then we let them have a little fun on the field.”
The laughter and dropped passes and tackling drills in the background are a physical release for women who just spent more than an hour watching detailed demonstrations on how to properly fit their sons’ helmets and shoulder pads, how to navigate the confusing world of supplements and PEDs, how to balance academics against the statistically slim chance that their sons will play college ball.
Out on the field, clinic director Buddy Curry, a former Falcons linebacker, starts doing what he does best.
“One!” he yells. Every mom, having just been coached on this, stomps into a half-lunge. “Two!” Their rear feet come forward, forming 100 squats. “Squeeze!” One hundred sets of shoulder blades retract. “Sink!” The squats deepen. “Rip!” Four hundred hands and hips fly forward with surprising synchronicity and speed, completing the tackle. “Break down!”
“Hunnnh!” The collective two-foot stomp and grunt is loud and visceral.
When the clinic is over, eye-black-wearing mom Marilyn Mason, whose 16-year-old plays for South Cobb, explains, “I came here to see football from my son’s perspective. The first time he got tackled [in Pop Warner], I cried. He had a concussion last year that was very difficult. It hurts me to watch him play, but I know football keeps him disciplined and teaches him to be part of a group.”
Adrienne Harden’s three-year-old son scored his first flag football touchdown two weeks earlier for the Hiram Hornets. She came tonight “because this my baby, my three-year-old baby—”
“—Wait till contact,” interrupts a friend.
Lavita King and Stephanie Green are the mothers of two South Cobb seniors. “The safety issues we talked about tonight,” says Green, “I didn’t know them like I thought I knew them.” Learning about PEDs and hearing the surprising news that not every supplement at GNC is good for her son “was awesome, I needed that.” Asked if the information they learned tonight arrived too late in their sons’ lives, they exclaim “Yessss!” Their chorus is joined by a third mom who works in a nearby hospital “that gets a lot of football injuries.”
Green explains the feeling of watching her son play, calling the physical sensation “like a tightening.”
“Dads can say ‘just shake it off,’ ” says King. “But not us mamas.”
It’s 9 a.m. on a Sunday and a mostly empty city smells like urine and stale cigarettes. Welcome to Bourbon Street. A handful of Saints fans in Drew Brees jerseys search for coffee. There’s a street performer on the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter strumming a guitar, his case nearly empty save for a few coins. Between songs he declines to discuss the current state of football, waving dismissively as he talks. “What do I care about rich people destroying other rich people?”
An hour later, as kickoff between the Saints and the Panthers approaches, vendors hawk Mardi Gras beads and face-painting services on Poydras Street outside the Superdome. A woman dressed only in a bra, gold boots and a pink tutu dances under a fleur-de-lis umbrella.
Scalpers work the area across the street from Champions Square. One recalls how his father resold tickets at the Superdome, back when fans wore paper bags over their heads. Times change, same as football. Fans pay more now, especially the visitors. “I don’t watch football much,” he says. “But I damn sure need the money.”
Inside, the game kicks off, and from the top row of the stadium, in section 608, the players look like miniature toy soldiers clad in football pads. A middle-aged telecom executive leans back against the wall and says his “interest has waned significantly the last couple years.” He played lacrosse when he was younger, sustaining multiple concussions. An imaging scan recently revealed damage to his brain, he says. One of his sons is a jujitsu fighter, the other a professional wrestler; they’ve both dealt with head injuries. That concussions in football have always bothered him comes as little surprise. And yet there’s that conflict. . . . “They have to make the game safer or it’s barbaric—but then when they make it safer, it’s ruining the game. That’s the conundrum,” he says. “It’s an unsolvable conflict, an unfixable problem. I guess I’ll find something else to do.”
Besides the Saints, he hardly watches football these days. (“How many gladiators do you watch anymore?” he asks, sighing.) He’s aware of the decline in ratings and, like Goodell, thinks that results from many factors—the election, concussions, player arrests, diminishing interest in fantasy football . . . millennials. In New Orleans, specifically, he says folks like his brother-in-law swore off the NFL after the league levied severe penalties as part of the 2009 Bountygate scandal.
“There will always be football,” he says, “but it has reached its peak.”
The second half resumes, and he gets lost in a last-minute Saints victory. Afterward, inside the home locker room, veteran New Orleans safety Roman Harper is told about the musician who doesn’t care, the scalper who needs the dough and the fan in section 608. “I would tell them, Enjoy the product we put out there on the field,” he says. “We sign up for this. I’ve been trying to kill and hit people since I was eight years old. That’s my decision.”
“The game,” he says, “will change with the time. You can’t be the dinosaur. You gotta be the crocodile.”
The next morning, 80 miles northwest in Baton Rogue, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jeffrey Marx considers the Saints and football over a shrimp-and-crawfish omelet. He’s not conflicted. Never has been. “In my writing I’ve tried to explore my belief that sports are the most popular platform in America. Period,” says Marx, 54. “Not just football—but football probably is the most powerful of sports in its ability to reach young people.”
Marx became a Baltimore Colts ball boy when he was 11 and worked four summers for the team. Those experiences, he says, changed his life. Fast-forward to 2001, when the team’s old venue, Memorial Stadium, was being torn down. Marx called as many of the players from his childhood as he could find. He stumbled upon Joe Ehrmann, a Colts D-lineman from 1973 through ’82 who had become a minister and high school football coach in Baltimore.
In the 1990s Ehrmann started a mentoring program called program Building Men for Others, and he attacked what he called fake masculinity in football. Instead, he emphasized emotions that one doesn’t typically associate with athletes. Love. Empathy. Kindness. His coaches yelled, What is our job? and players responded, To love us!
In 2004 Marx wrote a book about Ehrmann and his program titled Season of Life. In the subsequent 12 years he says he’s heard about the book’s impact from someone—a mom, a prisoner, a church group, a Boy Scout—every single day. He explains how a judge told him recently that he’d assigned a convict to read the book and then write about it. That essay partially determined his sentence.
That’s the kind of impact football can have, Marx says, why it will always exist, always thrive.
“It’s a fact that football is the most violent sport in America, and it’s causing all sorts of problems in people’s lives,” Marx admits. “It’s equally a fact that when the sport is used in a strategic way, it can change lives, families, whole communities. I don’t think those facts are mutually exclusive.
The Grand Poobah of Football in America sips iced tea inside a conference room at his latest cost-be-damned sports palace. Jerry Jones, owner of the most valuable sports franchise in the world ($4 billion), arrived in Frisco, Texas, earlier this afternoon from Arlington, via an airbus H145 helicopter, at what he calls the Cowboys’ “world headquarters.” He sits down and gestures at his kingdom, which is named the Star and sponsored by Ford. “Before we’re through here, we’ll have spent almost $2 billion,” Jones, 74, says with a shrug, dropping interview notes on a table, never to look back at them.
The topic: the current state of the nation’s most popular sport. By ushering the NFL into its silly-money TV era, by finding sponsors for everything he touches, by constructing a stadium that resembles a spaceship, by pushing for the Rams to move from St. Louis to Los Angeles and by supporting a potential team in Las Vegas, Jones is as responsible as anyone for a moment in football history that he calls “very unique.”
If he’s being honest, this moment snuck up on him. “We”—and by this he means himself and others in positions of power, at all levels of the game—“may have taken for granted that the decision-makers know that football is good for you,” he says. “I’ve just assumed that everybody would get it and [the lessons] would get passed along.
“Football’s not for everybody,” he goes on. “I’m not complaining, but maybe I had blinders on when I bought the Cowboys [in 1989 for $140 million]. I didn’t see that we needed to say any more until probably the last 10 years.”
Jones takes another sip of tea and launches into his personal football history: four seasons as a fullback and guard at Arkansas, national championship in 1964, the thesis he wrote on the role of communication in football, the father who told him that with a career in sports he would “never amount to anything.” This continues for half an hour—the lessons learned, the sacrifices made, how he wouldn’t own a stadium and a helicopter if not for the game. “The point of that whole long-winded deal is this,” he says, “I’ve had [football] in my blood.”
Tears well in Jones’s eyes. (Misting, he calls it.) Football provides myriad similar experiences, he says, especially for “the 70% of our players who have had no male role models apart from their coaches.” Critics, he says, miss the point of it all: the community, the ties that bind generations . . .
The conversation winds to player safety and head trauma. Jones saw only clips of the movie Concussion. He knows that Jeff Miller, the league’s senior vice president for health and safety policy, acknowledged on Capitol Hill last March a link between football and degenerative brain disorders such as chronic traumatic encephalopathy. Jones does not agree with Miller or the many doctors and studies that share the same view. He just believes it’s too early to know anything definitively. “We’re drawing conclusions so far out in front of the facts,” he says. “I can live with that, as long as we understand that I’ve seen milk and red meat [debated] for the last 30 years, whether they’re good for you or not.”
He wants football to be safer—as safe, he says, as it can be. He wants studies, research, plans. He advocates making smaller face masks to “reduce the courage” of tacklers who are tempted to lead with their heads.
Another sip of tea and Jones says what has surprised him most about being an NFL owner is how the league is expected to lead the way in combatting domestic violence, promoting activism, advancing safety procedures. While many would argue the NFL has failed in those areas, especially when it has come to early research on concussions, Jones disagrees. “I’m going to carefully choose my words here,” he says. “The game of football is convenient to involve in the discussion of head injuries. Anybody who stops and thinks for a few minutes will realize that many other sports involve contact with athletes’ heads. Many other occupations do, as well. . . . I don’t become unduly alarmed. We don’t have the answers. There is no such thing as the answer.”
After 90 minutes Jones is still talking, getting even more passionate. He’s built a 12,000-seat indoor football stadium at the Star, and it is being used by eight high schools. It’s a mini AT&T Stadium: same seat backs, same turf, same polish on the concourse floors. There’s a VIP viewing area. Nike will outfit all the teams. Jones did this, he says, because he wants to reach parents directly. They’ll ultimately decide if their kids play football, when they can play tackle, for how long. He calls his sparkling new headquarters an “oasis” connecting professional and amateur sports, and he sees harmony between the two going forward.
“Whether it be concussions, whether it be the issues with player behavior—take everything we’re looking at,” he says, “and then take what I saw in 1989 when I gave everything I had to [buy the Cowboys]. That was a bleak picture back then. This, today”—the billions of dollars being moved, the spot atop the American sports totem pole, the growing global footprint—“this looks like the clouds have parted compared to then.”
How ’bout them Cowboys!? Clad in a silver-and-blue number 4 jersey, Phil Ebarb orders a Boudin sausage at a seafood kitchen in Grapevine, Texas. From where he sits it’s about a 20-minute drive to AT&T Stadium, where his nephew, Cowboys rookie quarterback Dak Prescott, is preparing to face the Bengals this afternoon.
Ebarb, 50, isn’t hungry though. He’s nervous. It’s one thing to worry or scream or track a player’s progress from vantage points removed—on a couch, on a fantasy app. But that’s his blood out there on the field, the boy who wore an Emmitt Smith jersey growing up in western Louisiana. Before Ebarb’s sister Peggy died of colon cancer in 2013, he promised her he would look after Dak, who chose number 4 because his mom was born on the fourth of September. She loved the contact in football, the way bigger defenders couldn’t drag down her boy.
“It’s emotional,” Ebarb says. “Proud, first and foremost. You’re concerned—worried this world is going to wrap him up, worried for his heart, worried about his health. And then there’s the excitement. You can’t wait to see it. You’re ready. You’re bewildered. It’s surreal that this is reality.”
Where Jones’s eyes “misted,” Ebarb’s pool with conflicting emotions. “You don’t reconcile them,” he says. “You navigate them. You’re the ball in the pinball machine—thrown here, pushed there. You feel all of that in the same minute, at the same time. It’s . . . overwhelming.”
Ebarb is a singer-songwriter who worked with James Brown and hung out with Willie Nelson; his band performs what he calls “musical gumbo,” a mix of up-tempo country and rock. He’ll soon require hip and knee replacements after all those years onstage. A fractured disc in his back during high school ended his basketball career, the same as knee injuries halted the professional football aspirations of Dak’s father, Nathaniel, who was invited to an NFL training camp, and Dak’s brother, Jace, who was once a top college recruit. “Twice the athlete Dak is,” Ebarb says.
Yet Ebarb views all those injuries through the prism of sacrifice—the price men pay for what they love. “If you work at a school and some nutbag shows up and shoots at kids and kills teachers, do you quit?” he asks. “We have to do what we have to do. You can’t stop livin’, man.”
He pulls up a text message he sent Dak yesterday. It reads, in part, “When you’re smiling out there, it confirms for me you do this for the moments. That’s why I play music. The moments that haunt. Create your moments. I love you.”
“Let’s don’t get it messed up,” Ebarb says. “Dak is a performer. This is an entertainment business. Football is a machine, man, and the machine rolls on.”
That it does. Even as Ebarb watches from AT&T Stadium’s lower level as Dak (227 yards, two touchdowns) and the Cowboys dismantle Cincinnati 28–14, the high rollers in box seats feast on produce from an organic farm 25 miles to the southeast, the very spot where, just nine years ago, Paul Quinn College gave up its football program in favor of. . . agriculture.
Here, just south of downtown Dallas, rows of cucumbers, radishes, basil, tomatoes, jalapeños and bell peppers grow between two goalposts. One afternoon, three days after the Cowboys’ win, tilapia swim in an aquaponics system that is 70 yards from a blank, antiquated scoreboard. Hens lay eggs near a cartoon rendering of an anthropomorphic radish in full Heisman pose.
The man responsible for this gridiron garden, school president Michael Sorrell, arrived here in 2007, shortly after an analysis from the Boston Consulting Group concluded that the private, historically black college could no longer afford NAIA football. Sorrell looked around—at the “food desert” surrounding campus, with so few healthy options; at his weight, which had ballooned by 15 pounds since his move; at the former football players, whom he could spot by the way they limped; at the Tigers’ record, with just 11 wins from ’00 through ’06—and made what he describes as an easy and prudent choice. The We Over Me Farm opened in May 2010. The school saves about $600,000 annually by not having a football team.
The players didn’t take it well. They tried to intimidate Sorrell and griped about losing a chance to play professionally. This went on until Sorrell challenged them to raise $2 million to save the team, promising to match that amount and open an endowment. No one raised a dime. Gradually, the complaints subsided. And now, with the Cowboys as the farm’s top client, Sorrell says “we’ve sent more kale to the NFL than football players. In reality, not having football saved our institution.”
Sorrell’s choice speaks to what he sees as football’s inherent conflict. “You create an economic engine [with] this sport; that impact is extraordinary,” he says. “But the reality is, you also sacrifice a few souls. Bodies will be racked and damaged for the benefit of many.” He shakes his head. “I’m not sure if football isn’t the banking system in 2008. It’s too big to fail.”
Here, though, is that conflict again: At 50, Sorrell remains a die-hard Bears and Cowboys fan. He respects the power of football’s platform, in which a backup quarterback can kneel during the national anthem and spark debate, outrage, maybe change. “Athletes are breaking the code,” he says. “The code used to be: We paid you a bunch of money. . . do what we say. It feels like the sport is changing.”
Bigger change, transformative change, he says, will come from the mothers who can veto football as a choice, just as Sorrell and his wife did with their own son. In the end he brings the conversation back to the students who receive a $5,000 tuition credit by working Paul Quinn’s farm. “I want them to understand that the surest way out of poverty is to be the guy who signs the front of the check, not the back,” he says. “Jerry Jones is a genius—flat-out. He played football.
“But what side of the checks does he sign?”
There is a complete spiritual opposite of the We Over Me Farm a mere 45 minutes to the north, straight up I-75. With 18,000 seats and a 38-foot-wide video board, Allen High’s $60 million Eagle Stadium is Friday Night Lights in middle age. It’s all the excess of Texas high school football wrapped up in one place.
The Eagles jog onto the field through billowing smoke and a giant inflatable A, with the nation’s largest high school band (almost 800 students) performing in Halloween costumes (Barney Rubble on trumpet, Dracula on drums), and Football in America is thriving. Allen’s residents voted by a two-to-one margin in favor of a $119 million bond in 2009 to build the venue, along with a fine arts auditorium and a district service center. The Eagles then won state titles in each of their first three seasons in their new home, starting in ’12 (though all of the ’14 games were played on the road after district officials shut down Allen’s stadium to repair extensive cracking).
Tonight fans are tailgating, wiping away meat sweats, spoiled by success. They’re smoking brisket, grilling sausage, lathering ribs in barbecue sauce. One says he has watched Texas high school football every Friday for 55 years. Another notes how this stadium has become something of a novelty, with visitors from as far as Canada this season. “If you can’t get fired-up here,” an older man in an Allen hat says, “then your wood’s wet.”
Near the front entrance, at a makeshift tent for the program’s booster club, adults grumble about Colin Kaepernick and player protests and the NFL in general. Several say they’re watching less professional football this season, if at all.
As Allen’s band director (Waldo) leads a sea of instruments in song, Chris Tripucka, the 53-year-old owner of a football/souvenir shop, sees the Eagles take a 42–7 third-quarter lead on Guyer High. Tripucka’s father, Frank, played at Notre Dame and then for eight NFL and CFL teams over 16 seasons, ending in 1963. (The Broncos retired his number 18 jersey this season.) In 2013, the man friends called the Tough Polack died at 85 from, Chris says, “a combination of Alzheimer’s and dementia that I know was caused from all the hits to the head.” Still, even as Frank’s condition had worsened, the Tough Polack lamented the state of Football in America. He had played one game with a leather helmet and most of his career without a face mask. The game he loved had gone soft.
Chris played receiver at Boston College in the ’80s, and he undergoes cryotherapy each week from a helmet shot he long ago took to the spine. His oldest son, Shane, is the punter for Texas A&M. Shane had also lined up at receiver for Allen, until he took a brutal hit one scrimmage and his coach decided he didn’t want to jeopardize the kid’s scholarship chances. Chris broke the news to Shane, who cried for an hour. Secretly, Chris was relieved. “Having played the game, I know what the risks are,” he says. “Those risks didn’t bother me as a player. But they bother me as a parent.”
On the field, Allen is running out the clock. Tripucka loves these Friday nights and what they mean to his community, how the lessons doled out on that field teach boys to become men. He hates that third-graders practice in full pads and he hates how today’s kids specialize in one sport before they hit puberty. He disdains those things—but he can still get behind Allen’s $60 million stadium. The town needed it, he says. Besides: McKinney High, a school without Allen’s gridiron tradition, is building a $70 million venue seven miles up the road.
The clock hits zero and fans stream toward the exits. “I look down on the field and I see that the numbers aren’t quite what they normally are,” Tripucka says, referring to what he sees as a dwindling player pool. “You’re seeing a small impact.
“Even in Texas.”
Five hours to the south, but still in the thick of Texas football country, the first of four San Antonio Colts youth football games are under way on a Saturday morning. The outfit fields four teams across age groups from four to 13 and has 104 participants altogether—players and cheerleaders—down from a high of 140 a few years back. They’re drilled by 39 coaches and, like the 50-odd other youth football organizations in San Antonio (part of the 270-plus that make up the Texas Youth Football Association), they play almost year-round. They take only January off.
Colts president Robbie Adame, 31, surveys the field as one flag player, four or five years old, grabs a handoff and runs the wrong direction. Other leagues in Texas, Adame says, start at three. “Too young.”
During their 2013 and ’14 seasons the Colts participated in the Esquire Network’s reality show Friday Night Tykes. Their coach then, Marecus Goodloe, was suspended after the first season for using foul language, one of myriad abhorrent acts—screaming coaches, helicoptering parents—the series highlighted. After that aired, TYFA membership climbed 35%, to about 18,000 players. “People act a certain way on TV,” says Adame. “When they approached us last year [about filming another season], I told them I’m ready to be back to normal. I don’t need all that.”
The injuries, though—those are all real. Adame says the Colts average “five or six” concussions each season. He even recalls one on the Colts’ flag team. When the movie Concussion came out he says “probably three parents” took their kids out of the league. One father still wanted his son to play even after the boy suffered two head injuries in four months. “I need something that says He’s cleared,” Adame says he told the dad. “I can’t have that on my conscience.”
Two Midget teams, ages six and seven, sprint onto the field through a banner that says TIME TO POUND, past posters reading COLTS STRONG and BIG GAME and SLEDGEHAMMER. One parent wears a T-shirt with HIGHLY AGGRESSIVE splashed across the front. A coach sets up a video camera in the stands. They’ll study the tape next week.
Wesley Vallejo, a locksmith who helped found the Colts in 2003, says they used to recruit each weekend. They’d set up a tent on the main drag near the field and hand out fliers, selling parents on the program. They fought to retain their best players, who were constantly courted by other teams. “Losing games,” Vallejo says, “is equivalent to losing kids.”
Later, as two Rookie teams of eight- and nine-year-olds take the field, Colts coaches yell, “Is everybody ready?”
In unison, “Yes, sir!”
A Junior Barons linebacker slams a Colts running back and the Barons’ sideline erupts. Parents chest-bump. “Textbook, baby!”
“That’s how you hit, boy!”
“Nothing! Damn straight!”
After the Junior teams (10 and 11) kick off, one Barons coach screams at his players. If they don’t want to play hard, he says, he’ll find someone who does. Later he disagrees with an assistant’s play-call suggestion and tells the man to “go sit in the f------ stands with your wife.” The assistant leaves.
A parent yells, “Hit somebody!” A Colts player is down. One dad walks onto the field and shouts, “Put him on his back!” Later, another Colt is down. Nearby, two bench players throw rocks at a tree.
Another injury and coaches wave with urgency at the medics, summoning five volunteers who’ve come from nearby military bases. There’s an altercation between parents in the stands.
“Carolina is down,” a mom declares. His banner hangs on the fence behind him: JAY$HAWN #1 CAROLINA. Four parents carry a tent onto the field to shield Carolina from the sun. Medics roll out the ice chest. An ambulance and two fire trucks arrive, and Carolina is carted off on a stretcher. Play resumes.
Colts coaches tell their players, who are down two touchdowns, to win this one for Carolina. One teammate walks over to Carolina’s sign, clasps both hands together and prays.
Another teammate comes to the bench holding his head. His father, a coach, says, “That’s part of football, son. I would have hit your ass too. That’s the way it is. Lazy-ass football players get hurt.”
Another child slumps on the bench with a sprained ankle and a mom declares, “We can’t have somebody getting hurt every play.”
A sixth injury in this one game. A fourth stoppage. A player limps off the field holding his left arm, and the medics, who arrived to find no medical supplies, fashion a splint out of an orange crate.
“This is crazy,” says one medic, who identifies himself as PO3 Ross. “I’ve never seen anything like this. The parents are the worst. Some are worse than my drill sergeants.”
The game ends.
“Jesus,” PO3 Ross says. “It’s done.”
“Y’all gotta get some fight,” one of the coaches tells the Colts. “We can’t coach ‘fight.’ ”
“At the end of the day, in football you’re going to take bumps, bruises and broken bones,” says one parent, who declines to give his name. “If you don’t want to play football, go run track.”
“Somebody gotta say it,” he says, laughing.
Jessenia Quiñones isn’t laughing. Every week, dozens of NFL players lie flat on her massage table, their bodies dotted with black and brown and purple bruises, their fingers bent, their spines twisted. They’ve absorbed the impact of helmets to their hamstrings and braved the force of large men landing on their backs. That’s football, they tell her. Contact on every play, injury as an occupational hazard.
Quiñones, 35, sits in a coffee shop back in Dallas, a day after treating several Cowboys players, one who hurt himself against the Bengals. “The doctor told him his neck is like he’s in his 80s,” she says.
A licensed massage therapist, the 5’ 3” Quiñones says MMA fighters come to her in the worst shape, but NFL players are a close second. No other sport approaches that level. The football players’ biggest complaint, though, isn’t the pain. It’s that they don’t get help, she says. “They’re what we call fakers at the facilities,” she continues. “They don’t seek the attention they need. What makes me the saddest is that they’re not able to tell their trainers: I’m really hurt. Teams teach them how to talk to the media, how to manage their money. They don’t teach them how to manage their bodies and their health.”
These same players express no regrets. “The money keeps them there,” Quiñones says. “They have a wife, and then they have a baby coming. . . .” After they retire, she says, then they worry about their health. Then they never miss appointments. One retired NFL player whom she treated this week told her he regrets not taking her advice more seriously when he played.
Quiñones wishes more teams employed massage therapists, acupuncturists and holistic healers. “They pump these guys full of Vicodin,” she says, “but that’s masking pain, not taking care of it, camouflaging it so they can play again.”
After years of working on athletes twice her size, Quiñones feels the impact of pro football. “I want to start getting out of it,” she says. “It’s murder on my hands.
“Football, it takes its toll.”
Jerrod Black sure hopes so.
“This is going to sound bad,” he says from Christie’s, a sports bar in Dallas’s Uptown neighborhood where he’s watching Monday Night Football over chicken wings and fries, “but I’m always looking for an injury.”
A 27-year-old aspiring NFL nosetackle who benches over 500 pounds and squats more than 600 but who hasn’t yet found a temporary roster spot (let alone a permanent one), Black is eyeing job openings. He is heartened tonight by Buccaneers running back Jacquizz Rodgers, a third-stringer seven days ago who, due to injuries, will get 30 carries against the Panthers. Suddenly John Hughes III, a defensive end whom Tampa Bay signed a week ago, is down, clutching his knee. “The universe is speaking right now,” Black says.
The call will not come this week, or the next, and that is typical of life on the NFL periphery. For every Aaron Rodgers there are 400 NFL hopefuls like Black, though his example is extreme. Last December he was out of gas, out of options, parked outside the facility where he trained in Carrolton, Texas, when he asked himself, Where am I going to sleep tonight? Black was too proud to call his parents and too broke to pay for a motel room. He grabbed a pillow and a blanket and fixed a bed in his truck. He lived there for more than three months, spending his days in the training center and his nights in the parking lot, listening to crickets chirp.
On the fringe of professional football, he asked himself another question. Dude, when are you going to stop and get a regular job?
The answer, still, always: not yet. Black grew up in Houston, was courted by the likes of Texas A&M and Nebraska, then went to Iowa State, where the forgettable Gene Chizik era ended when the coach bolted in mid-December 2008 for Auburn. Chizik told his team, “I always support the Cyclones.” Then he walked out. Black says 16 members of his recruiting class transferred.
He landed at Southeastern Louisiana. He worked out for two NFL teams. He played indoor ball for the Green Bay Blizzard. He tore his right ACL. The Bucs called his agent, only to find out about the injury. The Cowboys brought him in for a visit in May 2014, then they signed someone else instead. Black’s agent would call. We might have something. Always another tease.
He came to see how thin the margins were, the difference between the back end of an NFL roster and sleeping in his truck. Three of his Iowa State roommates, none of them stars, played in Super Bowls.
When one friend, former Giants safety Tyler Sash, was found dead of an accidental pain-medication overdose and then was discovered to have had CTE, Black began to worry more about concussions. And still he pushed on, reaching out to executives on social media, contacting reporters. “I’ll give it until the end of this season” he says now as he finishes his fries.
Buoyed by a new partnership in an organic tequila company, Black is no longer homeless. He swears he had a dream recently in which he was playing for the Seahawks, wearing a blue jersey, walking out of the tunnel onto CenturyLink Field.
That dream, for now, sustains him.
A straight shot up McKinney Avenue, on the luxurious campus at Southern Methodist, a class of sports management students debate the game’s present and future. Like Black, they also have football dreams. Half of them want to coach. The other half hope to work for teams.
Fourteen of the 65 undergraduates jammed into Room 101A in Harold Clark Simmons Hall play football for the Mustangs, and while they’re just six days removed from an emotionally draining overtime loss to Tulsa that dropped them to 2–4, enthusiasm for the sport endures. Ask them whether they love football and 50 hands shoot skyward.
“It’s like a high you can’t get anywhere else,” says a freshman linebacker.
“My dad put a football in my crib when I was a baby,” adds a sophomore defensive back.
“I feel a little different, just from an injury standpoint,” says a freshman defensive tackle. “Five years ago I wasn’t getting injured. Now I am.”
“Coaches don’t care,” he continues. “They’re just trying to win. Think about it: College coaches get fired left and right. At the high school level, it’s different. In college, this man feeds his kids with the wins we produce. Let’s face it, we’re on scholarship. This is not free.”
“Sometimes it takes the fun out of the sport,” says a teammate.
“Sometimes?” another scoffs under his breath.
Ask if these players have ever suffered a concussion and 10 raise their hands. More than one? Four hands remain.
Ask if anyone has watched the movie Concussion and answers come from all over the room.
“I refuse to watch that movie.”
“I don’t want it to get in my head that this is going to, like, ruin my life for something I love so much.”
“I didn’t like the movie, but there’s some truth to it.”
“I’m not going to throw away what I have now just for a movie.”
A female student chimes in from the second row. “I’ve watched people I love die from [concussions],” she says. “I know people who’ve become quadriplegics. My dad played football and his friends are killing themselves or drinking themselves to death because they can’t get up in the morning.”
Ask her if, given those experiences, she still watches football and she says, “Every day. Every Saturday, Sunday, Thursday and Monday.”
Given all this, what, then, will the future bring?
“Players will be bigger and stronger.”
“There will be a transsexual playing or something.”
“What else could they really change besides ruining the sport itself? Then it wouldn’t be football anymore. It’s going to get to a point where they just have to cancel it altogether.”
“Pillow flag football.”
Then, from a player in the front row: “It’s going to be a violent game no matter what.”
The tears start almost immediately, running down both cheeks as Jordan Shelley-Smith tries to explain how much football matters to him, how desperately he wanted to continue playing. It’s killing him that he’s sitting here, not at practice, while his Kansas teammates prep for Oklahoma State on Saturday. Six weeks ago he was on that field with them, in full pads, a starting left tackle with an outside shot at the NFL. Now he’s just another former D-I player, a 22-year-old senior forced to retire because of concussions and their aftereffects.
Inside the football communications office in Lawrence, Shelley-Smith’s sentences start and stop as he wipes at droplets that say what his words cannot. That he misses football. That he’s weaning himself off the high. “My dad told me to play with no regret,” he says, “but this is all I’ve done, all I knew. My body just tapped out.”
He leans forward, hands clasped, eyes still wet. The Jayhawks were one of just two winless teams in all of FBS last season, and in 2016 they were off to a 1–2 start when Shelley-Smith retired. But he deems his decision “the toughest call I’ve ever had to make. I have to deal with that every day for the rest of my life.”
Shelley-Smith arrived at Kansas from Waco, Texas, as a 6' 5" tight end, converted to the O-line and played in 30 games. But he sustained a concussion in October 2015 during a beatdown loss to Oklahoma State, and the headaches lingered into practices the fall. He got on the field only once this season, a 43–7 loss to Memphis on Sept. 17, after which the headaches occurred more frequently. The pain was worse than anything he’d ever felt. He was tentative in practice, slow, sometimes dizzy. “I noticed it most in the hitting,” Shelley-Smith says. “I felt . . . Off.”
He was cognizant of all the players, pro and college, who’d retired in recent seasons, their decisions, like his, colored by individual circumstances but sharing a similar theme—that the more players know about concussions, the more likely they are to leave the game early, faculties intact. Even though Shelley-Smith didn’t care for the movie Concussion, even though he felt like the media had an antifootball agenda when it came to head injuries, he was more aware. Everyone has become more aware.
So Shelley-Smith discussed the risks with the team’s doctors, training staff and coaches, and with his fiancée, KU alum Becca Strecker. “The thing with your brain is, you really don’t know,” he says. “Ultimately, it came down to future health.”
On Sept. 26 he told his teammates. On Sept. 27 he started to lose the weight he’d put on to play O-line. He was 302 pounds the day he retired but has shed 25 since. He’s taking classes to remain on scholarship after completing his degree in supply-chain management last spring. He works with his former teammates on their drills and in breaking down film, and he watches games from the sidelines. That has helped with the transition. In December he’ll start working at a local retail outlet as an area supervisor who used to play college football.
He won’t be alone. All over the country players like Shelley-Smith—players who love football, who learned discipline and earned college degrees on scholarship—will weigh the impact on their health from repeated head trauma. At Kansas, two of Shelley-Smith’s teammates retired in recent seasons for similar reasons. One week after Shelley-Smith walked away, so did starting Oklahoma linebacker Tay Evans. That’s Football in America, where it’s O.K. to say No más.
“Look, the more people talk about head injuries, the more people like me are open to making that decision,” Shelley-Smith says. “More people understand what’s at stake. It’s not like a broken arm—Take something and get back in! Things are definitely changing.”
So will Shelley-Smith let his son play football?
Without hesitation: “Of course.”
The six officials seated around a conference table at the office of the Parsons (Kans.) Recreation Commission can sympathize with the teary former footballer 130 miles to the north. They, too, weighed the impact of head injuries in football and last summer switched their third- and fourth-grade tackle leagues to flag. Not everyone at the table agreed with that decision, but overall the town of 10,000 “was pretty welcoming of the change,” says Gary Crissman, the PRC’s executive director.
Maybe it helped that Shaun Hill, a former Parsons High quarterback who’s now a 36-year-old backup for the Vikings, wrote an open letter to his hometown of 10,500 explaining and defending the commission’s choice. Or perhaps the dangers of head injuries are just too obvious to ignore in 2016. Whatever the reasoning, there are roughly 84 children playing flag football for the PRC this fall, more than triple number that participated in tackle one season ago.
The six officials will oversee the playoffs tomorrow and so far have no major injuries to report. They’re even considering changing their fifth- and sixth-grade leagues from tackle to flag. As they talk, a life-sized cutout of Hill smiles creepily in the background. He’s a local hero, the son of former Parsons High assistant Ted Hill, who wouldn’t let him play football until sixth grade. As a seventh-grader Shaun injured his neck when an opponent tackled him into a bench on the sideline; Ted made him sit out the next season.
Not everyone buys Shaun Hill’s arguments in favor of flag football: that players don’t collide as much, that their heads slam into the turf less often, that they can spend more time on noncontact fundamentals. Emilio Aita (aka “the Friendly, Informed Antagonist” in staff emails about the subject) is the principal at St. Patrick Catholic School nearby, and he’s a longtime PRC coach. He says that most studies about the benefits of flag aren’t specific to youth football. He’s also not convinced that flag gives slower, heavier kids more chances to play. Still, he left his children in the PRC’s flag league, even as one asked him, “Daddy, can I just keep playing soccer until you let me hit somebody?”
Hill, meanwhile, hopes that Parsons’s switch will help eliminate one safety issue among many surrounding the sport. Asked by phone whether he’s concerned about his own health, he says, “If I had any worries, I wouldn’t still be playing.”
Flag football? Players retiring over concussions? Good luck explaining such things to Gary Lothrop, a 59-year-old veterinarian and Nebraska fan who every week writes scathing emails about Cornhuskers football and fires them off to 500-plus eager readers. Eighteen hours before the Huskers host Purdue down the road at Memorial Stadium, he settles into a booth at Greenfield’s Cafe in Lincoln and orders a club sandwich. He’s weighing the risks-versus-rewards of Football in America, but he’s coming to an altogether different conclusion from Shelley-Smith’s or the PRC’s.
He takes a sip of water. “I always tell people, ‘Jeez, I stick my arm up a cow’s ass, up to my shoulder, for six bucks [as part of my job]. Sometimes I get crap in my ears.’” He sighs. “Everybody’s [job] risk is different.”
He’s asked: Are players—particularly those at an FBS stalwart like Nebraska—taking an acceptable risk? Is football even a career choice they should have? “I don’t know how to weigh in on that,” he says, “but I do know this: They have turned football into a game for people that should wear pink panties! They’re a bunch of pansies!”
He mentions his three children, Nebraska fans all. His daughter suffered a concussion while playing youth soccer; his younger son sustained three concussions (one of them when an errant mini-golf putt smacked him in the head). Lothrop says he wishes the NFL hadn’t “tried to bury” the issue of concussions but then adds, “I can assure you, 90,000 Nebraskans would not show up for flag football games.”
The next morning, three hours before kickoff, Memorial Stadium’s parking lots are already filling up. T-shirts read i SEE RED PEOPLE, hats are affixed with giant ears of plastic corn and one food truck displays a popular slogan: through these gates pass the greatest fans in college football.
Most of them, anyway. Before a game at Northwestern in September, three black Nebraska players knelt during the national anthem. One of them, senior linebacker Michael Rose-Ivey, was called a “clueless, confused n-----” on social media and told he should be kicked off the team, lynched or shot. A fan suggested the threesome be hanged the next time “The Star-Spangled Banner” played. (Lothrop says he’s embarrassed that a player received death threats, but he’s not surprised.)
That incident came three weeks after Colin Kaepernick knelt during the anthem. That, too, struck a nerve in places like Lincoln. When the three Cornhuskers followed suit, Gov. Pete Ricketts called them “disgraceful” and “disrespectful”; two university regents echoed his thoughts.
In the lot before the Purdue game, fans like Greg and Vicki King share the regent’s sentiments. Their son Jason is a senior who starts at left guard for the Boilermakers. Every week Greg (59, clad today in black-and-old-gold overalls) and Vicki (53, in a similarly colored wig) drive nine hours northeast from Little Rock to Purdue’s campus in West Lafayette, Ind., where Greg fixes their son breakfast on Friday mornings. If the team travels that afternoon, so do they. “We’ve never missed a game,” says Greg, who builds automatic car washes.
When Jason graduates, they’re not sure how often they’ll continue to watch the sport. “You can’t ignore the players who are having personal issues with violence,” Vicki says. “That’s turning off a lot of people.”
Greg nods. “When the right persons come back to represent football, it’ll change. The ratings will go back up. Because some of those guys who are on the forefront—Kaepernick, for instance—they’re taking the audience away from football. Football is my release; it’s like what some folks go to church for. I don’t want to think about all that stuff at a game.”
Even if most fans here agree that the game is not as healthy as it once was, they tend to peg football’s ailments on someone else, something else, somewhere else. Parents are too serious at youth games. . . . The NFL was ruined by big business. . . . Those damn millennials, always on their phones, don’t respect tradition. . . .
What fans want most is for their way of life—the romanticized way they see their own past—to remain unchanged. But it doesn’t, and they’re angry about that. So they drink beer. They scalp tickets. They hug their relatives. They try to hold on to a time that wasn’t so confusing, a time that meant so much to them, before everything was different, before players knelt during the national anthem.
The Purdue game marks Nebraska’s 352nd straight sellout. Afterward coach Mike Riley takes questions from reporters—mostly male, mostly white—who ask about the run game and the impact of special teams and his O-line woes. They, too, have lost themselves in football. On his way out Riley kisses his wife on the cheek, then he walks through a door that reads tradition of toughness and heads out into the night.
Halfway across the country Mike Riley’s brother Edward, a professor of anesthesiology at Stanford and a former quarterback at Division III Whitworth University in Spokane, nurses an amber ale. He’s seated in the back of Seattle’s Zoo Tavern while one of the presidential debates plays overhead on the televisions. Patrons half-listen as they shoot pool, roll Skee ball and play table tennis.
Riley, 58, is here to weigh in on a different—but no less political—argument, one about football safety, concussions and a spate of former players who’ve committed suicide. He’s a doctor, a healer, but his views align more closely with Gary Lothrop’s than with Shaun Hill’s.
Two years ago, when his youngest son expressed a desire to play football, Riley decided to study the medical literature available on head injuries. And after reading through the studies he concluded that concerns about the sport are “misplaced.” Take one paper, Riley says, overseen by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that examined nearly 3,500 former NFL players with at least five years of pension-credited seasons between 1959 and ’88. That analysis looked at the league’s highest-possible-risk subjects and found an incidence of neurodegenerative disease three times that of the general population. It also found the risk of death from neurodegenerative disease to be low for both groups—4.9% in former players, 1.5% overall. The way Riley reads it, that study shows that “the risk associated with a long NFL career is not insignificant—but it remains small.”
It’s too early, Riley says, to draw too many conclusions. Studies that have correlated the number of hits sustained by different position groups—more for, say, D-linemen than for quarterbacks—with impaired cognitive function didn’t measure the same function beforehand. Quarterbacks, he says, could have been higher-functioning to begin with. The pathologists who’ve found scars on the brains of dead football players? They haven’t yet done the clinical trials that would establish more firmly a connection between repeated head trauma and brain damage, Riley says. “Typically, pathologists end their reports with stuff like ‘clinical correlation needed,’ ” he continues. “We don’t see that here. There’s research, but it’s early—and in the press, [doctors] seem to be stretching beyond what they normally would say.”
While the beer drinkers mock the candidates on TV, Riley adds a disclaimer to his argument. He knows how this might sound, as if he’s a doctor for Big Tobacco. He isn’t saying football is safe, or risk-free. But he is saying the sport needs long-term epidemiological investigations that follow youth or high school players for 40 or 50 years, examining how they lived, where they came from and how they died.
Riley sustained concussions in his own football career; he once forgot his name when a doctor asked. Still, he says, “it should be a personal decision,” whether or not to play the sport. “People need to understand the risks—but the antifootball people need to realize they’re involving their kids in other things that are even more risky than football. Like skiing. Equestrian jumping. There’s no comparison there.” (SI found no data to support Riley’s claims about other sports.)
Both debates continue, two candidates arguing about America and Riley arguing about football’s place in it. He mentions Todd Ewen, a hockey enforcer whose family believes he may have shot himself because he believed he had brain damage. An autopsy did not find CTE on Ewen’s brain, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t damaged by playing hockey. “Suicides can develop contagions,” Riley says. “It’s called the Werther effect: Somebody famous commits suicide and kids copy it. What happened with CTE is it created a narrative for [football players] to have a fatalistic view of their lives.”
He pauses, sipping at his beer. “We just don’t know enough yet.”
Midway through the debate Trump fields a question about gun rights and points out how in Chicago they have the toughest gun laws in the U.S., and yet, “by far, they have more gun violence than any other city.” Two thousand miles east of Las Vegas—1,800 from Riley in Seattle—Larry Williams, the football coach at Chicago Vocational Career Academy, shifts on his stool at the President’s Lounge bar on the South Side and raises a Red Stripe. “Here’s to hope,” he says. Hope for America. Hope for his football team. Hope for his star running back as he recovers from multiple gunshot wounds.
Hope is what Williams, 43, has left. “The streets are winning the battle the coaches used to win,” he says. “We can’t compare to the streets. Nine times out of 10 players will choose the streets instead of coming to practice.”
The Cubs are about to play Game 1 of the World Series in an hour, but Williams’s mind is on Sept. 10. After his team’s first loss of the season, 43–14 to Rich East, he boarded a plane to Kansas to watch his son play junior college football. Hundreds of text messages pinged on his phone when he landed. Everett was shot six times. Call me.
A running back and defensive back who was drawing interest from mid-major colleges across the Midwest, Everett Henderson had accounted for 90% of Chicago Vocational’s offense. Williams visited him that Monday, and not only had the 17-year-old survived six shots to his hands, buttocks and abdomen, but he was walking down the hospital halls with one of those bullets still lodged in his chest. Henderson told his coach what he remembered: He was sitting on his porch, sending text messages, when a man put a gun in his face. Henderson jumped off the porch, ran and heard Pop-pop, pop-pop, pop, pop. As he bled on the ground, he says, the gunman stood over him and continued to shoot, even after running out of bullets. Then he walked off, sauntering almost, while Henderson crawled back to his porch.
As Henderson recovered, Vocational’s season collapsed. “We had to cancel our homecoming game because of death threats to Everett,” Williams says. “Reporters kept asking, What gang was he in? I kept saying, He didn’t exhibit that around the team.” (Henderson has since been cleared to work out; police have not publicly ID’ed a suspect.)
Patrons are buzzed into the President’s Lounge, past the signs reading no white t-shirts and no one under 30. Williams sighs. He graduated from Vocational back in the ’90s; it was “totally different” back then, he says. “Gangs never messed with nobody who played sports. Now it’s open season.” Now he knows that the violence, the poverty, the fight for resources—it never ends. It’s hard for him to get his players to school. Many walk through gang- and drug-infested neighborhoods. He spends $150 a week to get them bus passes, buys them meals, hands out Gatorade. “Out of my 25 kids, probably two of them [live] with their dads,” he says. “We’ve got to teach them the basics, like hygiene, how to brush their hair, how to get a haircut—things a teenager should know. They’re just inner-city kids.”
Williams describes Vocational’s locker room, its equipment and its stadium as “deplorable.” Everything is outdated, broken, chipped or torn. He can hardly keep 25 players on his roster; sometimes he can’t get enough kids to show up to hold practice. The school district, perhaps sensitive to all of these issues, wouldn’t let him meet with a visiting reporter on campus, so here he is at a bar, three miles from his alma mater, winner of 11 city championships, where Dick Butkus once starred. CVCA used to teach 32 vocations; now it’s only six: carpentry, horticulture, medical, culinary arts, cosmetology and diesel. A building that can hold 4,000 students is now home to about 920.
Through it all Williams sees improvement in his players, who largely go to class and plan for college. “That’s why football is so important, now more than ever,” he says. “If I have 22 kids [on my team], that’s 22 kids who won’t be in somebody’s gang, 22 kids that mothers won’t have to bury. The gang violence in Chicago is uncontrolled; you can’t stop it.
“But this is America. You have to try.”
Crystal Dixon has a message for parents of kids under 14 who say they love football so much that they’re willing to assume its risks, who say things like, Everything is dangerous. You can get hurt walking down the street, like Everett Henderson.
“It’s not worth it,” she says. She’s sitting in a coffee shop in Torrance, Calif., five years to the day after her 13-year-old son, Donnovan Hill, was paralyzed from the waist down during a Pop Warner game, and seven months after he died at age 18 following what should have been routine surgery to remove bedsores. “I was one of those cheering parents,” she says. “I loved football. My dad took me to Raiders games. I loved everything about it. But there was a lot I didn’t know until Donnovan got hurt.”
To those who point out how rarely injuries like Donnovan’s occur, Dixon says: “Last year 17 kids died from football-related injuries. A couple weeks ago a kid got hit in the stomach and died two days later.” She pulls up a story on her phone about a Texas teen who died 48 hours before this meeting, following a JV game. “It keeps happening.”
One of her most difficult realizations came after her own son’s death. “I didn’t know Donnovan had a brain injury until we donated his brain to Boston University,” she says. “A few weeks ago they told me it was so bad that they wanted to keep studying it. They had never seen anything like it. Just from that one hit.”
Some collisions that cause catastrophic injuries can appear harmless. The headfirst, open-field tackle Donnovan attempted on Nov. 6, 2011, looked bad in every way. “Fourteen years old—high school—is the earliest a child should play tackle,” Dixon says. “Donnovan [thought it should be] 12. He said kids need to learn how to tackle correctly before they get to high school.”
Dixon says her son's concern about the game, and his passion for it, coexisted after his injury. “After he got hurt, he didn’t want to watch football. Then he started getting comfortable with himself and what had happened, and it got easier. After that, he watched every Saturday.” Oregon was his favorite team. The college game was his passion, which is why his mom can only watch pro games. Later today she’ll catch the end of the Sunday Night Football matchup between the Broncos and her beloved Raiders.
“I have a love-hate relationship with football,” she says. “I’m on the fence. I lost my kid to it, but I know how he felt about it. He still loved the game.”
Nineteen-year-old Peyton Smith likes the sport that his famous father plays, but he loves a different one. He is the son of wide receiver Steve Smith Sr., one of pro football’s toughest and most outspoken characters, hypermasculinity in shoulder pads. But while Peyton watches football and follows football, he does not play football. He’s a freshman at DePaul (a college that last hosted a football game in 1948), and he’s here on the shores of Lake Michigan on a soccer scholarship.
Smith took up the so-called beautiful game when he was four, displaying the speed, athleticism and shiftiness that has positioned his father as a potential Hall of Fame inductee. He tried football at 12, played the same position as his dad and wore his number, 89. “It was a lot of pressure,” he says, “and I definitely wasn’t as good at it as soccer.”
Peyton wears a red N.Y. hat turned backward and black-framed glasses as he emphasizes that he’s not antifootball. He grew up watching as his 5' 9", 185-pound dad built a fearless reputation by traversing the middle of the field, even before league rules began to discourage targeting. Sixteen seasons of hit after hit after hit. “Always entertaining but definitely nerve-racking,” Peyton calls it. “Especially for my mom. She freaks out a lot.”
Peyton was at the game when his father tore his Achilles last season. Three months later Steve was there, beside his son at the dais, beaming, when Peyton signed a letter of intent at DePaul after piling up 30 goals and 28 assists as a Carmel Christian senior in Matthews, N.C. The scene highlighted soccer’s growing popularity. Peyton, like most of his friends, wakes up early on weekends to watch the English Premier League. His viewing options for both sports have multiplied in recent years. He watches soccer online and catches football on Twitter every Thursday.
Football’s critics, Peyton says, overlook the physicality in soccer. He sustained a concussion when he collided with an opponent at 12. He cites a former teammate who missed more than a year after sustaining a head injury; now he plays college soccer, but he’s not allowed to head the ball.
As for his dad’s sport, “it will always be pretty big,” Peyton says. “But head injuries are definitely a factor now; people are concerned about it.” The ratings? “That could be because of the officiating, or the same teams seem to be good and bad, so maybe people are a little bored.”
He pauses, considering the future. “Soccer is a good option,” he says, “but I don’t think it’ll surpass football.
“I don’t think football will ever die.”
Anyone foolish enough to imagine the death of Football in America might as well make the three-hour drive north from DePaul, hugging the shores of Lake Michigan, I-94 to I-43, to Green Bay. In Titletown, there are more professional football players than there are Uber drivers, which says as much about the size of the city (pop. 105,000) as it does about the outsized importance of the game in the heart of Packerland. Those drivers are often called upon to drop visitors off at Packers landmarks, their rides consumed by conversations about the game and what it means here.
Take Jason Murphy, a 911 dispatcher who drives for Uber in his spare time and who let his previous ride off at the Packers Hall of Fame building. “I was explaining to them how football is so rooted here that you almost take it for granted,” says Murphy, in a camouflage Green Bay hoodie. “Like, Lambeau Field is two miles from my house.”
He steers his Subaru Legacy past a door painted with the likeness of Brett Favre, past a 15-foot-tall backyard replica of the Lombardi trophy and past fences decorated to honor the team’s 27 division championships. Murphy describes this season as “a little sketchy,” what with all the injuries at running back and the inconsistency from quarterback Aaron Rodgers. “We’re spoiled,” he says of a town that’s growing fat on football. “Two weeks ago the Packers were booed at home. I understand. . . .”
He trails off, leaving unsaid what seems obvious, that Football in America is changing, even in Green Bay. Strangers still wave at cars that pass through the neighborhoods around the stadium. Fans still hang green-and-gold bird-feeders on their porches. Tourists still stop by the statues of Vince Lombardi and Curly Lambeau for photo ops. But that quaint, small-town vibe now competes with the chaos of construction. The Packers are building a Titletown District on 34 acres of land just west of Lambeau. The plans call for a sledding hill, an ice skating trail, a playground and a hotel, plus “commercial and retail elements”—less Titletown, more Titletown, Inc. The total cost: between $120 million and $130 million dollars, $65 million of which comes from the team’s initial investment.
“It’s a trade-off; you can’t keep the true small-town feel [if you want to] have revenue,” says another Uber driver, Larry Pongratz, as he pilots his Ford Fusion down a street named after current coach Mike McCarthy. “Look what they’re doing—they’re taking over an entire city block.”
He’s in a philosophical mood: “They’ll get it sorted out. Same as on the field. I miss the bone-jarring hits. There seem to be less of them. But I might be a little bloodthirsty, too.” Pongratz sighs. “We’ll always have tradition.”
You want tradition? Meet David Baker, whose voice booms as he recalls Trump visiting his workplace in September. The Republican presidential nominee was in Canton, Ohio, and wanted to see the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where Baker is the president.
The two men discussed the crisis the sport faced in 1905, when at least 18 people died playing football, and how President Theodore Roosevelt famously stepped in, encouraging safety changes and the forward pass. Roosevelt, Baker says, “saved football” and the “values that it teaches.”
But now? Now “the whole game is so screwed up,” Trump told one rally in Reno. He promised to make America great again. Football, too, presumably.
“We may be at another Teddy Roosevelt moment,” Baker, 63, says now. “We understand the game has been under attack. Because of concerns over concussions or the violence in the game, it has somehow become politically incorrect to speak out for football.
“I believe there is an incredible silent majority out there that loves this game, that think it’s valuable,” he continues. “If you ever tried to take it away from them, they would stand up for it.”
A pro football faction? Baker thinks it could happen, that such a group would rise up to save the sport—but he’s not waiting to find out. Instead he’s spearheading the development of a Hall of Fame Village in Canton, where football and its greatest players will be celebrated. It will have a revamped museum and sports complex, a hotel and conference center, a center for coaching and officiating clinics, restaurants and retail stores, a virtual-reality area and an assisted-living facility for former NFLers. All for just $500 million—and right in time for the NFL’s 100th season, in 2019.
From 1996 to 2008, Baker was the commissioner of the Arena Football League, where he grew attendance, TV ratings and revenue. Two of his sons played college football, at USC and Duke. The one at USC, Sam, won 35 consecutive games and played in the NFL; the son at Duke, Ben, lost 22 straight and now works for NASCAR. Sam’s wife is African-American. In the 1970s, David’s father wouldn’t let him bring an African-American teammate into their house in Mississippi.
The village, these grand plans—Baker says they should reinforce the lessons his sons learned through the game. “The world today is a challenging place,” he says. “Children need to have some values to them, some toughness in them, some nobility in them.”
They’ll find all that in football, he says, as long as those who value the sport speak as loudly and as often as its critics. “This world, with social media, is becoming more and more narcissistic,” he says. “It’s becoming more money-driven. Football and its values are timeless and universal.
“We need that now more than ever.”
Kris Jenkins is at his home in Washington, D.C., six years after the last of three torn ACLs ended his NFL career. A menacing nose tackle who weighed as much as 400 pounds, he played 10 seasons for the Panthers and the Jets, doling out and enduring punishment in equal measure—he sustained at least 10 concussions in the pros and college and made the Pro Bowl in most seasons when he was remotely healthy. Since retiring, Jenkins sometimes feels numbness on the left side of his body. Occasionally his brain is foggy. But he has few, if any, beefs with football. He loves the game. Always will.
“I have pains,” says Jenkins, 37, “but my body is feeling good considering I was man enough to understand what I committed to. I’m doing well. I don’t think my injuries had anything to do with football.” He corrects himself. “Let me take that back. They did—they had everything to do with what I knew I was getting myself into.”
Jenkins takes a breath and continues preaching. “Everybody is acting like football is in chaos. A lot of the queasiness is coming from outside. We know when we play that we may have—how should I say it?—an ‘expedited’ exit.”
He says this from within an afternoon’s drive of the nation’s capital, in the leadup to the presidential election. Football, he says, especially at the NFL level, has become increasingly politicized. “We’re starting to see American politics playing out in football. We’re having a moment as a country. We’re trying to maintain our identity as Americans, but there are all these external forces that are making us redefine what that means. That’s why outsiders—external forces—want football to change. We—players—want the integrity to be preserved.
“And if the integrity of the game is going to be preserved, people are going to have to change their minds about what football is. We can’t get all political about it.”
Good luck trying to stop that. This is Donald Trump, mid-October, after a woman fainted at a campaign rally in Lakeland, Fla.: “That woman was out cold, and now she’s coming back. See, we don’t go by these new, and very much softer, NFL rules. Concussions—Uh oh, got a little ding on the head? No, no, you can’t play for the rest of the season—our people are tough.”
The same mingling of football and politics is playing out 45 minutes northeast of Jenkins, in a long trail of downtown Baltimore tailgates canopied by the humming strip of I-395 overhead. Ravens fans—nearly all of them white and between the ages of 20 and 40—are strolling, laughing, yelling, texting, texting, texting. . . .
And sipping. Hundreds of elbows are bent at 90 degrees, cans, bottles and red cups in hand. A Pitbull song shouts over the din. Half of these people appear drunk; maybe a fourth of the grand total look hammered. Football in America is, among other things, a place to get intoxicated on Sunday morning without fear of judgment.
Amidst this, in the sunlit parking lot at the foot of M&T Bank Stadium, four African-American fans in their early 30s hang out. Sabrina and Crystal Morris are sisters; Sabrina has either had a lot to drink or has a low tolerance. The women are clad in Ravens black, with stylish purple accents. Sabrina’s fiancé, Brian, is in a plain white T-shirt. Anthony Gibson, cousin to the sisters, wears a Doug Williams No. 17 Redskins jersey.
“We don’t like this motherf----- right here,” Crystal says, smiling and pointing at Anthony.”
“She was my favorite cousin,” he shoots back. “Now she done dropped to the bottom of the list. This is when you lose your coworkers as friends, a game like this.”
The Ravens and Redskins, the two teams nearest the nation’s capital, play every four years, around each presidential election. So what has changed in America since 2012, since Barack Obama and Mitt Romney duked it out?
“Not much,” says Crystal. “A lot of s--- has been brought to light, but not much has changed.”
“Gay marriage,” Anthony says, keeping count with his fingers.
“That’s a good thing,” Crystal weighs in.
“You can smoke weed legally.” Two fingers.
“We got a black president reelected.” Three fingers.
Someone mentions the debate going down later this night, Trump vs. Hillary Clinton.
“They’re just the face of the country,” says Crystal. “They’re not the country.”
“Most black people are gonna be Democrats,” Brian says, his thumbs tucked into the ropes of his backpack. “That’s just how it is. [If you’re black and] you’re a sports figure or are making a lot of money, you’re a Republican.”
“I know a few black people who are Republicans,” Anthony says.
“Hillary has got my vote,” Sabrina slurs, “but only because she feels like the lesser of two evils.”
“Donald Trump is a f------ idiot,” Crystal says, more morose than mad.
Would it have even been possible for Trump to become the nominee in 2012, the last time these teams played?
“No,” all four voices say.
Inside the stadium a well-to-do investment banker concedes that he, too, has “been drinking a little.” The biggest thing that’s changed in America over the last four years, he proclaims, is “players not standing for the National Anthem. We’re better off in the United States [compared to other nations]. We should be proud as a country, and players should—.” He stops here, fearing he’s said too much, knowing he’s consumed too much. “I don’t give my permission for you to air this,” he says, turning away.
At the end of the first quarter, Washington cornerback Josh Norman lies facedown after making a tackle, his toe kicking the turf in agony. Baltimore receiver Steve Smith has already left the game after Norman inadvertently rolled Smith’s ankle during a tackle. Norman rises and continues, defying the replay that shows his right wrist being crushed.
In the third quarter, Redskins tight end Jordan Reed, who has already been diagnosed with five concussions in his three-year career, takes a brutal hit to the back of his helmet. He opens his eyes wide and shakes his head rapidly. (He’ll finish the game, but he’ll miss the next two with lingering symptoms from a concussion.) Washington’s right tackle, Morgan Moses, has dropped to one knee on the same play, also suffering from a blow to the head. As the 315-pounder shuffles off the field, the Redskins’ VP of Media Relations, Tony Wyllie, receives a text message in the press box from Moses’s parents. They’re looking for details. “I get a lot of these,” Wyllie says. “Just feeling dizzy,” he texts back, relaying word from the medical team. (Moses finishes the game and then starts the next week against the Eagles.)
Meanwhile, in the main concourse, 50-year-old Ravens fan Randy Gambrill and his girlfriend, Redskins supporter Angie Heffner, bump into Heffner’s cousin Nicole Fridinger and her husband, Nathan—another mixed-fan couple wearing Ravens purple and Redskins maroon, respectively.
“It doesn’t matter where you are,” Angie says, explaining what football means in the Beltway, “it brings the community together. Brings families together. I didn’t know my cousin was going to be here today. . .” She waves her hand. “But look!”
“This is a rivalry for the fans, not the teams,” Randy says, outlining the scheduling cycle that pits these two teams against one another every election year.
What has changed in America over the last four years?
“Most people don’t like police officers,” says Randy.
“We have ISIS to deal with now,” says Angie.
What has changed about football?
“We’re not even getting into [Kaepernick],” says Angie, who is tipsy, but not loaded. But then she gets into it. “You need to respect your country and respect your team. [Football] is not a place to present politics or anything like that.”
What would happen at your workplace if, say, everyone stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and one person took a knee?
“I would take a hard stand if anyone did that,” Randy says. “I love what Jerry Jones said: You’re paid performers and this is my stage and you will stand up and put your hand over your heart for our country. (Jones never, in fact, said that, although a similar quote was errantly attributed to him.) That’s the way I feel about it. Just do something else to protest, away from the National Anthem. It’s our National Anthem.”
At halftime, a Baltimore policeman stands guard near the beer stands. All is calm. “This is easy overtime. Just a few drunks,” he says.
What has changed in America since 2012?
“Young people have a different mind-set now. They’re more selfish. More violent.” He tilts his head toward the roar behind him. “You could say the same about the NFL.”
“A lot has changed,” his partner weighs in.
Are police disrespected? Misunderstood?
“Nah, people just don’t care no more. About anything.”
Jon is a black guy in his late 20s; he's wearing an oversized No. 21 Sean Taylor jersey and a flat-billed Redskins cap pulled so low that it hides his eyebrows. He doesn’t want to give his name with his words, he says, “because of my job.”
Of Kaepernick, he says: “He has every right to [kneel]. I wouldn’t, personally. But he has the right to do that.”
On the debate: “Everything [Trump] says is the worst thing ever. It’s kind of comical now.” Five seconds pass. “I think that might help him in a way.”
There’s less than a minute to play on the field. The Redskins lead 16-10 but the Ravens are marching. A white mom and her prepubescent son watch what will prove to be the game’s most pivotal play on a plasma screen near the restrooms. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco lofts one deep toward the back corner of the end zone, where Breshad Perriman has beaten Norman. The ball sticks in Perriman’s gloves as his feet chatter on the end zone’s last blades of green grass. Zebraed arms go up. The ensuing eruption stings the ears. The building moves. “We won the game!” the mom screams at her son, shaking him by the shoulders in a manner that would get him taken away from her under different circumstances. Ravens fans pogo all around them. “We won the game!” she repeats. The boys’ eyes are alight, basking in his mom’s happiness. He doesn’t seem to know what happened, but he can’t produce a big enough smile.
Back up the tunnel, a replay on the massive video screen shows that Perriman only got one foot inbounds. The TD is overturned. Flacco’s final pass, an incompletion over the middle that exposes receiver Mike Wallace to a linebacker’s shoulder, leaving Wallace on all fours for two minutes, ends the game.
In the Redskins’ locker room, tight end Vernon Davis is asked about the debate. The 32-year-old veteran, a firebrand when he played with Kaepernick in San Francisco, says, “I just try to stay in my lane and not worry about politics and just let all that stuff play out.”
Later, the Ravens’ volunteer marching band—150 strong, neatly choreographed, nattily dressed—emerges from beneath the stadium, marching in lockstep toward the players’ parking lot. Redskins linebacker Trent Murphy walks behind them, all by himself. It was a physical game, and Murphy plays one of the sport’s most physical positions, but he isn’t limping. In solitude he ascends the slow-rising ramp, the fading sun lighting his red hair. He’s approached from behind.
Is it weird returning to the world like this, after the spectacle that just went down in there?
He smiles. “It’s weirder in January or February, when the season’s over and you’re done,” he says. “It’s like walking into a Narnia wardrobe.”
A football question follows, because it seems called for after that first one, but a thought lingers, drowning out the answer. Will that kid remember the moment with his mom—that beautiful synapse that fired between them. Or is it gone? Will it vanish from their memory banks because a stranger’s shoe touched too many white blades of grass and not enough green ones? Is that all it takes? What else but football’s fickle, vicious hand could obliterate it? What else but football could create it in the first place?
Down the block from where the sunset and the evening lights paint the Washington Monument orange, Ashley Fernandez and Sean Jackson, two attractive young African-American friends, sidle up to the bar at Clyde’s Saloon, a popular Capitol Hill hangout. Sean wears a distressed Redskins hoodie and ballcap, Ashley a purple Ravens sweater. It’s been a couple hours since Washington won, but Ashley doesn’t want to talk about it.
If Football in America brings people together, as is suggested repeatedly over a month on the road, then this night is surely an example, because the Redskins-Ravens game is about the only facet of the sport that doesn’t get discussed between these two disparate parties.
Today’s NFL, Sean says, is “more sensitive. All the new penalties and rules. The media. All the so-called ‘storylines’ and reactions and responses. The reactions to the reactions. Social media. . . .”
“If you’re an NFL player and you don’t have a Twitter and an Instagram account and all this other stuff, it’s like you don’t even exist,” Ashley says disapprovingly.
“Football will change,” Sean believes. “It will turn into more of a flag sport. Not anytime soon, though. We all love it too much.”
The TV above the bar is switched from Sunday Night Football (Giants-Packers) to the presidential debate—another fraction of a Nielsen point lost. “More people are behind Trump than you think,” Sean says with a fatalistic smile. “People just don’t like [Clinton].”
“Trump people—they don’t admit it, but a lot of them just don’t like the fact that there’s a black man in the White House,” Ashley says, delicately forking blackened catfish. “We forget how jarring that is to some people.”
“And they don’t want a woman in the White House,” Sean adds.
“Flat out. Forget the issues.”
“This election is our country’s favorite reality TV show right now,” Sean says.
“I don’t know. . . the NFL is up there,” Ashley responds.
Out of nowhere, the skunky smell of unburned cannabis permeates the well-to-do pub, with its $25 entrees, dark wood walls and pricey oil paintings. Someone in here is holding.
“It’s legal here in D.C.,” Sean points out. He couldn’t be more transparent about his recreational use of the plant. He cites its effects on him—spurts of productivity and generosity—and agrees with Bob Marley’s prophecy, that “herb will be the healing of the Nations.”
“It can be that for the NFL, too,” he says. “It’s so much less toxic than what they give players [for pain]. Right now, [opioids and NSAIDs] are the players’ only pain-medicine option if they’re not trying to get suspended.”
What started off tentatively is now a rollicking conversation. Entrees have been eaten. There’s been a shift change among bartenders.
Sean and Ashley individually defend 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s right to peacefully protest during the National Anthem, but Sean says he would have done it differently. “I would have stood and raised a fist. “You don’t need to explain that.”
They both wonder aloud about an overlap between Americans who defend the military against Kaepernick’s perceived disrespect, and those who defend football, who stand up for its violence. A brief bar game ensues: Name some language and tactics that the armed forces and football have in common.
Throw a bomb.
“It kind of goes back to Trump,” Sean says. “We live in a violent country. All these gun murders in Chicago. This violent sport that we’re all in love with. This culture of violence that Trump is speaking—relaxing gun laws, building a border wall, rounding up Muslims. . . . That mind-set exists in this country. That he has a following, it helps you understand why football is still so popular.”
It doesn’t take much of a leap to get from violence to hatred, and vice versa. NFL players experience that nasty intermingling every day. It’s been about 12 hours since his Seahawks lost a 25-20 heartbreaker to the Saints in New Orleans, and receiver Doug Baldwin looks worn down. The deep bags under his eyes suggest that he’s not sleeping well. He says his back hurts. He could be anywhere, but at the moment he’s settled into a faux-wood booth at an otherwise empty Subway restaurant, scrolling through a selection of Tweets from recent weeks. They’re typical for what he encounters every time he opens his so-called fan mail, scans his social media mentions or checks his email in-box—but that doesn’t make them any easier to endure. It’s all there, even in 2016, all the hatred, venom and racism, almost all of it delivered anonymously online.
Might need to kill [Steven] Hauschka, someone has written of Baldwin’s Seattle teammate, referring to a crucial field goal the kicker missed.
Hauschka go kill yourself!!!!
Baldwin sighs. “Yeah, that’s pretty typical.”
He reads on, through comments pertaining to Panthers quarterback Cam Newton and Newton’s dealings with the NFL’s commissioner.
Cam wanna talk to Goodell?? . . . I hope Roger call him a n-----.
Cam Newton is just a pussy . . . take your pimp suit and be a n----- elsewhere.
I hope that stupid n----- cam newton has brain damage and dies in his sleep tonight.
“Pretty typical s--- we get,” Baldwin says, scrolling through vitriol directed at Norman, the Redskins cornerback; Seattle’s offense; the Colts’ T.Y. Hilton. Weeks later, the wife of an opposing player will tell Baldwin’s teammate, Richard Sherman, that he deserves to be castrated because of a play he made on the field. “We’re not unique to it. Every public figure gets it.”
What’s different for athletes, he says, is the racial nature of the casually-lobbed insults. Whereas Kaepernick began kneeling for the national anthem, the Seahawks this season have been locking arms in an alternative demonstration of pregame unity. Baldwin, meanwhile, has met with police-monitoring groups, beat cops, the Washington attorney general, various mayors in and around Seattle, and local business leaders. He’s trying to create a dialogue on issues that impact the society in which he lives. And this is what people have written him:
F--- you n----- boy
Move back to Africa if u don’t like it here
Shut your piehole and go tear an ACL
Black fatigue and NFL fatigue are setting in all across the nation
Hope you break your neck and become paralyzed a------
“I don’t know how to put this, but to some people the NFL is basically modern-day slavery,” Baldwin says.
“Don’t get me wrong, we get paid a lot of money.” He pauses here, picking his words carefully. “There’s a sense of ‘shut up and play,’ that this is entertainment for other people. Then, when we go out in public we’re like zoo animals. We’re not human beings. I can’t go to the grocery store and just buy groceries like a normal person. It becomes an issue, a burden and so. . . I haven’t checked my mail in a while.”
He’s asked if there’s a tie between everything going on in America—protests over police brutality and income inequality, racial tension, the craziest presidential race in memory—and how athletes seem more likely to speak up on issues than they did in recent years. Baldwin says it’s not a coincidence. He says Harry Edwards, the renowned sociologist who helped the Seahawks plan their unity demonstration, told them, “The fight is the same. The framework is a little different. The times have changed. The environment has changed. The climate has changed. But the actual issue hasn’t changed, and that’s what we’re dealing with.”
“I don’t want to overstate or oversimplify but this is our modern-day issue,” Baldwin says. “It’s all so pertinent right now, because you’ve got the election, you’ve got issues between police officers and their community, you have all these stories coming out, all these things coming to light. It’s a good thing, obviously. But it’s like when you rip off a Band-Aid. That s--- hurts. Sometimes you’re still bleeding a little bit. But that’s how you start the healing process.”
He’s asked a question, but he interrupts, and therein lies his answer: Does this all force everyone to—
“Confront what’s really there,” he says.
It’s the middle of October, six weeks into the season, and ratings for NFL games have fallen 11%. Thursday Night Football has dropped 18%; Sunday Night Football 19%. The oldest and most durable of our prime-time football institutions, Monday Night Football, has taken a 24% hit, a quarter of its audience gone.
To learn more about what may be driving viewers away from the game, we travel to what will end up being an exceptionally rainy Chiefs-Raiders game (final score: Kansas City 26, Oakland 10). On our way there we run into Dale and Cama Dehart, a middle-aged couple from Camarillo, Calif., at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Dale, who played football at Air Force, has his own reason for turning off the NFL.
DALE: [Colin Kaepernick’s protests are] completely inappropriate. I remember going to the Coliseum with my dad and watching the Rams when I was five; I played football in high school and in college. We’ve been involved with football a long time and we’ve—
CAMA: —we’ve turned it off.
DALE: It’s very disappointing. We’ve shut [the game] out of our house. They shouldn’t allow [what he’s doing]. There are so many other forms of personal expression that they don’t allow players to do, and yet for some reason they allow this. To me, that’s on the league.
CAMA: We believe the league is completely in denial that this is why the ratings have fallen.
DALE: People we work with, people we live around, friends—they’ve expressed the same thing.
CAMA: We’re done.
DALE: People go to a football game to be entertained, right? And [these guys] get paid a lot to do the entertaining. But when you go to a football game and you [find yourself] involved in somebody else’s politics—it’s just ridiculous. And there are people who are more conservative, more concerned about patriotism, than we are. There’s just no way this can’t be a big factor. But the league is like, “Oh, it’s an election year, that’s why the ratings are down. . . .”
CAMA: Wake up. No.
DALE: I’ll miss [the NFL] when they change their policy and apologize.
CAMA: But for now, it’s off.
If the true hardcore NFL fan is one who watches games not on TV but at the stadium, then there are a select few among that group—namely, those willing to hang around until the end of a rain-soaked snoozefest, when the outcome is in zero doubt—who have cores like diamonds. The pregame rain at Oakland Coliseum one day later is nothing short of a downpour. Tony Haines—white, about 30—pulls on a poncho as he’s asked, Why are ratings down? Is it head injuries? Kaepernick? The election?
TONY: All that stuff you just said—and also they’re streaming more on the internet. The internet has gotta affect it.
Are the days of sitting down and watching an entire three-hour NFL game on TV over?
TONY: Absolutely not. People love sitting down in front of the TV. That’s only escalating.
Brothers Daniel and Gerardo Rodriguez, aged 30 to 50, walk over the hissing 880 Freeway, their Nikes splashing toward the fog-shrouded stadium.
How long have you been a Raiders fan?
DANIEL: Since ‘83. This guy right here, Marcus Allen (pointing to his black number 32 jersey).
Why do we love this sport so much?
DANIEL: I think for men it’s being competitive. Watching a game also brings family together.
GERARDO: Also shit-talking.
Why are ratings down?
DANIEL: I think it has to do with that taking-a-knee that Kaepernick started.
A married couple in their 20s, Francisco and Martha Chavez, are walking toward their first NFL game together.
FRANCISCO: I have no idea [why the ratings are down]. Maybe easier access, people watching on their phones.
How do you feel about what Kaepernick is doing?
FRANCISCO: That’s his choice.
MARTHA: Freedom of speech. That’s his right and he shouldn’t be judged. Football players have power and he’s making a statement. He can make people like me, who aren’t really into football, say, “Oh, wow.”
A middle-aged Raiders fan who does not share his name enjoys a tented tailgate just outside the stadium. He is extremely inebriated.
Do you ever feel conflicted about watching football?
DRUNK FAN: Football is a game. People don’t wanna watch it? Don’t watch it. Physical contact? Hey, you know what? It’s a sport. Not everybody plays it. The guys that do, they get paid for it. They know what they’re gonna. . . Y’know?
Why are ratings down?
DRUNK FAN: Maybe the publicity on how, after years of playing sports, it affects their body. Well, they knew it—and they got paid to do it.
How do you feel about Kaepernick and other players protesting?
DRUNK FAN: I’m a military man, a sergeant, United States Marine Corps. You don’t respect the flag, you don’t like the flag? Go somewhere else. If that flag wasn’t standing, it was only because somebody was behind those goddamn lines fighting for it. You don’t like it? Go. Have somebody else fight for you. Instead, they’ll behead ya.
James and José appear to be in their mid- to late 20s; they do not appear drunk. They wear wet Raiders caps and jerseys.
Why are ratings down?
JAMES: I think it’s all the penalties, all the bad calls.
JOSÉ: You can’t celebrate a touchdown? C’mon. What’s that?
Some people say they’re boycotting the NFL because of Kaepernick.
JAMES: I get what he’s trying to do, but I think there are other ways of handling that. It won’t keep me from watching the game.
Is an NFL game the appropriate place for him to protest?
JAMES: If you’re military, you might take it the wrong way. He could have done it a different way.
JOSÉ: I think it’s pretty smart of him. A lot of people watch the NFL. What’s a better way for him to go get the word out?
Do you ever feel conflicted about watching this game?
JAMES: No. I get it; I’ve seen some bad hits, man. I go, Dang. But watch hockey—those guys hit. They’re brutal too. And they don’t complain. . . . These guys know what they’re getting themselves into. It’s like you’re signing into the military: You know what you get yourself into.
Mike is 30-something and wearing wet Raiders gear, hanging with friends. He’s been drinking.
Why are NFL ratings down?
MIKE: All the rules they’ve been coming up with the past few years. The game has become soft. (We take a moment here to point out that, while NFL commissioner Roger Goodell takes pride in his league’s willingness to adapt and amend its rule book often, a sense of over-complexity is a widespread complaint. Even Bill Parcells, a man who’s been involved in the NFL for over 35 years, tells SI, “We’ve created a situation with too many variables now; we’ve done a lot to complicate the jobs of the officials. Personally, I don’t like that. Simpler is better.”)
Do the ratings have anything to do with Kaepernick?
MIKE: He voiced his opinion in the wrong platform. Politics should not be involved in football.
How would you complete the sentence? Football is. . .
MIKE: . . . Very soft compared to what it used to be. I love football, I will always love football, but compared to 20 years ago, the game has changed. Too many rules are being made. Let ‘em play. They knew exactly what they signed up for.
Jesse, a black man who appears to be in his early 30s, is wearing a Raiders ski cap and a Stanford rain jacket.
Why are NFL ratings down?
JESSE: I didn’t even know they were down.
Is it the Kaepernick issue?
JESSE: The Kaepernick issue has made me want to watch football, watch how people respond to it. I wanna watch how he continues his protest and how it’s empowered other people to do so. I really don’t know why ratings are down but I wouldn’t attribute it to a protest. That actually makes [the game] more appealing to me.
Does the head-injury issue register on your radar?
JESSE: It does; I’m a health care worker. But it wouldn’t make me stop watching football. I wouldn’t let my kids play. This (he gestures toward the field) is entertainment.
Is there any age at which you would consider letting your son play?
JESSE: No. I think when people read more into the sport than it really is, that’s when problems arise. It’s just entertainment.
Eight hours to the southeast, through Yosemite and Death Valley national parks, in the self-proclaimed entertainment capital of the world, Elsin Hin steers his taxi toward the Las Vegas Strip as the sun rises on yet another NFL Sunday. Having moved here from northern Virginia, he roots for the Redskins. He loves football. “But the off-field issues really concern me,” he says. “Like the Giants kicker [Josh Brown], with all his abuse. That makes it harder to watch.”
He shrugs, noting that he’ll still listen to and watch football at some point today. “Football is our national obsession,” he says. “It always comes back to money.”
Ah, the money. Later this morning, a white man pulls up to the Wynn Las Vegas casino in a sports car and heads inside for breakfast. Let’s call him the Gambler; that’s how he prefers it. Over eggs and toast the Gambler reiterates the ground rules: What he says is not for attribution; he has been “sent away” in the past for bookmaking, has had “issues” with the IRS. He doesn’t need another headache.
The Gambler doesn’t resemble the stereotypical sports-betting degenerate so often depicted in the movies—no rumpled dress shirt, no askew fedora. The Gambler doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke. He wears a crisp salmon-colored polo shirt, takes his vitamins and carries an iPad.
A friend calls for advice. The Gambler likes Philadelphia plus-3, Washington minus-1, Oakland plus-2, Tampa plus-1 and Baltimore plus-2.5. Should his advice pay off, he asks for nothing other than perhaps a favor down the line. And if he’s wrong? He doesn’t want to hear about it. Everybody wants an angle, a slight edge. But there’s no foolproof way to gamble, especially on the pros. “Gambling made the NFL what it is today,” he says. “But it’s almost impossible to bet.”
The Gambler learned that the hard way, $100 at a time. He describes how when he first committed to this life his father drove him to a department store where men exited carrying boxes of clothes and climbed into Cadillacs. “Those are the bookies,” his father told him. Indeed, the Gambler’s wins were never enough. He’d borrow money to pay his debts, lose it at the track, borrow again and then lose again.
Eventually the Gambler made safer bets, mostly on college football and basketball. He gave up the NFL. He’s developed a rating system for college teams, with zero being the best score and 100 the worst. He adds and subtracts points for injuries, home-field advantage, new coaches and dozens of other factors. (He even accounts for the NFL’s rule changes. Rules change every year; it never ends.) If Alabama is a 2 and Auburn is a 9, his number for that game is 7. If the line is 2.5 points off his number, he bets, using a runner to place wagers at various books across town.
The Gambler figures he needs a 52.5% success rate to break even. At 58% he’s making money—good money, although he won’t say how much, exactly. “You can make a living off that,” he says,” as long as you bet enough.”
He enters Wynn’s sports book shortly before this morning’s NFL kickoffs. The line at the betting windows is about 30 gamblers deep. Bets made, they recline in oversized leather chairs, track their fantasy scores and drink coffee, screwdrivers and light beer.
What separates the Gambler from these bettors is discipline. Rules. Don’t bet your home team or your favorite team. Don’t twist information to suit your point of view. Most important of all, don’t chase. Don’t think that, just because you lost four games in a row, you’re bound to win the fifth. (At the same time, he says that if a team, say, covers seven straight weeks, he’ll bet against it; if a team doesn’t cover for seven straight weeks, he’ll bet on it to win.)
All the new kids try the NFL, the Gambler says. They come to Vegas with their spreadsheets and their algorithms; they play daily fantasy football and bet the games. “Now you see all these young kids with their computers,” he says. “They do things I can’t. But they don’t have my experience.”
On the TVs overhead a Titans player is carted off. He’s not fantasy-eligible, so nobody seems to notice. The Gambler plays in a high-stakes fantasy league along with some casino owners and other participants he won’t name. Three years ago, his team had winnings in the mid-six figures. Last year he lost nearly that much.
The Gambler is telling the story of the time he won $78,000 on a $24 horse bet when Johnny Avello, executive director of Wynn’s sports book, stops by. Avello has been setting lines for 30 years. When people say Vegas had the line right, Avello is who they mean.
In the past six years, Avello also noticed more spreadsheets and more computers around these parts, but the influx of information works both ways. He has more statistics at his disposal too. He’s also seen an increase in the overall number of bettors and more variety in the ways they wager—in person at sports books, online, over mobile apps. . . . “We’ve had to increase the menu,” he says.
College and pro football combine to account for about 60% of Wynn’s overall bets, so it perplexes Avello when the NFL pretends to keep gambling at arm’s length. He has invited league officials to watch his operation, to show them how hard it would be to fix a game. But they’ve never come, he says, even as it appears the Raiders may some day soon move to Las Vegas. “If people weren’t wagering on games, the market share on the NFL would drop 40%,” Avello says. “The league should be thanking us.”
Over the day’s first round of games, two of the Gambler’s four choices (Raiders and Eagles) win. On one of the TVs an announcer notes that the Lions’ first six games of the year were decided by a total of 19 points—and that was before today’s last-second victory over the Redskins, a pick the Gambler missed on. “That’s the NFL,” he says as his wife sits down with a sack of cheeseburgers.
“Vegas is completely different than it used to be,” Mrs. Gambler weighs in. “In the old days it was small and more refined. Pretty. Classy.”
She’s asked if those changes mirror what she sees in the NFL. “No question,” she answers. “It was all so different.” She frowns. “It all comes back to money,” she says.
She blames the media. She blames Kaepernick and the way he kneeled for the national anthem; she blames all the protests. “This is what I’d do to Kaepernick,” she says, motioning with her thumb and index finger as if she were shooting a gun. “You should have certain obligations,” she says. “The league has hundreds of thousands of rules! Why shouldn’t one be that you respect the American flag? I’m not saying you have to do a dance. Have respect!”
“This country has gone soft,” she says on the same day that the local newspaper will endorse Donald Trump.
The money machine rolls on. Dolphins receiver Kenny Stills scores a long touchdown to beat the Bills and one gambler screams about how he netted $17,000 on a parlay. Later, the Bucs beat the 49ers, meaning that the Gambler picked three of five correctly. He’ll take that every time.
All those dollars changing hands over football, billions every year, and yet there’s no place in the top-money tier for the football-loving folks at the University of Idaho, where players and fans alike are bracing for a drop down from FBS to the much-lower-profile (and much-lower-income) FCS in 2017. The humbling journey of the Vandals faithful mirrors that of millions of former homeowners in this country, particularly their dreams of upward mobility, and the nightmare of a bubble that burst.
Since 1996, 20 college football programs have moved up to the FCS. Only one of them has chosen to return to FBS. It wasn’t an easy decision for the folks in Moscow, Idaho (pop. 24,000), and there have been repercussions “both personal and institutional,” school president Chuck Staben says before the Vandals’ home game against New Mexico State. Fans of football, the ultimate no-surrender team sport, have never taken kindly to quitters, whatever their explanations.
Idaho enjoyed decades of football success in what used to be I-AA, Staben explains, until 1996, when they moved up to play the big boys. Then, this past spring, the Sun Belt Conference bid them an unceremonious adieu because Moscow was so far away from the conference’s southeastern epicenter, was hard to get to in general and because, well, the team wasn’t very good.
Idaho had two options: Play as an FCS independent, with no playoff money, no TV money and no ready-made conference games; or drop down to the FCS and the Big Sky Conference, which Staben says “offers regional rivalries [and] a better sense of long term costs.” Before the New Mexico game, he says: “USC is not likely to ever have to make such a choice.”
The state of Idaho’s identity as a self-made frontierland did nothing to soften the blow. “One of the things I’ve heard [from disappointed boosters] is, ‘You’re giving up; we need to compete at the highest level,’ ” Staben says.
Adding to the awkwardness of the demotion: The current team is doing just fine against FBS foes and may, in fact, become bowl eligible. The Vandals have shown they can compete at the level that, because of money, they are being removed from. On this particular Saturday they’ll win 55-23.
Glaringly absent from the decision-making process at Idaho were the young men who actually take the field. They also haven’t been given the opportunity to speak about it since. A request to talk with Idaho players about Football in America—and about coming to Moscow to play FBS ball, only to have that circumstance change without their input—is met with a polite No from coach Paul Petrino (Bobby’s brother). A UI media relations rep explains, “I don’t think [our players] think about it much at all,” and says that the move won’t affect upperclassmen, so their input is irrelevant. A request to speak, then, with freshmen and sophomores on the team is denied; freshmen don’t do interviews. How about three from a list of six sophomores? Sorry, no, comes the reply.
This, also, is Football in America. Image maintenance. Damage control. In this case, muzzling the voices of the people who actually play the games, the students who risk injury and whose athletic skills are entirely responsible for whatever revenue the program accrues. In this case, that leaves the fans to speak for them.
“We care,” says Mike Hird, who’s dressed like one of the bearded Germanic tribesmen that gave the Vandals their name. A team shouldn’t be demoted, outcast, he says, “just because you’re not in a major market. The Green Bay Packers are a symbol, one of America’s NFL teams. Moscow is like that for college football—it’s a small town, but it has the community support.”
The players, it turns out, do think about it.
“He’s not happy about it,” the mother of one Vandals receiver says over the din of the home crowd. “Telling a kid, ‘You’re not [an FBS] athlete,’ that’s hard.” (She has other concerns too. “We’ve maxed out on concussions,” she says. “You’re only supposed to have two concussions, and we’ve done that.”)
“I’m sure that some [underclassmen] feel they came here to be part of an FCS program,” concedes Rob Spear, UI’s athletic director, “and their last year that might not be the case.”
“We’re really gonna miss it,” Vandals fan Colin Jerke says through a gold, full-body Spandex getup that covers his face. “I would love to stay in this conference. To go support another team? We’d never even think of that. We’re still gonna be here to support [these guys].”
The administration is counting on it.
There’s no cell service and no Wi-Fi here at the field where Hot Springs [Mont.] High plays, and there are roughly half as many young men out on the gridiron as the rest of us are used to. But this tiny town four hours east of Moscow—home to more cows than humans—still shows up on Friday nights to watch its Savage Heat, perennial powers in Montana six-man football. A crowd of about 500—or roughly the town’s entire population—is glued to the 40-by-80-yard patch of grass behind Hot Springs High, where simple floodlights mounted on four telephone poles illuminate 12 teenagers sprinting around, colliding and changing the scoreboard every couple minutes.
“This is basketball on a football field,” says Bob Paro, the father of Hot Springs’ senior captain, Trevor Faro.
Tonight’s game is supposed to be close. White Sulphur Springs enters ranked No. 3 in the state, Hot Springs No. 2, but the scoreboard will read 76-12 when all is said and done. “In six-man, giving up 12 points is like a shutout,” jokes Hot Springs coach Jim Lawson, whose team averages 69.8 points per game. “There’s lots of open space. If one guy misses a tackle, it usually means a touchdown.”
“The basic fundamentals are the same [as 11-man],” Lawson continues. “It comes down to staying on blocks, getting off blocks and tackling.”
In so many other ways, this is Football in America too, same as everywhere else. Trevor Paro’s mom, Kris, calls head injuries “a big concern. My boy has a chance to go to the collegiate level in another sport,” she says, “but he loves football so much. So I say lots of prayers.”
The safety of these high schoolers, says 69-year-old George Heinselman, “is something that really needs to be watched.” Heinselman and his companion, 61-year-old Mary Ann Nyberg, braved the chill and drizzle tonight not because they have a young relative playing, but because HSHS football is what Heinselman calls “a community event.”
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had anybody [seriously] injured,” he adds, “but there was a death here a few years ago.”
“In Bigfork,” an hour to the northeast, Mary Ann chimes in. They’re referring to Jeffrey Bowman, who died in August 2007 after collapsing during Bigfork High’s first football practice of the year. That same summer, the big issue in Hot Springs was the high school team’s nickname. For decades they had been the Savages. But students and local tribe members moved to replace that word—along with what one tribe member called the school’s “large-nosed, ugly” logo—and eventually succeeded, following a series of contentious school board meetings.
Justin Angle, a 42-year-old marketing professor at the University of Montana, an hour south of here, stands on a hill near Hot Springs’ 20-yard line. He has spent years studying the impact of Native American sports nicknames. “It was a hot-button issue in 2014 when the Federal Trade Commission pulled copyright protection from the Washington Redskins,” he says. “And there was that South Park skit shortly afterward.”
After that, the issue vanished.
The only flare-up, Angle says, came in April, “when The Washington Post surveyed Native Americans, asking if they were offended by these mascots—the Redskins name in particular. Eighty percent said no, and [Redskins owner] Daniel Snyder said, ‘Case closed, they’re not offended.’ ”
But the Post survey, he says, overlooked the results of a research paper Angle had just published, which found that “exposure to these names and images—living in a city with an American Indian mascot, for example—reinforces the stereotype that American Indians are more warlike than European Americans.” (Within minutes of his saying this, Hot Springs’ P.A. announcer slips up and calls the team on the field the Savages.)
“You might say ‘warlike’ is a good attribute,” he continues, “that it’s a good thing to build a sports team around, especially in football, which includes physical violence and the idea of gaining territory.” The game in front of him ends, and the teenagers who cover more territory per game than any football players in the country trudge off the field. “But these nicknames have taken a stereotype about a culture that basically doesn’t exist anymore; they’ve co-opted that culture and redeployed it with unnecessary consequences.”
“There are plenty of other things we can use to rally around,” Angle adds. “Plenty of other places we can find bravery.”
Up until 1972, the athletic teams at Stanford University, two states to the southwest of Hot Springs, were known as the Indians. That nickname was changed in large part because the so-called “Harvard of the West” considered itself above such divisive symbols. That same commitment to openness and equality is apparent on a Tuesday in late October when the Cardinal’s football coach, David Shaw, finishes his weekly media briefing and is asked, off to the side, whether his school’s mission of uplifting minds, and the violent, brain-injuring sport played by 100 of its students on fall Saturdays, are in conflict.
“Nope,” he says, “not at all. And some people may have a problem with that.”
“The arguments we’re having about football now, we’ve been having for 100 years. I went back and looked at these old articles from 1910, 1911 [which said], ‘This is a brutal sport, people shouldn’t play.’ But we’re still playing. I think football players and coaches get a bad rap. You have to be bright to [play this game well].”
Shaw’s best player, running back Christian McCaffrey, is hurt, and his team is mired in an ugly stretch in which they’ll lose three of four games. The coach would much rather be watching film, one senses, than talking about this stuff. But this is Stanford, a campus that was at the vanguard of football safety 100 years ago (when the school stopped playing football in favor of rugby), a school that recently removed 30,000 seats from its stadium. So Shaw makes a couple of his players available this afternoon to answer the same questions.
“Coach Shaw says it all the time: Going to Stanford isn’t a four-year decision, it’s a 40-year decision,” says Dallas Lloyd, who is sitting with the Cardinal’s other starting safety, Justin Reid, outside a campus café. “That said, even though we’re at one of the best academic institutions in the country,”—he grins—“all of us still want to go to the NFL. Our hearts belong to football.”
The DBs believe that protecting players is important. At the same time, Lloyd says that he loves “how violent football is. . . and I hope that it always stays that way.”
“That’s what makes it so fun,” says Reid.
Three days earlier, against Notre Dame, Lloyd delivered what he calls “the kind of hit you dream about if you’re a safety.” A split second after a teammate picked off a pass, Lloyd threw his 210 pounds, shoulder first, into the sternum of the intended receiver, such that the first thing to hit the ground was the back of the wideout’s shoulder pads.
“It was perfect,” Lloyd says, unable to suppress another smile. But a hit like that, he reminds us, has to be delicately orchestrated in order to be legal. “I can only imagine what would have happened if I’d gone in with my helmet,” he says.
“Our position coach was telling us the other day, ‘You don’t play football to hurt people. That’s not giving your opponent the respect he deserves.’ But that’s the hard part.”
Lloyd’s dimples appear again. “You only get so many chances to make a hit like that.”
“This might sound ironic,” Reid says later, “but football is kind of a safe place for me. It’s where I feel at home, where I feel comfortable. It’s my way to get away from my problems—the stress of campus, of social life. . . . Football is pure, it’s innocent.”
Far more innocent than the reaction that Reid’s brother, 49ers safety Eric Reid, endured when he joined Kaepernick in kneeling during the national anthem this season. “He’s not trying to be disrespectful to the American public or to the military,” Justin says. “We [the Reid family] have gotten messages where people call us terrorists. I don’t understand that. He’s just using his platform to shed light on a situation that has been happening in the U.S. for years.”
The Kaepernick conversation continues across campus at Stanford’s Center for Ethics in Society, with Professor Rob Reich. “I’m a little surprised at the level of outrage,” Reich says. “It’s non-violent—he’s not even speaking. He’s calling attention to an issue that is undeniably on the public radar. On the spectrum of social protests, it’s on the most innocuous, most trivial end of things. He’s not interrupting anyone else’s business, he’s not telling other people to do what he’s doing, he’s not in anyone’s face. . . .”
Football has bigger issues, Reich says, starting with “the seemingly irrefutable brain science that shows evidence of early dementia following head trauma. If that’s so, and I’m not a neuroscientist, football is a pretty grim version of the Roman coliseum, throwing people to the lions.
Secondly, he says, “the [football players] here aren’t paid, yet they’re taking on risks by playing this sport. The extent to which big money has enriched everyone except the players on the field—it has distorted the notion of student athletics.” Reich calls this “a deeply ethically-troubling development.”
As for the sport’s youngest players, Reich half-jokingly calls flag football “a gateway drug.” Then he cites another ethical quandary that most of us don’t even realize: “simply watching the sport with our children.”
He explains: “My wife and I chose not to let our son play football, even though he wanted to. And yet we all sit down and watch games together and we feel like it’s a good time. My son asks, quite rightly: How can you enjoy something that you won’t let me do?”
Jim Hardy’s parents let him play. That was 80-odd years ago and he’s hardly any worse for wear. The 93-year-old, a veteran of seven NFL seasons in the 1940s and ’50s, strides around his home in LaQuinta, Calif., with the ease of a man half his age. It’s a stunning thing to watch someone with his background, who was born during the Harding administration, move so fluidly. The oldest living L.A. Ram and a former star quarterback at USC, he still attends at least one Trojans practice each week. The only thing sharper than his balance and motor skills is his memory.
“When you’ve lived this long,” says his wife, Hank, whose flowing gray hair makes her look a fraction of her 91 years, “you see many, many things.” Her husband has retained an astounding number of those things, and he speaks of them with clarity.
“Football has gone through enormous changes from the end of World War II until today,” Hardy says. “When I came home out of the Navy [after serving on the battleship Maryland], I was a first-round pick. I signed for 10,000 bucks. [Rams quarterback] Bob Waterfield was the MVP the previous year, so they bumped him up to $17,000. He made $7,500 his MVP year [in 1945].
“Now they throw millions around the way you and I do five-dollar bills. I would have played for nothing. It was that much fun.”
“What I’m most confronted with today,” he says, turning serious, “is that [although] the equipment is better, and more protective, there’s one exception: this goddamn rock they put on their head. And then they put this [facemask] in front of it.
“In those days we had leather headgear. It was very protective, it had a sponge and everything in it. There was no nose piece, no faceguard at all. Yeah, we got broken noses and lost a tooth or two, but that pales next to breaking your neck or damaging your brain or your spinal column.”
Those kinds of injuries weren’t an issue in the 40s, Hardy says, because “in our day you hit with your shoulder. Guys would keep their head out; even the biggest, toughest guys didn’t want to break their nose.”
He holds his liver-spotted hands in front of his mouth like a facemask. “Then they added this, and that gave [players] a false sense of security. ‘Oh shit, I can run into a Mack truck now and it won’t hurt me.’ Everything about the game has advanced except that one thing.”
Were head injuries a concern for you back then?
“I never gave it a thought,” says the nonagenarian NFL vet who will hit the century mark four years after the league does.
“They didn’t exist.”
Faces of Football: Roger Goodell
On player safety and TV ratings, on the quality of officiating and quality of play, Roger Goodell countered SI’s findings at almost every turn with a mostly positive assessment, disagreeing largely with the dozens of Americans who deemed this a strange moment in football’s history. (He does, at least, admit: “I don’t sleep much.” Wonder what’s keeping him up.) Here’s what the face of Football in America had to say about the game and where his league is taking it
Football is . . .
I can’t capture football in one word. We use the phrase Football is family. But it means so much to so many different people for so many different reasons. Some people love the competition. Some people love the physical contact. Some people love the pageantry. Some love the social aspect of it. Some like to watch the commercials. Some love the entertainers. Some like the strategy. That’s what’s great about the game: It has something for everybody.
Football can be an escape from everyday life. We hear that a lot: I want to come and enjoy the game, enjoy the experience and get away from my daily troubles, whether that’s the election or something else. [In baseball] I thought the Cubs winning the World Series after 108 years—that went well beyond sports. It was a feel-good moment that our country needed, frankly.
The lessons I learned from playing the game for nine years still stay with me—lessons about perseverance, teamwork, how to work together and how to achieve something bigger than yourself. But people also get a great deal from engaging with the game as fans. I was at [the Giants’ MetLife] Stadium last weekend, out in the parking lot at two different tailgate parties. It’s a very social experience. When they get in the stadium they’re with another set of fans, high-fiving one another, getting to know one another. It doesn’t matter what your background is, your race, your income.
Fans, they’ll tell you what they like about [football]. Our job is to listen and be responsive in a way we think is in the best interest of the game long term. We understand our responsibility to the game now, but we focus on: How do we make sure the game stays strong for the long term?
The fans are more interested in football [than player safety and activism]. We are the ones who make safety a priority. Fans support that because they want to see their players play. They want to know that they’re being taken care of. That we’re giving them the proper medical attention. We’re doing what we can to prevent injuries. Most fans—and I have this conversation with them all the time—want to see the players on the field. That and they want to see their team playing at the highest level. They want to see both.
Tom Coughlin [a senior advisor to NFL football operations] sat here with me yesterday and we went through a list of questions we’re sharing with our coaches: What do we need to look at next? What do we change? I think the NFL is unique in that way. We’re not afraid of reinventing ourselves every year. There are very few sports I know of that would change six or seven rules in a year. That’s not unusual for us.
Here’s a change: How do we reduce what I refer to as “dead time”—the time when there’s no action. Fans don’t want just shorter games, they want more action. So how do we take that time when we have an instant replay issue and make that quicker? Should we bring a tablet to the sideline and show the referee? Could we do the announcements differently? Faster? Do we do the challenges differently? If you can carve off 15 seconds of dead time in 10 different places, that’s a pretty significant amount of time.
Our commercialization is another example [of something that could change]. Do we keep the same TV commercial formats we’ve had for decades? Should it still be a 2:20 commercial break? Maybe we should think about [something] less intrusive. John Madden and I talk about that. A game gets great, you get fans into the game—you don’t want to take them away from it.
Officiating is obviously a huge responsibility we have to our players and our coaches and our clubs, and our fans. We’re looking at and experimenting with an eighth official. We negotiated in our collective bargaining agreement [in 2012] so we could have up to 16 full-time officials. We think that [would have been] a positive change. And we were disappointed when they threw in some restrictions that prevented us from doing that. But those are the kinds of things we want to do. Separately, I don’t believe that having full-time officials is necessarily going to prevent mistakes. Coaches, players, officials, commissioners—they all make mistakes.
People look at us as if the NFL should have a higher standard than anybody else. So we try to meet that. We don’t complain about it. We meet it. And try to exceed it.
There are still the same number of folks—maybe even slightly higher—actually watching football. The question is, Are they watching it as long? A lot of things affect that: Competitiveness of the game, alternative viewing—we’ve gone up against two presidential debates. You have to look at the long-term issues, the changing media landscape, how people are engaging differently, particularly the younger generation. Are they watching more highlights? Are they looking at RedZone? We’re trying to stay ahead of those things. That’s why we did the Yahoo game last year. We’re looking at the length of the game, the pace of the game, the stoppages in the game; how do we bring commercialization into the game or take it out—and do it in a way that’s least intrusive. . . .
People have been talking about [TV ratings] for decades. I think they’re less significant to a lot of people, particularly with the changes in advertising, people going digital. I think Nielsen ratings are one aspect of [a bigger picture], but for a long time people have questioned that as a sole focus for how you evaluate your audience.
The competition, the quality of play in the league, has never been better. The average margin of victory has not been closer since 1932, back when they were probably averaging 20 points a game. We’re now averaging 45 or 46. That, plus the number of penalties—those are all important factors. We have a list of 50 of those things we look at on a weekly basis. We study them and it leads to what the Competition Committee focuses on.
The biggest observation when I go to the London games is the number of jerseys they all wear—they wear jerseys from every team. They come because they love the game and they have a passion for their team. Even if their team isn’t playing, they’re there. We had three [London] games this year; we’re looking at four. Our ratings there continue to do incredibly well. Even if they don’t truly understand it, they want to understand. Take the first NFL game in Japan for example. We got to the two-minute warning and the game was tied. We explained [the overtime procedure] to them and they started clapping, as if it was an encore we were doing specifically for them. They didn’t truly understand the game. Now they cheer at the appropriate times.
We don’t reach the mountaintop and say, We’re done. Our change is constant. We do everything we can to make the game safer. We do what we can to grow the game, to make it more entertaining. We have to adapt to what happens around us.
Faces of Football: Jerry Jones
In his 20s, Jerral Wayne (Jerry) Jones captained his team to a college football national championship. In his 50s, he won three Super Bowls as an owner. At 74, he oversees the most valuable sports franchise in the world and is being considered for induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It’s hard to find anyone more deeply-rooted in the game. In early October, Jones sipped on iced tea in his second-floor office at the Cowboys’ 91-acre headquarters in Frisco, Tex., and waxed poetic about the sport he loves. By the end, his ice had melted.
Football is. . . about the fourth quarter. It’s about the character-building that goes on when you have depended on your teammate to have success and he has depended on you, and you’re so tired, and your old shins have been kicked so much—but you don’t want to let him down. That’s football to me.
This is a moment in time [for football] that’s very unique. I got my undergraduate degree [at Arkansas] in business. But I had redshirted, and you couldn’t play your senior year if you’d redshirted and had graduated. That was a rule. So then I got my Master’s degree my senior year. And for my MA, my thesis was on the role of communication in modern-day football. I surveyed Bear Bryant, Paul Dietzel. . . talking not only about selling and recruiting, but about selling their teams, selling their alumni, all that. (Jones asks his secretary to have someone retrieve his thesis paper from his home and bring it to AT&T Stadium.)
I would’ve been a coach, would’ve just breathed [the game]. I loved, loved ball. I thought I had the promise of being a coach, but what I really wanted to do was have real financial success. Now, had I known back then what I’d be payin’ [these players] today? Yeah, I might’ve been a coach. But the point is this: I’ve had [football] in my blood. Growing up, my dad encouraged me to be involved with sports, but not at the cost of working in the family grocery stores. So I grew up working in our stores, getting up early to play football. Later, when I was a senior at Arkansas, we were undefeated and we beat Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl, the last game I ever played in. [Winning the national championship], that experience changed my life. You learn things from that. It gave me a feeling like, if I could be a part of a national championship team, then I could have success by setting my mind to any goal. We were never the same after that as people. Nobody was.
I think we may have taken for granted that the decision-makers know that football is good for you, that it really allows a child, in various ways, to depend on his teammate when he’s a little bunged up, a little tired, when it’s not as much fun. It kicks in that you can’t let your teammate down. I don’t want to get emotional here, but that experience of knowing someone is dependent on you, and you’re dependent on him, and then having to physically work through that—I guess I’ve just assumed that everybody would value that and it would be passed along.
People don’t play football to be professionals. That has nothing to do with it. The reason a parent should want a young man or a young woman to play football is that it causes you to persevere when it’s not fun anymore. Let me say it this way: In the fourth quarter, my college coach used to have us put our hands up, four fingers extended. He would say, “When the game starts, everybody’s all prim, looks good. Second quarter comes along and all of a sudden there’s a knot on your head, your elbows are screwed up. By the time you finish the third quarter, you’re not feeling as good. Then comes the fourth quarter. You’re not pretty anymore. You’re tired.” The lesson of the fourth quarter and what it takes to get there endures. This game is truly a character builder. Some of the best things done by mankind, people have done those things in their fourth quarters, so to speak. That’s the game of football.
Look. Playing football is not natural. There are sports where you just go in the backyard and shoot some baskets. Let’s hit some grounders. Let’s play some pitch. But football—let’s go out and knock the hell out of each other—is not natural. It calls upon people to be disciplined. And that differentiates the sport; that’s your character builder.
In [criticizing football], people leave out all the participation that goes along with supporting a team. They leave out the generations of sisters and brothers, moms and dads, women my age who long ago heard their grandfathers tell stories about two-a-day practices. They leave out the tradition. They leave out the character builders. I, for one, have seen that 70% of our players have had no male role models, apart from their coaches. They don’t have a daddy or a grandfather who influenced them. For a [young man], a great place to learn values is in a football program. What football means in this area—Texas and Arkansas—it has such a legacy. I’ve just never felt the need to step up and sell football. I’m one of the most willing people to share what I think about football, to share my own experiences. But I don’t know that there’s a need to sell football; I don’t know that that’s something I really believe in.
I have teared up over the years talking about my life’s experiences—[some of which] have been related to football—to the extent that I visited a psychiatrist. [The psychiatrist] said, “Crying: that’s so normal, so perfectly normal. When people reflect back on life’s meaningful experiences, they get emotional. That’s what this is.” What I’m saying is: It was an important experience for me to have participated in football. I know it to be a very life-changing experience.
I’ll tell you what I do know medically about the game: We’re at about the same place with brain medicine as we were about 50 years ago with heart medicine. I believe we’re drawing conclusions so far out in front of the facts. Now, I can live with that, as long as we understand: I’ve seen milk and red meat [debated] for the last 30 years in terms of whether they’re good for you or not. Growing up, taking aspirin was [regarded as] just like taking a drug. Now look where we are today. One a day.
We’re way out in front of the implications of brain health, relative to concussions. Way out front. Now, should we be very proactive in trying to get as much information as possible, doing as many studies as possible? Should [the NFL] join with the military [in those studies]? The automobile industry? The umpteen others? Should other sports put some emphasis on studying this? Yes. But to say that it’s a reason not to participate in a sport. . . .
I recently I had a CAT scan done at MD Anderson Cancer Center [in Houston], under an assumed name. Afterward, the radiologist said, “I noticed your age. The reason I came down—and here he called me by my assumed name; he didn’t know who I was—was that you have the brain of a 40-year-old.” My other doctors were in the room; so was my wife. I’ve got some witnesses. The point is: I was a fullback and a pulling guard [at Arkansas]. I used my head all the time, and I played football a long time. And that had no impact.
I’m going to carefully choose my words here: The game of football is convenient to involve in the discussion of head injuries. Anybody who stops and thinks for a few minutes will realize that many other sports involve contact with athletes’ heads. Many sports do. Many other occupations do, as well.
I’m asked a lot: “Are you alarmed that concussions are a discussion, as they pertain to the NFL and college?” My quick answer: I’m not alarmed. I saw an article recently about the demise of football. It was [written] 30 years ago. But yes, I’m resolved to giving everybody a better feel about [head injuries].
I have always been in favor of reducing the face mask—I have been as long as I’ve been involved in the NFL. There’s no question that face masks create courage. I would make it less substantive. It might be that [it’s reduced to] one bar. It might be changing the form or the weight of it. But it would not be, in my idea of the face mask, something that creates courage. It would allow you to follow your natural instinct, which is to get your head out of the way, rather than get it in the way. I think changing the helmet will happen.
Age limits on tackle football? I didn’t play tackle until I was in the seventh grade. What I would like to do is the inclusive thing. I would just want to be as inclusive of as many kids as possible, because these are valuable lessons [they’re learning]. I like what they do here in Texas with seven-on-seven football in the spring. That’s real competitive. . . and they don’t have nearly the amount of contact—not unless it’s accidental. But I actually think your basic high school game in Texas, because of the way the game has evolved here, has less contact than 20 years ago.
What I think you’ll have in the future is degrees of our game. In youth football, you’ll certainly have less physical exposure than you have at the pro level. You’ll have less physical exposure at the college and high school levels—a little less at each level. I don’t have any basis for this, but I think it will happen. The guys being exposed at the highest physical level will, of course, be rewarded for it, and they certainly will be a fraction of the people that played the game. What’d we have make the NFL this year in the draft, 300 players? Out of 40,000 [in college]? (Note: 259 players were selected in total, including the supplemental draft.)
I didn’t watch Concussion. I’ve seen clips of it. I didn’t see the entire movie, but I saw excerpts.
Almost every time I’ve ever walked into an NFL meeting, someone has said, “We’ve got to keep the game much like it’s traditionally been. It’s got to be fair. It’s got to have rules. It’s got to be physical. It’s got to have some entertainment. But above all, it’s got to be competitive.” I think Roger Goodell is a great steward of that idea.
Roger’s work has been way above my expectation—and I had high expectations. I [voted to promote] him because he’s got the attitude to grow the pie. He’s fair-minded, and his entire adult professional life has been invested in the NFL. He’s had occasion to be on the other side of the table from me; we haven’t been in agreement at all times. But I knew as a pup that he would bite; he would stand up if he had his points. So there was never a doubt in my mind that he had the backbone and the will to defend the commissioner’s office and defend the league if he thought it was in his best interest. He’s done even better than I expected.
People talk about ratings being down. But all other programming is down twice as much. And if you have the best place to go for real-time viewers, then your rights fees go up. You can have lower ratings and still have higher rights fees. It wouldn’t be prudent to not understand that horseshoes came along and put the blacksmith out of business. That’s the history of products and service. But in my lifetime, I’ve seen programming content do nothing but go up.
I’m good with what we’re sitting here talking about, these challenges. They’re just not formidable. Football would have been the greatest thing there’s ever been if there hadn’t been questions, challenges—whatever you want to call ‘em—that we’ve got to address. Whether it be concussions, whether it be the issues with player behavior. . . . What I saw back in 1989, when I gave everything I had to come into the NFL—that was a bleak picture. Today? This looks like the clouds have parted compared to then. There’s never going to be a day [without questions]. We have some pretty big clouds hanging around. But that’s part of the nature of politics. Everything’s that way. If you can’t operate with clouds hanging over, well. . . .
My son, Stephen, told me once: “Dad, I believe you’d rather make a penny doing something with football than make a dollar doing something with oil and gas.” I said, “Is it really that obvious?” It’s the idea of bringing in a 10-pound bass on one-pound test line. Hogging it in on a rope is nothing.
If people get out of the game what I get out of it, football will be played 100 years from now, 200 years from now. I know that I wouldn’t be here talking to you had I not played football.
Faces of Football: James Andrews
As an orthopedic surgeon and the go-to ACL man for football’s elite, James Andrews has had arguably as big an effect on the game of football—extending the careers of men like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Adrian Peterson—as any other person. By day he saves the athletes who play the game he loves, serving additionally as the team physician for Alabama, Auburn and the Redskins. In between, he finds himself weighing the game itself. Where is it headed? What have we learned? What can we possibly do to make football safer? In mid-October, Andrews, 74, in a checkered suit and wearing a foosball-sized championship ring, shared his wide-ranging thoughts.
Football is. . . a collision sport. Not a contact sport, a collision sport. And we’re always going to have injuries. But we have to continually look at what we can do to keep the injuries at a minimal rate.
Let me preface my remarks with: I’m in love with football. Oh yeah. Hell, I’m glued to the TV on Monday, Sunday night. My wife is too. In the south, football is a social event. The whole family goes. That’s my favorite sport. Any level—high school, college, pro—that’s where you’ll find me, watching football. Now that you know where I’m coming from. . . .
If we started a new sport today and we wrote up the rules and regulations and we called it football, they probably wouldn’t allow it. We’re all trying to do everything we can to make football safer, but that’s the way the sport is: There are always going to be injuries. We’re aware of that, and we’re all working to keep it that way. We want it to continue, believe me.
I’ve been around football since college, at LSU. And I’d say that since 2000—with our athletes getting bigger and stronger, hitting harder, running faster—injuries have really escalated. There’s so much emphasis on being the best you can be now, and a lot of that is driven by the dollar. There’s so much at stake financially to play professional football, both for players and coaches. It’s made the drive to win and to hit harder, run faster, be better—it’s escalated that.
Just look at the size of these players today. I look back at old programs from when I was at LSU and we won the national championship. Guess who weighed more than anybody else on that whole team? Billy Cannon. The running back. He was 205. That just shows you where the game has gone. You get a 350-pound lineman falling into your running back’s knee these days and something’s gotta give. All of that has created a need for figuring out how to prevent injuries.
Hell, look at the quarterbacks now. They’re 6’ 5”, 6’ 6”, 6’ 7”. . . . Look at the tight ends: 6’ 7”, 260 pounds and running 4.6 40s. And it’s going to continue. Will we have any 8-footers? Who knows? I wouldn’t doubt it. It’s been that way through the history of mankind. If you go back 150 years, door frames were only about two-thirds the height of that door frame right there (pointing).
I probably got a concussion once, but we didn’t know what a concussion was in those days. I got hit in the head with an elbow once. We had a guy at LSU named Fred Miller who was an All-America, later played for the Baltimore Colts for 19 years. Offensive, defensive tackle. On one play I was on defense and I fell down in front of him and blocked him by mistake. Then we got into practicing extra points and he decided to get even with me. I ran in to try to block a kick and he caught me like this (he demonstrates an elbow to the eye). You can probably still see the scar. I left him alone from then on.
On Mondays, I’m picking up the pieces from the college and pro games—the wreckage. This Monday morning my phone started ringing at 6 a.m. So and so got hurt. . . Can we send you an MRI? . . . I need some advice. That goes with the territory. Most of it is people looking for advice about some problem I don’t even know anything about, like the spine, which I don’t do. I probably get anywhere from 20 to 40 calls on a Monday. What I’ve learned to do is: When I finish work on Monday and I’ve got all these calls to return, rather than make my wife mad at me for being on the phone I’ll pull in the driveway, sit in my car and make all my calls. The problem is we’ve got two dogs and when I drive up they start barking. Now she knows I’m out there. So it doesn’t work 100% of the time.
To make the game safer we have to start at the youth level. In sports, unfortunately, a lot of the emphasis is on the most elite level—but a lot of the injuries at the elite level actually started when those athletes were kids. And they’re more preventable when you’re young. We used to think kids were less vulnerable to injury because they’re young—they can bounce off the floor, it doesn’t hurt them. But that’s not true. They’re more vulnerable when they’re young. And a minor injury when you’re young can become perhaps a major injury. I saw a major league pitcher today with a bad elbow; I’m going to operate in the morning. He had a problem with his elbow when he was 13 and it’s compounded through the years. So instead of having a 25-year-old pitcher’s elbow, he has a 40-year-old pitcher’s elbow. Same thing happens in football. Most of the concussions are at the youth level. The percentages are higher. And when they occur at the youth level they really need close attention because you’re trying to prevent a second occurrence. If you don’t, the [kid] will get more and more, all the way up to the NFL.
Look at the deaths from youth sports. Four states lead the way: Georgia, Florida, Texas and California. They produce as many catastrophic deaths—mostly in football—as all the other states combined. That’s because of year-round sports; those are sunshine states.
Will football go away? I doubt that’s going to happen. It’s part of the American culture. We may have to revamp it to some degree, but I don’t think you’re going to see us playing flag football only. Nobody’s going to watch that. . . . There’s always going to be room for collision sports. Its been that way since way back in the Roman days. It’s probably going to continue that way.
Flag football is a good way to play, but the problem is that most places are doing that in addition to tackle. They’re playing that in the summer months, before they’re allowed to start high school football.
You know the old saying, If you take your helmet off I’ll take mine off? That would help make the game safer. But nobody is going to do that.
Let me tell you the things you should do in football. They’re very simple. You shouldn’t have any contact practice until after the sixth day of preseason practice. That acclimates kids for concussions, the heat, cardiovascular problems. . . . You should limit your contact days to two days a week, preferably one day a week. Don’t hit every practice day. Some teams hit Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and even on Thursday before a Friday game. But Ivy League schools have stopped contact during the week completely, as I understand. That’s a little bit extreme, but that tells you: Smart coaches aren’t having contact three or four days a week anymore.
We have to teach kids how to play fair. There’s still that mentality in football: Let’s knock him out of the game. Let’s take a cheap shot. We need to not allow that to happen. We’ve got rules about this, and the rules need to be enforced by the referees. A couple weeks ago Cam Newton kept getting hit, two or three times, helmet-to-helmet. People thought he had a concussion. And the announcers made the excuse that the hits were so fast the officials couldn’t see them. What they should do—we do it in college—is if there’s a suspicion of targeting, we stop the play, look at the replay and decide. They need that same rule in the NFL. It’ll slow the game down and they don’t like that because you’ve gotta finish a game in three hours. But for safety reasons, if they they’re suspicious of targeting they should look at the damn replay, figure it out and call the penalty. They’re not doing that in the NFL.
At the same time: Referees get so much into the game that they ruin football. A flag every five minutes, or every other play. . . . Some of those flags are not for safety purposes, and those need to be eliminated. All these holding penalties that are so minimal, we need to do away with some of that and have more rules that are related to safety. Let ‘em play, I guess, is the phrase.
I know our commissioner is all for safety. He’s trying to do everything he can to make sure that happens. Thank goodness.
Violence—that’s what filled up the Forum in the Roman days. And that’s where football came from. People like that. They like the contact. We just need to try to keep it as safe as possible. You’re always going to have injuries. But professional football players have more coverage for injuries at a high level than any other sport—multiple doctors on the sidelines, multiple specialists, independent neurosurgeons, spotters. . . . The problem is we don’t always have that at the high school level, or below. We have to mandate athletic trainers in all public high schools. A lot of these small schools—particularly in rural areas like where I’m from in Alabama, Georgia, the panhandle of Florida—don’t have athletic trainers, and those are the first people, typically, to pick up an injury and keep it from being compounded.
Coaches don’t want to do anything that decreases performance level. They’ve been the missing factor in most sports medicine presentations. I’ve tried every trick I know to get coaches to come listen to injury-prevention talks. You have to trick them to come. They have a taboo about even talking to a team doctor. Maybe they’re afraid that brings them bad luck. We’re there to help them.
Before surgery once, an NFL player said, “I don’t know why the hell I play football.” But as soon as they’re up and going, they want to play again. One of them woke up from sedation hollering for his mother—a big old defensive tackle. A week later, he wanted to play. That’s part of the mental recovery from being hurt. That takes a little while.