Sunday, August 25, 2013

Behind the smile: The NFL is facing a death by 4,800 cuts

On October 8th a brand new documentary is coming out. It was co-produced by PBS's Frontline magazine and ESPN's Outside the Lines. That all changed on Thursday the 22nd of August, when ESPN abruptly pulled out of the production.

The question for everyone is, was ESPN pressured to pull out by the NFL? If so, what else is behind the smile?

Behind the Smile you cannot see
lies another full of mystery
Don't be fooled by that friendly grin
the jaws of death are going to call ... you in.
-Roger Glover, Behind the Smile

There has been no question that the overall vibe about the NFL has been somewhat ... off ... the last couple seasons. Shortly before the NFL decided to lock out it's players in 2011 there has been an odd feeling of impending doom surrounding the league, even though it is still, by far, the most popular sport in the country. A "make hay while the sun shines" feeling has also come across. Like the NFL owners are trying to get their share right now.

While the NFL can make a somewhat strained rationale for its borderline unnecessary lockout of 2011, what has happened the last two seasons since the lockout ended has been a series of bigger confrontations with the NFL Player's Association. All the fighting has centered on player safety, health and drug use and each fight has been more vicious than the last - with the controversy over the New Orleans Saints "Bountygate" suspensions front and center.

However smaller fights between the NFLPA and the NFL are just as brutal, including a titanic fight over Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs) and HGH, as evidenced from an article by NFLPA Vice President George Atallah last week (read right here) which if you read it you can't help but draw the conclusion, "I think your point would be more effectively portrayed in a less snarky manner". Yet, it underlines that the NFLPA and the League no longer have the cozy relationship they did under previous commissioner Paul Tagliabue. There seems to be personal animus toward Commissioner Roger Goodell and it's only getting worse.

However, the biggest issue is the pending lawsuit of 4,800 former players (including a just-added Daunte Culpepper and Clinton Portis) in a a massive collection of separate class action lawsuits against the League for their actions related to concussions and the after affects on the brain. Pardon the crude term, this is the giant clown hammer that is threatening to knock the League on its mighty heels.

There have been many, many people who have questioned the motives of the players who are suing the NFL. I fully agree that the purest of intentions cannot be ascribed to each and every one of these players - with that kind of volume it's almost impossible. Yet, in the three years these various suits have grown exponentially. The league has reacted anywhere from sensibly (enacting player safety measures) to complete panic overreaction (Bountygate). This has all culminated in a series of events this past week surrounding a PBS/ESPN Documentary called League of Denial: The NFL's Concussion Crisis. After a 15 month involvement with the PBS program Frontline, ESPN's abrupt withdrawal from the program was a bit startling. The Network cited "lack of editorial control" as the reason ... but had known they lacked that control since they began the partnership.

The next day, it was revealed there was a "contentious" meeting between Goodell, some other NFL executives and the higher ups at ESPN to express "concern about the direction the documentary was taking" according to the New York Times.

While ESPN is in a largely subservient relationship with the NFL, and due to its contractual relationship with the League, it is probably no surprise ESPN pulled out of the project. However, the NFL has potentially made a mistake by exerting pressure on a project they are slated to look bad in anyway. Much like Richard Nixon redacting large portions of White House audio recordings around the time of Watergate, the NFL pressuring a link in the chain to pull out is a bit on the nosey. For the record, ESPN denies that the League pressured them out of the project, and the League denies it as well.

The reporting and context of this entire project is based on the work and future book of the same name by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru. There have been several unsavory articles printed on the Frontline website, including a rather unflattering tale of former Tagliabue's relationship with a doctor formerly in charge of setting league policy on concussions. It is said that this last Frontline blog post about Tagliabue spurred the NFL's meeting with ESPN.

In the grand scheme of things, this just drives even more interest to the PBS broadcast of League of Denial on Oct. 8th and again on Oct. 15th. Taken in context, the NFL's recent odd behavior (including the players) starts to make a little sense. You get a growing sense of unease coming from players, coaches, executives and higher ups at the NFL when it comes to the subject of safety. While it is easy to dismiss the motives of the people who are suing the NFL, there is something to be said about the power of a massive class action lawsuit. If the right judgment is rendered it can bring an entire organization to its knees.

In that sense you cannot blame the NFL for being jumpy about its future. Already, youth participation in football is down. The backbiting and bitchiness of the League's relationship with its Union is likely reflected in this anxiety about the future. In a League where it's every man for himself - its nature has extended to even NFL owners and executives who seem to be living for now.

At any rate, viewership on PBS may break a record on October 8th and 15th when the documentary airs. I know I will be front and center.

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