Seattle Seahawks' Kam Chancellor receives an unnecessary roughness… (Dean Rutz / MCT )
NEW ORLEANS -- Over the last two decades, the NFL seemingly could do no wrong.
The Dallas Cowboys, bought by Jerry Jones for $150 million in 1989, are now valued at $2.1 billion. Twenty of the league's 32 teams are valued at $1 billion or more.
Eight of the country's top 15 most-watched TV programs were Super Bowls, and more than 100 million people around the globe are expected to tune in for next Sunday's matchup between the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers. Fans will pay thousands of dollars per ticket just to get inside the Superdome to watch the game in person.
Even after the labor meltdown and player lockout of 2011, when another league might have lost legions of fans, the NFL had a typically captivating season — including the unexpected bonus of Tim Tebow — and grew in influence and popularity.
But fissures have formed in the once-pristine NFL edifice. More than 2,000 former players are suing the league over head injuries, and what they were and weren't told about the long-term damage of concussions. Junior Seau, among the greatest linebackers in league history, committed suicide last spring and was later found to have a concussion-related brain disease. Seau's family this week filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the league. A study released last week shows signs of an ailment similar to Seau's in five living NFL alumni.
"The culture of the athlete is still too much of a play-through-it, rather than player-safety mentality," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in November in a speech to the Harvard School of Public Health. "Many players have publicly admitted to hiding concussions and other head injuries.… This is unfortunate, but we are working with players, team doctors and coaches to change that culture. It is changing, but will take more time, resolve, patience, and determination."
The NFL is considering the drastic move of doing away with kickoffs in the name of player safety. However, Goodell and team owners also have explored the possibility of expanding the regular season from 16 to 18 games, potentially increasing the likelihood of injuries. There also have been discussions about expanding the playoff field from 12 to 14 or 16 teams.
"There's an uneasy feeling around the NFL, because although the league is arguably more popular than it's ever been before, there are also these glaring areas of deep concern about player safety on the field, and the players' health off the field and after their careers are over," said Michael MacCambridge, author of "America's Game: The Epic Story of How Pro Football Captured a Nation."
"I'm convinced that the NFL gets it, and is working very hard to make the game safer. But if you're a fan, you have to be concerned about some of the trial balloons that have been floated: an 18-game regular season is not just a bad idea for the people who play the game and watch the game, it's also totally out of step with the cultural mood of the moment. You want to believe that the owners are guided not only by revenue figures but also the greater good of the game."
The NFL is an incredibly robust enterprise, one that generates $9 billion a year in revenues. It probably would survive the potentially huge damages those class-action lawsuits could bring. But say the league did have to pay a staggering amount in damages. Would high schools face prohibitive insurance premiums to keep football programs going? What about Pop Warner football? Those NFL lawsuits have a devastating ripple effect on football as we now know it.
Already, the league has made several rules changes to protect players, and more are in the offing, angering purists who say the sport has already been tweaked and twisted too much.
"We don't want to take physical contact out of the game," Goodell said in his Harvard speech. "But we must ensure that players follow rules designed to reduce the risk of injury."
The health and safety of players is but one of many challenges the league is facing. Eighteen months after their labor fight was resolved, a palpable tension remains between the NFL and NFL Players Assn. The sides have yet to agree on how to test for illicit use of human growth hormone, even though there are strong suspicions some players are using it.
"It's a two-way street, and that's why the NFL and NFLPA need to work together," said Jed York, chief executive of the 49ers. "Because if you don't work together on those things, then you just have a fight that doesn't resolve anything.
"There has to be an honest conversation — not a negotiation — but an honest conversation of, is there HGH in the NFL? If there is, let's make sure that guys aren't putting themselves at risk. We need to sit down and solve this problem. We need to make sure it's a level playing field for everybody. We're doing that with steroids, with narcotics and things like that. We need to address the next level of performance-enhancing drugs."