Bernstein: NFL In Conflict With Itself

Rarely is something so immensely popular so uncomfortable.

All eyes are on the NFL right now, both here in Chicago and across the country.  The television colossus dominates the screens in our homes, on our work-desks, and in our hands this time of year, the games and storylines inescapable.

(a pedestrian game between the cowtowns of Nashville and Jacksonville out-rated an ALCS matchup of the New York and Dallas markets Monday night.  Need I say more?)

Yet our nation’s love affair with the NFL has never felt more awkward, nor has a thinking fan dealt with such cognitive dissonance regarding what we enjoy and why.  This season, there are several factors contributing to these gnawing insecurities.

First is concussion awareness and the increasing attention paid to the dangers endemic to the game.  Yes — in our hearts we probably have known all along that slamming your head into things is bad for you, but now we know more about how bad it is.  Once a fan is aware of what players are really doing to each other’s brains, it takes real intellectual effort to compartmentalize that understanding while enjoying games or celebrating wins.  It can be reconciled, but it takes work to “unsee” something for several hours every weekend.

The league itself seems so concerned about managing its violence that it just announced that players can be suspended for certain, legal (!) hits.  The warnings of a slippery slope should be heeded.

Indeed, it is possible an inevitable process has begun:  the game as we know it will change as parents (then, subsequently, high schools and colleges) will recalibrate the risk/reward balance of football.  Writer Malcom Gladwell, who has compared football to human dogfighting, speculates that football will soon be like the Army.  He said “It’ll be one of those things that middle class parents don’t want their kids doing.”

Fears are combined in this aspect.  Players are scared about their health and long-term well-being.  Organizers at all levels are concerned about liability.  Some fans are worried that the game that they so love will be taken from them, and others wrestle with how to continue loving it as it is.

Secondly, labor strife looms over everything.  The union rattles the saber of decertification and antitrust litigation while the owners leak news of their successful financial preparations for a lockout.  Opposing teams point across the field in a show of pregame solidarity, keeping the issue top-of-mind for fans just moments before the ball is kicked.  Our heads spin with each mention of collective bargaining.

We remember 1987.  We don’t want to think about it.

Even if we are able to push out of our minds the preceding concerns, we arrive at the third factor:  the inability to assess absolute quality of our NFL teams.  Is a team good because it wins, or does it win because it is good?  This question has never been tougher to answer, even as the discussion and analysis of every action is extensive and intense to the point of ridiculousness.

Two camps have formed:  one bellows “You’re as good as your record says you are!” while the other — the aesthetes — needs more satisfaction than just relative success.  Not much separates teams in the standings or on the scoreboards, as it seems that unknown players step in for stars each week with less and less dropoff in play.

Parity was the long-range goal of the Pete Rozelle business model.  It makes for huge profits, but along with it comes an odd, disconnected feeling at times for fans.

Still, the NFL has weathered difficulty in the past, as its existence in the American DNA has allowed it to adapt and thunder forward.  Do not mistake any of this as doomsaying — it would be easy to draw hyperbolic conclusions, and I am not.

All industries — even wildly successful ones — face inflection points, and I sense that one approaches for this league, with ramifications that affect the game down to the Pop Warner level.  The NFL, now, is confronting some instability inside the helmets, across the negotiating table and in the minds of consumers.

Never, for me at least, has being a fan felt so heavy.

More from Dan Bernstein
  • foxtown


    I listened to the show podcast from yesterday and you were unsure about the “public outcry” against violent hits in the NFL. I don’t think this is a reaction to any public outcry. I won’t claim this idea as my own but I believe their actions are a posturing move for the endorsement of an 18 game season. There is a better chance of adding 2 games if the NFL can prove that they can reduce injuries.


    I think the NFL is trying to have its cake and eat it too. It’s one thing for the NFL to crackdown on all the vicious hits and threaten fines & suspensions for hits that appear to be very, very legal. I think it’s another for the league to even consider an 18-game regular season with the collective bargaining agreement about to expire and a lockout that remains a very real possibility. With Terry & Dan’s signature segment coming up at 5p this afternoon, who is the NFL crappin’?

  • bronzo

    I think the NFL (Roger Goodell) are overplaying their hand. Yes footbal is dangerous…evrybody is well aware of that. Injuries are an occupatiional hazard. If either side is serious about striking in this economic enviornment…GOOD LUCK!! You want to see public opinion turn against you …


    I’ve watched NFL football for decades, and bone-jarring hits have been synonymous with the game for as long as I live. While many players are bent out of shape over the league’s plan to fine and/or suspend players who commit vicious hits, the problems go deeper than that. What about all the concussions that have knocked out the Bears’ Jay Cutler, Eagles’ Kevin Kolb & the Jaguars’ David Garrard this season? Why is the NFL still pondering an 18-game regular season in the next collective bargaining agreement? I don’t get it…

  • AT3374

    You have to be a speed typist to comment on this blog , lol

    Anyways the whole 18 game season is a joke , do we really need 18 games of the Lions , Jags and the Bills ?

    • buzzkill

      Do not forget the Panthers

  • meesohawnee

    snnnore…too NFL eeee eeeee .. Lets also mention how the MSM tends to jam thing down your throat so much you get tired of it and tune it out. Wonder if this “epidemic” has ever been the thought of in this cutting corners profit thirsty country that maybe the equipment is getting uh..? i dont know. just asking. I just dont understand why all of a sudden. Was it always just hush hush? Hey just think. one more change to this website and everyone will be gone. Brilliant.

  • Denver Smeghead

    So, Hendry is out putting additional spin on the Quade hiring by making it sound like they were never really interested in Girardi. Somebody slap him for treating us like we’re stupid. Slap Angelo and Lovie Smith while you’re at it, too.

    • AT3374

      Not only slap him but run a comb through his head

  • Larry


    Thank you for crystalizing my existential football angst for me. I grew up enjoying NFL football, but now I can’t watch it without feeling a little bit guilty about it.


    The NFL will suspend a player for masking agents (sort of)
    The NFL will suspend a player for steroids (sort of)
    The NFL will suspend a player for abusing pain killers (if they are caught by law enforcement).
    The NFL will look the other way, every time, when it comes to HGH.
    Bigger-than-humanly possible guys crashing into other guys is getting worse.
    This game is headed for doom-and-gloom.

  • Denny Crane

    I think they need to look into a softer outer shell on the helmet something that would allow the outer shell to absorb some of the impact.

  • tom

    You could always put a size and weight limit on the game. lol

  • tom

    Sorry, that should read height and weight limit

  • mil. mike's empty beer mug

    faster and more mass = more force during the collision. no way to protect your brain from the additional force. smaller players may be the long term solution to reducing concussions.

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