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A Happy Ending For NFL’s Annus Horribilis

an Eagles fan celebrates in the foreground as confetti falls on the field after the 2018 Super Bowl
photo by Lorie Shaull

Great comebacks are as common in the National Football League as victories by the New England Patriots, but can one of the league’s best Super Bowls spark a recovery from one of its worst years?

Anyone who follows the pro game will tell you it is never wise to bet against Tom Brady, yet even the Patriots’ age-defying quarterback could not wrest victory from the talons of the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday night. As we say in the financial markets, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

Brady, who is arguably the best NFL quarterback in history, was outdueled on Sunday by Nick Foles, a reserve who was pressed into service in December after Philadelphia’s star starter, Carson Wentz, suffered a season-ending injury. The Eagles led for most of the game before Brady orchestrated one of his trademark second-half comebacks to take a 33-32 advantage in the fourth quarter. But Philadelphia retook the lead, forced Brady to fumble on a sack, added a field goal while running most of the remaining time off the clock, and then thwarted Brady’s last-minute drive.

There was still more drama off the field, although it was mainly in the form of what did not happen. Nobody took a knee during the National Anthem. In more than four hours of viewing the television broadcast, I never heard anyone even mention President Donald Trump or idled quarterback Colin Kaepernick. There were no middle fingers or wardrobe failures during Justin Timberlake’s halftime performance. The lights never once flickered at the sparkling U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, which was not the case five years ago in New Orleans.

I could almost hear the NFL owners’ sigh of relief. But it may have been premature.

Football still draws some of the biggest audiences on television, despite the fact that ratings have slipped recently. The sport’s success stems in part from the fact that it may be the only place in American society where the hip-hop crowd and the NASCAR crowd routinely come together and root for the same outcome. The seams of that social fabric were pulled apart at the start of this season when Trump called on owners to discipline players who chose to take a knee during the playing of the national anthem, as Kaepernick had last year in protest of police treatment of minorities.

Trump’s criticism prompted an immediate backlash from players across the league, who made a point of standing (or kneeling) together. In public, they were supported by many of the owners; in private, they were almost surely told to tone it down, as the league’s television ratings continued a multiyear slide amid the political rancor.

On Sunday, everyone on the field stood for the anthem at the Super Bowl. So was the matter of Kaepernick and his protest put to rest? Hardly. The now-unemployed player has launched an arbitration proceeding against the league, claiming he is being blackballed for his political stance and not his team’s 1-10 record in games he started for the San Francisco 49ers in 2016.

As I watched Sunday’s telecast, I could not help noticing just how Caucasian it seemed, and not just because U.S. Bank Stadium was built to resemble a Viking ship in honor of Minnesota’s Norse heritage and Vikings NFL franchise. I like Justin Timberlake just fine, but the hottest acts in music these days are in genres where African-Americans dominate. Apart from Timberlake’s tribute to Prince and actor Leslie Odom Jr.’s flawless performance of “America the Beautiful,” black faces were notably absent from the Super Bowl stage. I doubt this is what the NFL wanted, but given the lingering bitterness over Kaepernick and the protest he inspired, it was likely inevitable. Rapper Cardi B said as much when she declared that she would not perform at the big game until Kaepernick gets back on the field (not that she has been asked, as far as I know). Any other prominent black artist would surely have faced a fan backlash by taking the stage, even if they had wanted to capitalize on what is still the biggest television event of the year.

Besides the politicization of the sport, which was guaranteed to alienate some part of its broad audience, the NFL is contending with the growing realization that football is dangerous to the long-term health of its players. Many American parents just don’t want their kids playing football anymore. Those who were watching Sunday night got a graphic reminder of why.

The game was barely underway when the Patriots’ excellent receiver Brandin Cooks was knocked out after a tackle that involved a legal helmet-to-helmet hit. The league put out a statement during the game saying Cooks had suffered a “head injury” and would not return.

That was a misleading euphemism. Short of a bleeding wound or a fractured skull, neither of which were in evidence, Cooks did not suffer a head injury. His head was fine; what was inside was not. A concussion, which is the diagnosis Cooks would most likely have received, is a brain injury. Brain injuries can be expected when very large and very fast people collide at the top of their bodies. It is, as evidenced by the fact that no penalty was called, part of the sport. And it is why cognizant parents are steering their children elsewhere. As for the rest of us, it is still gruesomely unpleasant to watch this happen to somebody else’s son. This cognitive dissonance – seeing something so bad happen during a game that, from a fan perspective, was so good – is an existential threat to the football business as we know it today. Look at boxing to understand where this can lead.

The NFL faces a host of other problems, too. Its very rules are unclear both on and off the field. What is a “completed catch?” Sunday’s announcers could not tell us. What is the standard of proof required to punish a player for a reported incident of domestic violence or other off-field misconduct? What punishments are commensurate with what offenses? Under the leadership (if that is the right word) of Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL is all over the map on these and other basic questions about its affairs. Yet the owners recently renewed Goodell’s contract for five years.

As the broadcast announcers would say, there is still a lot of football to be played. In this country we divide ourselves into tribes who don’t watch the same news, attend the same movies, listen to the same music or follow the same social media personalities. But on one night every winter, more than 100 million people of every political and social stripe pause for three or four hours to share an experience that, however weirdly, reminds us how much we have in common, even though most of us have never put on a helmet and shoulder pads.

It has never been wise to bet against Tom Brady, or against the game he plays. The NFL has compiled a great record in the business of sport. Brady’s final pass fell to the ground on Sunday, but football’s future is still up in the air.

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