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The dark side of the NFL – part one

Tom Hunt
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  • Sport
  • Last updated: Tuesday, 11 December 2012 at 4:53 pm
Jovan Belcher 300x225 The dark side of the NFL – part one

Jovan Belcher committed suicide

David Walsh recently won Journalist of the Year and Sports Journalist of the Year for his “investigation into doping by Lance Armstrong” (Sunday Times). The victory caps a fantastic year for British sport but also highlights the ability, of the recently much maligned British press, to tackle the difficult issues.

The last week in the NFL has been terrible but not because of the product produced on the pitch. On Saturday 1st December, Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, murdered his girlfriend and then shot himself at Candlestick Park having just spoken to his Head Coach and General Manager. Earlier in the week the Arizona Cardinals fined their star defensive player Darnell Docket, $200,000 for “conduct detrimental to the team.” In addition, Terrell Suggs, the Baltimore Ravens linebacker, was ordered by a court this week to hand over several fire-arms in relation to an ongoing domestic case. Candice Williams, the mother of his two children, filed a court order against him last month. Two years ago she withdrew a $70 million domestic assault lawsuit against the 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the year. Finally, on the 8th December, Josh Brent of the Dallas Cowboys crashed his car whilst allegedly intoxicated, an accident that killed his teammate Jerry Brown Jr.

A visit to NFL.com notifies viewers of the more recent incidents in small print but there is no reference to the murder suicide committed a week ago. The culture that the NFL and America has created surrounding sport and especially American Football means it is an untouchable establishment. Bob Costas, America’s premier sports broadcaster, used his NBC sports platform to urge people to take action and not turn a blind eye following Jovan Belcher’s actions. Many vilified his comments, for example, Sean Newell in Deadspin called his editorial “so laughably out of touch it almost has to be satire.” And speaking of satire, former presidential candidate Herman Cain tweeted: “You tune in for a football game and end up listening to Bob Costas spewing sanctimonious dreck.”

According to Vice President of Player Engagement for the NFL, Troy Vincent, rookies are given the “most comprehensive employee orientation in the world.” The rookie symposium takes place each year and is a “program designed to give incoming players detailed information about transitioning from college to the professional level.” (nflplayerengagement.com) The 2012 meeting represented an overhauled format, with former and current NFL players talking about the pitfalls of the industry. Getting peers to warn impressionable young stars is a step but more needs to be done by the League and the journalists surrounding it, to highlight issues and debate ways to change the culture.

An array of issues could be highlighted in conjunction to the devastating actions of NFL players. For instance, nine NFL or former-NFL players have died in 2012 in relation to gunshots, but the problem with gun laws is a very contentious National issue, not solely an NFL one. In addition, Boston University researchers published a study that found, in the words of a Reuters report, “Years of hits to the head in football or other contact sports lead to a distinct pattern of brain damage that begins with an athlete having trouble focusing and can eventually progress to aggression and dementia.” It is apparently not big hits to the head that bring on the condition, called chronic traumatic encephalopathy, but a diet of small blows. Violent clashes are championed in the NFL as they are in boxing, but the helmet is a weapon and only in recent years has the NFL taken action to curb increased concussions and helmet-to-helmet hits.  Whilst these issues hold tremendous weight it is the culture embedded in the earliest grass roots of American football that lead to young adults who are unable to take responsibility for their actions.

A player can be cut from a team at any moment, as in the NFL the owners and General Managers hold the power. It is the complete opposite of the English Premier League where Winston Bogarde is a famous example. He only appeared eleven times during his four-year contract, reportedly earning £40,000 a week during this period. In the NFL clubs rarely ever honour the huge contracts that are dealt to the players. According to NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith “the fundamental principle of our business model necessarily includes that every player only plays for an average of 3.2 years.”

In such a cut throat environment it is no wonder that Detroit Lions defensive end, Willie Young, wanted to have his middle finger amputated following an injury three weeks ago to enable him to jump back into action. He was heralded on NFL.com as being a shining example of a tough man playing a tough game. Any profession where behavior like that is encouraged has problems, the Lions defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham said, “I told him that (Hall of Fame safety) Ronnie Lott cut his (finger) off, so cut to it off.”

The Kansas City Chiefs were given the all clear by the NFL to play the Carolina Panthers less than 24-hours after the death of Belcher at that very stadium. Should the NFL not do more to protect the very people who breed its success or due to players being replaceable are they not important? It seems that very few are willing to challenge the establishment or should the blame rest solely at the feet of players who aren’t able to take responsibility for their actions? “In (Josh) Brent and (Jerry) Brown, just like Jovan Belcher’s murder-suicide a week ago, you have young players living their dreams, deluded by youth into believing that they are untouchable and immortal. Now of the three, two are dead and one will likely spend the remainder of his prime years in jail.” (Matthew De George, delcotimes.com)

The dark side of the NFL – part two will focus on the continued negligence with regard to drugs testing. The NFL’s drug policy is too secretive and it is flawed. The establishment continues to care more about ‘brand reputation’ then uncovering cheats.

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  • AndyC

    Interesting article. Would have more gravitas if you correctly referred to the Chiefs’ stadium as Arrowhead Stadium and not Candlestick Park, which is the (very well known) San Francisco 49ers stadium. If you’re going to do a hatchet job on the NFL at least show some basic knowledge of the sport.


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