I was in a car accident Wednesday night and have been a bit discombobulated the past couple of days. I am a little sore, but everyone walked away, thankfully. My car, I am afraid, suffered a worse fate.
Of course, the sports discussion has featured wall-to-wall coverage of Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. Clearly, the story is still evolving. Whatever the facts of their particular relationship, I think the bigger issues being raised by this story are the interesting ones. As I said earlier this week, there is a cultural shift under way that is certainly bearing on this imbroglio. The old rules (or lack thereof) governing machismo-fueled, self-policing male spaces, including fraternities, the military barracks and locker rooms, are clearly under great pressure and scrutiny. That didn’t just happen this week. It’s been going on for many years. But norms about acceptable behavior continue to evolve. And the greater scrutiny that ubiquitous cameras, recording devices and other communication technology allow for is shining an especially unflattering light on social settings that appear particularly retrograde.
There are lots of Richie Incognitos out there who are still getting away with abusive and violent behavior, of course. But the oxymoronic notion of an “open secret” is becoming harder to sustain in some of these contexts (last year’s bountygate scandal is another example in this regard. The practice of providing players with extra incentives to injure opponents has been, we are led to understand, a widespread practice in the NFL. But seeing its particulars exposed last year was such an embarrassment that it really couldn’t any longer be tolerated. Or in any event, now had to become a real secret). For enterprises like the NFL, already especially image-conscious, the current climate means they need to be on high alert when the secrecy behind any of these open secrets becomes compromised.
A couple of months back, at the time of the league’s legal settlement with retired players, I said that the NFL was in the interesting position of both being more lucrative and popular than ever before, and in a more precarious position than ever before.
The league’s potential legal liability for football-related injuries has, certainly, been the number one reason it’s become so concerned with safety issues. But though I never really hear this discussed, I am convinced that the NFL’s increasing emphasis on safety and general conscientiousness also stems from the fact that it has a dramatically growing female fan base. The NFL has decided, as a result, that it can no longer market the sport as a testosterone-fueled rage fest. And it’s not just that more women are playing fantasy football, showing up to sports bars to watch games and buy team paraphernalia. It’s also that moms will play a central role in deciding whether future generations of kids play football at all.
The revelations about head trauma – and the new reports this week about Mark Duper and Tony Dorsett only add to the depressing and growing litany – are sure to be of the gravest concern to parents. But scandals like bountygate also aren’t a good selling point in this changing climate. And how many parents are wondering about pushing their kids to take football seriously when they see a big, talented, but thoughtful and apparently sensitive young man who appears to have been run off his team by a goon?
One coda for now. Thanks to my friend Jay for having flagged this story about John Moffitt. Moffitt is/was a third year offensive lineman for the Denver Broncos. This week, he announced that he is retiring from football. Moffitt is 27 years old, a former 3rd round pick and was a sometimes starter – though now a backup – in his two and a half year NFL career. He didn’t appear to be headed for stardom. But as USA Today reported, he was scheduled to make another $300,000 plus for the remainder of this season, and had a non-guaranteed contract for 2014 worth three quarters of a million dollars. In other words, he is potentially walking away from what the vast majority of Americans would regard as very serious money.
As people have said about Jonathan Martin, Moffitt appears to be a “different cat” among pro athletes. He says his world view has been shaped by the writings of the Dalai Lama and Noam Chomsky (the late Pat Tillman was also apparently an avid Chomsky reader). But the immediate reason for his decision to quit, he says, is that he thinks it’s not worth risking life and limb to play football. Though he’s never been diagnosed with a concussion, like every interior lineman, he’s absorbed repeated blows over the years. And he’s worried about what this might mean for the rest of his life and just doesn’t think the life and the lifestyle is worth it.
To be clear, I don’t expect John Moffitt or Jonathan Martin to presage a mass exodus from the NFL.
But what seems obvious and immutable now – including the popularity of America’s favorite sport – doesn’t necessarily tell us how things will be in a decade.