no reason at all: the curious spectre of minor league football


ESPN FOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALLFOOTBALL blogger Kevin Seifert published a piece online yesterday ostensibly reporting the growing support from various corners of the National Football League’s ranks for a developmental league, or as he put it, minor league football. If we’re being honest, both Seifert and his employer are in essence cheerleading for it, and this was merely the opportunity to do so publicly. Not only is this blatantly craven and cynical, it is another example of professional football’s (and its symbiont, sports journalism’s) hypocrisy with regard to an emphasis on player safety; an increasingly barbaric, morally flexible sport flexing its muscle in its gilded age.

A proposed and league-endorsed 18-game season was taken off the table during the lockout-inducing collective bargaining negotiations of 2011, with the Players Association citing player safety as a key factor in its opposition. Seifert himself reported the expansion of playoff football as ‘inevitable’ in a post just weeks ago, on May 19. Preseason training camps have been reinvented, particularly after the death of Minnesota Viking Korey Stringer, succumbing to heat stroke at 27 years of age (and 335 pounds) back in 2000. ESPN distanced itself from the partnership it had struck with PBS’ Frontline to develop the work which resulted in League of Denial, a PBS documentary and subsequent book of the same name both released in 2013.

(The authors of the book, and key contributors to the documentary, are Mark Fainaru-Wada and his brother, Steve [sans Wada.] The former partnered with Lance Williams to write Game of Shadows, which not only precipitated the collapse of Barry Bonds’ legacy, but got him hired by ESPN in the first place. So, when it comes to taking down one of baseball’s greatest players, the network encourages and promotes, ahem, hard-hitting investigative journalism. But when it comes to the league that commands the largest draw of advertising dollars and a gluttonous amount of airtime, it leaves its journalists in the no man’s land of being sports journalists working amidst the ponytails, drum circles and patchouli stink of public television.)

Beyond the shield, youth and prep football are both facing the reality of insurance either deciding against underwriting their operations or raising rates to unsustainable levels, and parents are rightly concerned for the health and wellbeing of their kids. Should either of the aforementioned drive down supply, the juggernaut of college football will have to confront the reality faced right now by its wellsprings. The NFL has the luxury of over $20B in total franchise value, with ownership worth billions more.

It doesn’t take particularly astute reasoning skills to see why the NFL wants minor league football: it wants to be Major League Baseball cross-pollinated with the WWE’s NXT, greater control over the younger development of its players, more material to translate into more coverage, more programming, more advertising revenue and a lucrative contingency plan for if and when the traditional channels of talent dry up.

Isn’t it odd that a league that settled a lawsuit at no small cost with a host of former players, has a pending lawsuit from more former players regarding allegations of illegal distribution of painkillers in locker rooms, and will at some point be faced with the reality of an on-field, in-game death, not only claims to be concerned about the operational and reputational risks surrounding many 300 pound men running into each other dozens of times a day, and wants to increase its exposure to said risks by creating an in-house developmental league with hundreds more young men running into each other dozens of times a day?

The only reason is arrogance, which is to say there is no reason to it at all. The NFL is the undisputed king of American pro sports right now, everyone else is playing for second. Here, in Packer-crazy Wisconsin, people will stop everything at 6.25 every night  in May to hear breathless reporting on Green Bay’s newest urinal cake provider. To care about players having their heads turned into scrambled brains is dirty hippie talk, and even the otherwise anti-capitalist, anti-big business dirty hippies around here seem to love the Pack! (And no, I’m not one of them. I watch football with the weight of my conscience bearing down on me, but I prefer college to the statistically more predictable and thus statistically more boring NFL. If you’ve read around here or known me for any length of time, you know I’m a baseball guy more than anything.)

Minor league football benefits no one except the league which operates it, the media companies who will follow it and the audiences so inoculated against the realities of long-term physical trauma that they don’t realize they’re cheering on young [and I might add predominantly black] men to a lifetime of chronic pain, potential mental illness and a very real reduction in their later quality of life.

Who cares? Get that extra two yards for the first down! And get me another beer while you’re up!

Gilded ages always come to an end. For Israel, for Rome, for America they did and, for the NFL, it will. The results are never pretty.

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