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Damage to the NFL brand

Melvin B. Miller | 2/26/2014, 10:56 a.m.
“I thought it was hard to learn an end-zone dance. Now we gotta learn how to trash talk in the locker room.” Photo by Dan Drew

Every Sunday during the fall, millions of Americans settle in before their television sets to watch their favorite teams play football. Older African Americans can remember when black athletes were rare participants in the games, but times have changed. In the 2011 season, 70 percent of the players in the NFL were black, while blacks are only 13.1 percent of the nation’s total population. However, the conflict between Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins made it appear that the race issue is still unsettled.

Personnel decisions are made on the skill requirements needed for the team to win. Even the racial resistance to black quarterbacks has diminished. The 32 NFL teams had 97 quarterbacks on their rosters in 2011, and 20 of them were black. That still amounts to 20.6 percent of the total. Not too many years ago black quarterbacks were never drafted. Ardent fans of NFL teams care less today about racial diversity or discrimination than about a string of victories.

The eruption of the racial rift on the Miami Dolphins team caught football fans by surprise. People had come to believe that petty racial harassment was from a by-gone era. When the racial hazing became severe enough to induce Martin, a black lineman, to leave the team, the matter attracted national attention.

The fans think of football as fun and games, but the NFL is a very profitable business, with annual revenues of about $10 billion. Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, understood the seriousness of Martin’s decision to leave the team on last Nov. 13. He engaged the services of Ted Wells, a distinguished Washington, D.C. lawyer, to investigate the matter and prepare a report.

Martin’s conflict with his white teammate, Incognito, is not the only matter tarnishing the brand of the NFL. Former players and their families have sued to recover damages for the consequences of head injuries. They assert that the NFL hid the lasting danger of head injuries. The suit was settled for only $765 million, just 7.65 percent of one year’s NFL revenue.

That matter is not yet fully resolved. Boston University’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy continues to research the connection between concussions and dementia. Progress is controlled by the fact that an absolute diagnosis can be made only on a pathological examination of the brain after death.

Efforts are also underway to develop helmets that provide greater protection. But some people now suggest that football is inherently too violent. Almost 2,000 years ago the Romans built the Colosseum so citizens of Rome could see gladiators fight to the death. There does seem to be a genetic human proclivity to be titillated by violent encounters. The U.S. video game revenues for 2013 are predicted to be $12.97 billion, and most financially successful games involve depictions of violence.

According to reviews of Ted Wells’ report, the vulgarity and racial epithets directed at Martin are so unacceptable that sponsor companies should not be permitted by the public to be involved in such an enterprise. The NFL receives $1 billion of its revenue from sponsors. The commissioner’s office must require the teams to clean up the locker room badinage.

Blacks expect bad behavior from low class whites, but it is truly sad and discouraging for John Jerry and Mike Pouncey, two black football players, to join in the racist attacks against Martin, as stated in the report. Both Jerry and Pouncey earn more than $1.2 million per year. Despite their success as athletes, they have decided to become the role models for bullies who impede the academic progress of young boys in public school. Also, they disrespect the sacrifices of their elders who endured bigotry in order to create the opportunities that they now enjoy. Their conduct is neither manly nor acceptable. Together with Incognito, their fellow antagonist, they give football a bad name.