This Super Bowl week has offered a jarring juxtaposition: The grim reality of professional football overwhelmed by the celebration of it, the agonized cry barely heard for all of the cheering.
America on Sunday celebrates the people’s national holiday with coast-to-coast watch parties as the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos meet in golden Super Bowl 50. The nation’s No. 1 sport preens on its greatest stage, and the game figures to draw the biggest audience in United States television history.
Quietly, lost in the bombastic buildup, an autopsy revealed that a former Super Bowl hero and NFL icon, Kenny “The Snake” Stabler, suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) as he died, the degenerative brain disease increasingly seen as the residue of the physical pounding inherent to a football life.
Also last week, Earl Morrall’s family told The New York Times that the quarterback so integral in the Dolphins’ 1972 Perfect Season also had CTE when he died. Such news has ceased to be a surprise. Boston University has detected CTE in 96 percent of the former players it has studied.
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One wonders how many visiting fans partying this week in and around “Super Bowl City,” San Francisco to Santa Clara, stopped to notice the movie called Concussion playing in local theaters?
Maybe the greatest Super Bowl hero of all, Joe Montana, who will take part in Sunday’s pregame coin toss, revealed in an interview this week, “I can’t really run or do much,” after a career that left him with elbows, knees, hands and a neck that don’t work quite right. One knee won’t straighten despite five surgeries.
I think back to December, in a Diplomat Hotel ballroom, at a Miami Dolphins gala celebrating the franchise’s 50th anniversary. The toll of football was on stark display. Bill Stanfill moving gingerly with a pronounced limp. Bob Baumhower’s gnarled hands seeming smaller than they should.
The NFL has other problems on its plate, such as too many players being arrested for things such as domestic violence, an issue that exploded with the Ray Rice case that threatened to bring down commissioner Roger Goodell for his bungled handling of it.
But it is the fundamental knowledge that football slowly kills you, and almost always leaves you impaired in some way, that undercuts everything and, many suggest, threatens the very future of the sport.
We imagine parents aware of CTE debating whether to discourage or prevent their sons from playing football. We know if that happens enough, the caliber of NFL quality could suffer over time as, perhaps, athletes who might have been future football Hall of Famers are diverted to other sports or (heaven forbid!) nonathletic pursuits.
The thing is, just as an NFL star in his 20s who feels bulletproof is not programmed to fret over the limp or loss of memory he might have someday, football fans are not programmed to be overly concerned with the risks that face players. Fans are more apt to think that riches and fame are a fair trade for that risk.
The NFL is impervious, and the perfect metaphor is a golden anniversary Super Bowl going on like a Mardi Gras celebration even as a movie called Concussion trumpets the league’s medical crisis.
The film rides on the NFL like a small bird unnoticed on the back of a rhinoceros.
It’s almost as if we still haven’t realized:
Nothing stops King Sport.
All manner of controversies bounce off the impenetrable shield.
Super Bowl week scandals alone have included Len Dawson interrogated for gambling, Stanley Wilson in a cocaine bathtub, Eugene Robinson’s prostitute, Ray Lewis implicated in a double murder, Barret Robbins going AWOL in Mexico, Spygate and Deflategate.
Tarnish always has been on the periphery of the NFL.
Anybody recall that Packers star running back Paul Hornung and Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras were suspended for the entire 1963 season for gambling? It wasn’t less a scandal just because ESPN wasn’t around to chew it over 24/7.
Michael Vick’s fighting dogs. The Saints’ Bountygate and Dolphins’ Bullygate. Franchises relocating. Strikes and lockouts. PEDs.
All of it and so much more have bounced off the shield and faded to a blip on the time line, and I’d bet even the overarching issue of concussions will, too, as the league pays more attention, including in-game diagnoses and rules curbing over-the-top violence.
It’s reasonable to think all of the image-sullying issues dogging the NFL — from player arrests to health concerns — would have weakened the brand and damaged popularity. Except there is little evidence; in fact, the opposite is true.
The NFL, by most measures, is more popular than ever.
The previous five Super Bowls in a row all have topped a national TV rating of 46, a feat last seen in the 1981-85 seasons. Last year’s 47.5 rating for Patriots-Seahawks was the highest in 30 years.
The money the NFL and its teams collect from TV, merchandise and advertising set records this season. Cost of a 30-second Super Bowl commercial on Sunday reached a record $5 million. Participation in fantasy football was at an all-time high. It is projected a record $4.2 billion will be bet on the Panthers or Broncos.
We are addicted to football, that’s why. There is nothing else like it, and we cannot look away. The Rice video outraged us and the news on CTE injuries alarms us, but still we watch, more than ever.
It’s ironic, in a way.
So much negative stuff has become part of the NFL’s reality, but the best way to escape it is when the ball kicks off, the game sweeps you away and the cheering starts.