The NFL Faces A Severe Crisis With Concussion And Bullying Scandals

The NFL has suffered significant setbacks this season from scandals concerning concussions and institutional bullying.

NFL scandal Jonathan Martin Richie Incognito bullying

The NFL's newest scandal involves former Miami Dolphins lineman Jonathan Martin, center, claiming to be a victim of systemic bullying by veteran Richie Incognito, second from left. (Image Source: AP/Bill Feig)

The National Football League has been whacked from its somewhat-invincible status as the leading sports league in America in 2013 due to problems off the field.  In the first half of the 2013 season, the news kept building of problems dating to the high rate of concussions being inflicted on football players, and the NFL's inability to deal with the issue, let alone compensate players whose mental health has deteriorated after their careers have ended.  Now, another scandal has erupted in the form of pro player Jonathan Martin leaving his team, the Miami Dolphins, after repeated bullying by veteran Richie Incognito.  It is big enough that league commissioner Roger Goodell has named an attorney to the case.  While it is unlikely that the NFL will suffer greatly from these scandals, the image of the league has the high standard of American sports has been never the less tarnished.

First, the matter of concussions.  Increasing evidence over the last decade has suggested that concussions from tackles and other hits in football cause a great deal of brain damage to football players, resulting in a condition called chronic traumatic encepholaty (CTE), previously known as dementia pugilistica due to its association with boxing.  The suicide of NFL legend Junior Seau in 2012, along with the early deaths of other former players, have been specifically blamed on CTE.  During the first half of the 2013 season, writers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru published "League of Denial," which accused the NFL of covering up the concussion problem, and PBS' Frontline made a companion documentary to the book.  The league is coming under increasing fire, and has been seeking to settle matters out of court.  However, people suspect the NFL, and professional American football as a whole, will not last another decade in its current state.

Now, last weekend's revelations of bullying seem plausible.  Jonathan Martin, former lineman for the Dolphins, accused Incognito of bullying after leaving threatening and racist voice messages, and forcing the rookie to pay for extravagant meals and player trips.  Incognito, for his part, has been denying the accusations, while the Dolphins have suspended him to investigate the matter.  However, as players begin to blame Martin for his problems, revelations surrounding the bullying indicate that not only did coaches on the Dolphins know about the bullying, but may have also caused it by pushing Incognito to "toughen up" Martin.  This, despite Martin passing his psychological evaluation earlier in  2013 before the NFL draft.

The situation does not look good for the NFL.  For many years, the NFL has coasted on avoiding league-wide scandals, while the NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball had been hit with labor disputes and widespread allegations of cheating, and presented itself as the most prestigious league in American professional sports.  Even bad boy characters were relatively isolated from the league's image.  While the NFL suffered a setback with the referee strike in the 2012 season, which resulted in replacement refs making very questionable calls, the situation was thought to be minor.  If this season is of any indication, the league is going to have a troubling time ahead.

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