The NFL pressured ESPN out of broadcasting and otherwise being associated with an investigative report in partnership with Frontline, according to some excellent reporting by James Andrew Miller of the New York Times (emphasis mine):
“Last week, several high-ranking officials convened a lunch meeting at Patroon, near the league’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters, according to the two people, who requested anonymity because they were prohibited by their superiors from discussing the matter publicly. It was a table for four: Roger Goodell, commissioner of the N.F.L.; Steve Bornstein, president of the NFL Network; ESPN’s president, John Skipper; and John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for production.
At the combative meeting, the people said, league officials conveyed their displeasure with the direction of the documentary, which is expected to describe a narrative that has been captured in various news reports over the past decade: the league turning a blind eye to evidence that players were sustaining brain trauma on the field that could lead to profound, long-term cognitive disability.”
The NFL’s concussion problem is not new, and neither is good investigative reporting on it (see Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent 2009 article on concussions in the NFL in the New Yorker), but the status quo of players spending a season bashing into each other and having cognitive issues and even more serious problems like dementia remains the status quo. In order for this to change, we need to stop paying the NFL for the product it is putting out (more on that below).
The NFL has said many of the right things on this topic. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell generally goes with the line that they keep their players informed about the best research available:
"As we learn more and more, we want to give players the best medical advice. This is a chance for us to expand that and bring more people into the circle to make sure we're making the best decisions for our players in the long term," said Goodell in 2009. The New York Times reports that this remains the NFL’s line in a current lawsuit brought by 4,000 players and players’ wives contending that the NFL concealed information on medical issues of players.
Regardless, it’s clear that players are incentivized by playing time and paychecks to play as hard and fast as possible, because if they don’t they will just get trampled by the guy on the other side of the line. As long as money keeps rolling into the NFL, the NFL won’t want to change.
So what do we do? I would suggest a boycott, but football is simply too popular and entertaining for that to work. Instead:
1. Don’t buy NFL Sunday Ticket. NFL Sunday Ticket is football’s online streaming service that allows you to watch out of market games online. Instead, find a friend who has it and get their login information.
2. Want to spend your Sunday watching football? Great! I bet some buddies of yours have the same plan. Invite them over or invite yourself over to their place. Everyone has a better time, and the NFL thinks that only one household is watching.
3. When possible, don’t buy tickets to NFL games directly. Use a resale website. Same goes for NFL merchandise: see if you can divert your dollars to something other than the NFL.
I don’t think Roger Goodell and everyone else pulling the strings of professional football are evil. I do think that until people stop paying them to produce football games in their current form, that football won’t change. Fortunately, in our super-connected world, you can enjoy football while protesting it too.