When top ESPN executives gather to discuss the upcoming season, how do they address what might delicately be called “The Football Problem”? I have no idea, of course. But I’m envisioning something like this:
-- OK, everyone. I think you all know why we’re here. Just want to make sure everyone’s on the same page, and to address any concerns you might have. Obviously we all love football. That goes without saying. And we don’t need to waste any time talking about its importance to our company.
-- Right. Imagine Alcoa without aluminum. Bravo without “Real Housewives.” You get the idea.
-- But we don’t like head injuries.
-- Thank you for mentioning that. In fact, before we go any further, can I just say, for the record, let me just state that this network is against chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
[CROSSTALK] Of course. Absolutely.
-- Should we issue a statement on that?
-- Sure. But let’s also keep in mind that any link between football and head injuries is, well, is there any link? Circumstantial at best, I’d say. I mean what are we talking about? A handful of unstable ex-players who died as a result of self-harm?
-- What about the lawsuit? The one with thousands of ex-players as plaintiffs?
-- The NFL has assured us that their primary concern has always been to [SOUND OF PAPERS BEING SHUFFLED] “better protect players” and to [PAUSE, MORE SHUFFLING OF PAPERS] “advance the science and medical understanding of the management and treatment of concussions.”
-- They’ve done a lot of research. Good organization.
-- Do we need to be worried about Congress weighing in?
-- [LAUGHTER] Good luck with that! Last I checked, Congress couldn’t even get it together to ban assault weapons in a country where lunatics shoot congresspeople! Not gonna happen.
-- What about the game’s image? Even if the lawsuit goes nowhere …
-- Again, I wouldn’t worry. Last year -- and I don’t need to remind you fellas that this was after the lockout that was supposed to be so damaging to fan loyalty -- the NFL had its second-highest viewership average in more than 20 years. What do you think more Americans are going to be watching on the night of Sept. 5: a bunch of politicians talking about Obamacare at the Democratic convention or Eli throwing for 300 against the Cowboys?
-- [AMBIENT NOISES OF AGREEMENT.]
-- Well, this is all great to hear. I was getting a little worried, but it seems like football’s going to be OK.
-- Let’s not get carried away! The game is doomed. Haven’t you seen our own coverage of this concussion stuff?
-- He’s right. I mean, do you want your 8-year-old son being asked to check a box labeled “brain donor” when he signs up for Pop Warner?
-- Is there any way to get out in front of this thing?
-- We could encourage the NFL to pay for some PSAs against football. It worked for the tobacco industry. Maybe the guy who played Tim Riggins telling kids that playing football isn’t “cool”?
-- What if we show the public how dangerous other sports are?
-- Not a bad idea. Look at golf. How do you think Adam Scott’s head is doing after blowing that four-stroke lead at the British Open?
-- I think we also need more goodwill ambassadors, former players who will defend the game.
-- Yes. Merril Hoge is a perfect example. The guy took his lumps, spent a couple of days in intensive care, dealt with some severe memory loss, had to learn how to read again. But he appreciates everything the game has done for him.
-- Other possibilities: I’m hearing great things about those helmets with the air bags. A player gets hit and their whole upper body is surrounded by a huge air pocket before they hit the ground.
-- Great visuals there. What else?
-- Well, the Jaguars are going to start playing some home games in the U.K. That seems promising. Once those soccer hooligans get a taste of a real “tackle,” football could really take off there.
-- Right, and over there this whole head-injury controversy hasn’t really gotten traction.
-- Weren’t we going to try to avoid that word?
-- Speaking of which, let’s go over some of the other phrases we’re trying to keep off the air.
-- Sure. Well, “tackle” sounds a little rough. We prefer “wrap ‘em up.” Also, best to avoid “hit.” And obviously “crush.” Always good to say “fundamentally sound” whenever possible. And instead of, “He doesn’t seem to be getting up,” let’s try: “He’s still catching his breath.”
-- Much better. So much of this is in the words, really. And wasn’t there one last idea?
-- Well, the alternative programming we were discussing. Ballroom dancing is something we’re very excited about.
-- Is it full contact?
-- No, but people do fall. Test audiences love it.
[After this column was published, ESPN issued the following response: “For many years ESPN has been a leader in reporting on head trauma/concussions in football with thorough and continuing coverage on “Outside the Lines,” ESPN.com and in ESPN The Magazine. We remain committed to enterprise journalism and to covering this important topic.”]
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A contributor to the New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” “The Challenge,” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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