Here are some attributes of a toxic workplace:
- Autocratic management in a monopoly business.
- A culture of fear, bullying and pervasive insecurity.
- Profit at any price.
- Work that is unhealthy, dangerous and life-threatening.
- Low job security, and a constant threat of being laid off.
Is there a better example of all these characteristics than the National Football League — home to what it chillingly promotes as “America’s game”?
We’ve long exalted and mythologized football players as heroes, based on such virtues as toughness, courage, fortitude and grace under pressure. But we’ve also been willfully blind to the players’ limitations and pathologies — and even more so to the primitive culture that supports them. Put simply, a few wealthy men get richer on the backs and jangled brains of extraordinary inner-city athletes who have few career choices and insufficient capacity to assess the long-term costs of their choices.
Now, with the tsunami of revelations about domestic violence, locker room bullying and the high incidence of permanent brain injuries among players, the dark underside of the sport has become starkly visible. It's as ugly as it is undeniable.
“Violence is football’s winning formula,” writes Nate Jackson, a former N.F.L. player, in his harrowing book, “Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile.” “People often asked me how bad it hurt to get hit by those huge dudes. The truth is that it doesn’t hurt at all. The switch is on. I can’t feel a thing. My body is a machine and my emotions are dead. I’m not concerned about another man’s feelings. I don’t even have time for my own.”
Players suffer, in short, for our entertainment.
Football, and watching football, is less an expression of our highest possibilities than our basest instincts. Those of us who counted ourselves as fans for years — I was one — are fully complicit.
Listen to how the writer Steve Almond puts it in “Against Football, One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto,” a passionate and elegantly written book that finally overpowered any rationalization I could come up with to justify watching more football:
“The civilian and the fan participate in the same system. We offload the mortal burdens of combat, mostly to young men from the underclass, whom we send off to battle with hosannas and largely ignore when they return home disfigured in body or mind.” He goes on, “Are we really so spoiled as a nation, in 2014, that we can’t curb our appetite for an unnecessarily violent game that degrades our educational system, injures its practitioners and fattens a pack of gluttonous corporations?”
Roger Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner, earned $44 million last year to preside over the league, at no risk to his body or his brain. Not a single N.F.L. player earns anything close to that.
More than a million boys and men play football each year, and a high percentage of them will suffer injuries in the form of strains, sprains, lacerations, fractures, dislocations and brain trauma. The N.F.L., after years of tobacco industry-style willful misrepresentation and cover-up – for details read “League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions and the Battle for Truth” — now acknowledges that at least a third of all active players will experience some form of brain damage during their brief careers.
And just how brief is their time in the sun? The N.F.L. Players Association estimates the average career of an N.F.L. player is 3.3 years. The average running back survives just 2.57 seasons. And that is in the rare instance that all the work, sacrifice and risk gets a player to the N.F.L. The average high school player has a higher risk than a college or professional player of sustaining a concussion, but only a 6.5 percent chance of playing in college. A college player, in turn, has a 1.6 percent chance of becoming a professional football player.
As beautiful as it may to watch at times, football is first and foremost a violent profession. “The game is about taking a man down, physically and mentally,” said Ray Lewis, the now-retired Baltimore Ravens linebacker, who was indicted for the murder of two men in a bar fight, a charge he eventually pleaded down to obstruction of justice. Or as Michael Strahan, former New York Giant defensive end, once said, “It’s the most perfect feeling in the world to know you’ve hit a guy just right, that you’ve maximized the physical pain he can feel,” adding, “You feel the life just go out of him.”
As Aristotle recognized 2,000 years ago, we are what we repeatedly do. Violence begets violence. Why should we expect players for whom violence is a profession to suddenly contain it when they get home? If bravery is knocking an opposing player so senseless you’re most likely causing him brain damage, isn’t it time to redefine bravery? “Trained killers” is how Nate Jackson described his fellow N.F.L. players.
Is training young men for violence, and then cheering them on, truly “America’s game”? If so, it’s time to find a new game. There are better ways to spend our time than watching modern gladiators, full of sound and fury, fight battles in which virtually no one ends up a winner.