In my last post I started a review of Big Game - The NFL in Dangerous Times by Mark Leibovich. I conclude the review in this post.
In discussing the book with me, my son Jonathan pointed out that the author, as a writer on American politics for the New York Times, had a freedom to write about the NFL unlike regular sports reporters. When you cover a team and a sport on a continuing basis a writer must consider the necessity of continuing relationships. It is not so much critical comments that are avoided. Instead, it is observations and conversations that might be embarrassing or private in nature that remain unwritten. Leibovich was not making a career of sports analysis. It mattered not who might never talk to him again.
There was on occasion a touch of the condescension of a writer who customarily dealing with political issues who considers sports less important. His reaction to events such as the Pro Football Hall of Fame Induction Weekend was dismissive.
At the same time he acknowledges being a fan of the New England Patriots with the irrationality of a dedicated sports fan. That fandom leads Leibovich to easily admit his personal bias with regard to the Patriots. His multi-chapter recounting of the “Deflategate” saga reflects he is not objective with regard to the Patriots.
Commissioner Roger Goodell is very well paid, as much as $40 million a year, but comes across as an awkward titan of the game. His greatest skill appears to be developing good relationships with almost all the 32 owners. His second most important skill has been the ever increasing income earned by the league while he has been Commissioner. All league problems are of modest consequence when owners are happy and getting happier with increasing revenues.
Is there a big story in the NFL of today as implied by the title? Every author wants their book to be “relevant”, a word Leibovich said is beloved by NFL leaders.
The big underlying theme of “the dangerous times” involves the brain injuries suffered by so many NFL players. The issue is made vivid through the interviews he has with long term players who have suffered neurological damage and fear their futures.
Analogies are drawn between the efforts of the tobacco industry to downplay health risks from smoking and the NFL trying to minimize the consequences of head injuries. An analogy not mentioned is that tobacco is still available with users taking the risks of smoking. Many of the interviews on the issue of head injuries in football now emphasize how players recognize and accept the risks of professional football.
Yet Tom Brady surprised me with regard to head injuries:
Privately, Brady has expressed faith in Guerrero’s ability to heal his brain. He will rave about his ability to “work” the area that a concussion will disturb - as if some massage technique could treat a brain injury. TB12 also features a customized program of mind and cognition exercises, as if concussions are just another ailment, like a pulled muscle, that can be avoided with the proper “prehab”. When Brady speaks of Guerrero, TB12, and their specialized “ways,” he can project the faith of a zealot, a sense of invincibility that goes beyond naive and might veer into hubris.
Even the most analytical and rational of quarterbacks has his blind spots.
(Alex Guerrero is Brady’s “closest friend, personal guru, and ‘body coach’ “.)
Leibovich is a talented storyteller. He is descriptive and engaging. Thank you Michael and Jonathan for an excellent book.
Yet I am not sure the NFL is in dangerous times. Over the years it has faced rival leagues and player strikes and other strife. It has always been in troubled times.
What is clear to me from reading Leibovich’s book is that there is little reason to believe in the collective ability of the Membership to lead the league through dangerous times. They have not had to direct the league during an economic downturn for professional football. Only a modest number of owners inspire confidence that they are able to do more than ride the wave of yearly increasing revenue. The Membership would make a great reality T.V. show. Should there be a pause in revenue growth I am sure Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys would be ready to be a star of “Keeping Up with the Membership” or “Desperate Owners of the NFL”.