Training camps open this week for the NFL's 93rd season, and you should be able to hear the sigh of relief from league offices in New York City. Finally, some good news. A year ago the world's most successful sports league was flush with positivity after signing an unprecedented 10-year labor deal with players and agreeing to a series of new 10-year television contracts that will raise TV income by an average of 63% a season. But in the past six months the NFL has had to confront so many vexing problems that you wonder, Is anybody happy out there?
The Saints' bounty issue isn't going away; a settlement conference this week in New Orleans between lawyers for players and the league isn't likely to end the legal wrangling over the suspensions—a total of 31 games—handed down to four players in the scandal. Nearly 3,000 former players and players' family members are suing the NFL, claiming it knew about the dangers of head trauma and concussions and failed to disclose the risks. The suicide of former star linebacker Junior Seau in May raised further questions about the well-being of retired players and how the league prepares them for life after football. In June the NFL locked out its game officials after contract talks broke down, and last weekend it began training 120 replacement refs, reaching down into (gulp!) the high school ranks for potential fill-ins. And the police blotter has been filled with NFL names: Since Super Bowl XLVI, 29 players have been arrested—that's 1.5% of the league's rosters—including three on DWI charges in the final week before camps opened.
"I'm a little surprised and a little disappointed at the number of issues we're facing," Giants co-owner John Mara said last week.
None of this is going to break the league or make the 111 million Americans who watched the Super Bowl last February turn the TV off come September. But the bigger the game gets, the bigger the potential pitfalls it faces. The NFL did not make Goodell available for this story, but his right-hand man, legal counsel Jeff Pash, told SI last week, "We have never been more optimistic about the future of the NFL. I don't think there has ever been a better time to be part of the NFL.... The fact that there are disagreements or dustups, that is on the margins."
Those margins are pretty wide. Here's what's in them.
THE SAINTS' STRANGE SEASON
The reigning NFC South champions began training camp this week in Metairie, La., with the aim of being the first team in NFL history to host the Super Bowl on its home field. It would be a remarkable feat considering that the Saints don't even know who their coach will be when they open on Sept. 9. Sean Payton, who the league says turned a blind eye to a system of performance payments and bounty bonuses to players, is suspended for the year; this fall he'll be an assistant on his 12-year-old son's team in Dallas. Linebackers/assistant head coach Joe Vitt was named the interim coach and will run training camp, but he will sit the first six games for his role in the scandal. Owner Tom Benson hasn't decided who will be in charge when the regular season kicks off.
While the Saints prepare for their unlikely run at greatness, union lawyers for suspended players Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Scott Fujita and Will Smith will throw a Hail Mary, hoping to get a Louisiana judge to override Goodell's power to ban players—a power agreed to by the NFL Players Association when it signed the new CBA a year ago. A source close to the four players said last week that it was "highly unlikely" they would consent to anything less than a complete overturning of the suspensions, because accepting a lesser sanction would tacitly acknowledge that they had acted improperly. As Hargrove, who's now with the Packers, told SI last Friday, "I didn't do anything [wrong]. Why should I be punished for it?"
Hargrove was suspended for eight games, and his case has been the most controversial of the four. The league said he lied to investigators in 2010 about the existence of a bounty and pay-for-performance system, and in June the NFL showed reporters sideline video from the 2009 NFC Championship Game, the audio of which, it said, reveals Hargrove saying, "Give me my money," after Vikings quarterback Brett Favre had to be helped from the field in the second half. In the NFL's eyes, that quote confirmed that there had been a bounty on Favre, to be given to any Saint who knocked him out. (The league says Vilma put up $10,000 toward that bounty.) Hargrove is adamant that he never said those words, and his face is shielded from the camera when they are spoken.
Last week Pash admitted that an audio expert brought in by the league could not confirm that the voice was Hargrove's. But, Pash said, even if it wasn't Hargrove on the tape, his suspension was justified. "The question is not, and never was, Was Anthony Hargrove paid some money for making a hit?" said Pash. "It was, What did he know, and what did he deny?" The league asserts that if New Orleans players had been forthright in the first investigation two years ago, the alleged bounty system would have been discovered and dealt with then. Hargrove denies that he misled the league.
The admission by the NFL front office that it can't verify a key piece of evidence against Hargrove opens a hole in the case that Vilma and the others will try to exploit. It also bolsters the Saints' belief that in punishing the team, Goodell used a bazooka to kill a muskrat. There was an illicit program in place—even the Saints admit to a pay-for-performance pool—but was it enough to merit the suspension of coaches, players and G.M. Mickey Loomis for a total of 77 games, while the Patriots' Spygate scandal in 2007 resulted in no suspensions?
Asked last week how he felt about Goodell, Hargrove's answer was surprising: "My heart goes out to Roger. He's dealing with so much right now. He's got a number of people attacking him. I feel bad for him."
LOCKOUT II: THE ZEBRAS
Every summer the NFL conducts a three-day training course for its 120 game officials, providing updates on new rules and points of emphasis. At last weekend's session in Dallas, however, familiar faces such as Mike Carey and Ed Hochuli were nowhere to be found. The participants were replacement referees from the college and high school ranks. The NFL's lockout began early last month, but in Big D it got serious: Each official lost out on the $1,500 per day the league pays them for training sessions. Most officials also work four or five days in NFL training camps for the same amount; preseason games bring them more money. So the lockout has already cost the refs $4,500 each. By the end of August they could be out thousands more.
The sticking points are money and the retirement program. The NFL proposes to gradually raise the average pay for officials from $149,000 in 2011 to $189,000 in '18; the officials want more. The league also wants to move from a defined retirement plan to a 401(k); the officials want to keep the current system. "What's alarming," said a source close to the officials last Saturday, "is there's so much more animosity between the two sides than there was the last time there was a stoppage."
When officials went on strike for one game in 2001, major-college refs filled in. That won't happen this time. NFL refs now serve as supervisors of officials for five major conferences—the Big East, Big 12, Pac-12, Big Ten and Conference USA—and they won't allow officials from those conferences to work NFL games. The source said that, in solidarity with the NFL zebras, supervisors in other FBS conferences won't allow their officials to work NFL games either. That means the replacements will come from high schools or lower levels of college, or be retired and/or dismissed college refs.
Asked last Saturday how concerned he was about the possibility of NFL officials being sidelined for regular-season games, players' association executive director DeMaurice Smith said, "On a scale of 1 to 10? Twelve. The officials are being asked to be first responders on the field for player safety as well as to officiate the games. How do you expect officials not used to doing games at that level to be able to step in and handle the job? To use a [lockout] as a motivational tactic in negotiations ... we find repulsive."
The NFL Referees Association says it's seeking the equivalent of $100,000 per team per season, plus the retention of the pension system, over the life of the seven-year deal. It will be difficult for Goodell, who has spoken repeatedly about the integrity of the game this off-season, to justify not having the best officials on the field—particularly when the replacements would be patchwork crews from far down the ranks of the game.
Seau's death at age 43 was the latest spur for the NFL to improve its life-after-football programs. The league will soon launch a mental health hotline that any current or former player can call confidentially, a program that would be funded by the league but run by independent counselors. It's a smart thing to do, and the NFL has to try innovative solutions to a problem that seems to be growing in scope. But it's questionable whether this move will prompt more players to seek professional help. As Goodell told SI last month, "We've had mental health forums where [players] could come with their spouses and [discuss] different challenges ... what to look for, how to deal with it, how to manage it. Very few players showed up. It's the same old thing—we have a lot of individuals who have tremendous pride, and they're not always going to raise their hand and say, 'I may need help.' But we all need help."
Another step in the right direction is the decrease in demands on players during the off-season. The CBA mandates a maximum of nine weeks of off-season training at team complexes beginning in mid-April. That's down from the previous standard of 14 weeks starting in early March. Such extra time can be spent on continuing or completing education, exploring business opportunities and otherwise preparing for life outside of football. Browns tight end Benjamin Watson, a member of the players' association executive board, says he knows of two players this year who were able to return to college for the second semester to finish work on their degrees.
"Our players now have more of a legitimate off-season, which helps make the transition to the real world easier," said NFLPA president Domonique Foxworth.
It's a start.
AN ANGRY 3,000
In June more than 80 lawsuits against the NFL involving some 3,000 plaintiffs—former players, as well as family members of deceased players—were consolidated into one large lawsuit. The plaintiffs claim that the league, over an extended period of time, withheld information indicating that head injuries suffered in football could lead to brain damage and other serious medical conditions. The NFL is due in court in Philadelphia on Aug. 19 to address the charge and, possibly, to ask for the case to be dismissed. "We have a high degree of confidence in our legal position," says Pash.
If it is heard, the case will be nettlesome for the league because of the wide range of plaintiffs. In fact, some are not even hurt and show no signs of lingering head injuries. Former defensive back Rich Miano, 50, says he joined the suit to help educate the football community and the general public about head injuries, and so that he'll be insured if one day he begins to suffer psychological debility. Some, however, have serious conditions, and some—such as the wife of former Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who killed himself in April—are representing aggrieved families.
"I'm a football fanatic, and I don't want to see the game destroyed," said former Packers running back Dorsey Levens, a plaintiff who says he suffered multiple concussions in a seven-year NFL career, leading to sleeplessness, irritability and forgetfulness today. "But we know the NFL is ignoring a lot of guys who need help. My ultimate goal in this would be to get lifetime care for all the guys who played this game."
The league has clearly made head trauma a priority in Goodell's regime. Just ask the players who have gotten huge fines for powerful hits above the shoulder in the last two seasons. And the NFL is working with independent neurologists and head-trauma experts in the U.S. military to develop technology to make helmets safer. Nevertheless, if the lawsuit lingers and the case goes to trial, the resulting publicity could affect parents trying to decide if their children should play football. Brian Mulroney of Readington, N.J., loves the game, but he and his wife are hesitant to let their seven-year-old son, Jimmy, suit up. "My fear is having him play at seven, eight, nine, when it's a relatively safe game, having him fall in love with it, and then pulling him out because we're worried about his safety," Mulroney said. "I know the NFL is working on making it a safer game, but when they showed that Colt McCoy hit 50 times on SportsCenter last year, I mean, the kids are watching that. It's not good."
That said, kids are still playing the game. "We've been going up about two percent a year," said Jon Butler, who is in his 21st year as executive director of Pop Warner youth football. "We expect our numbers to be up this year, though it's too early to say for sure."
One more piece of off-season fun: The Wall Street Journal reported this month that NFL attendance is down 4.5% since 2007, and that league and club officials have been working on ticket drives and stadium enhancements, such as improved Wi-Fi for smartphone patrons, to combat the decline in some struggling markets. But several owners and top club officials last week contended not only that the sky was not falling, but also that the future appears sunny and bright.
"We've got a decade of labor peace and all our games on free TV far into the future," said Patriots owner Robert Kraft. "You know, I came close to buying an English Premier League soccer team not long ago. And I see that Manchester City won the EPL this year but lost something like $300 million doing it. That's not going to happen in the NFL. We've got cost certainty for the next decade, and every team every year has a chance to win. What other sport can say those things?"
"The 10-year labor deal allowed us to make significant stadium improvements," said Packers president Mark Murphy, who's overseeing an expansion and renovation of Lambeau Field. "It's not just the length of the CBA; it's what's in it. Players are going to have longer careers because of the health and safety initiatives we put in with the union."
"I think we'll look back at 2012 in a few years as an anomaly," said Chiefs owner Clark Hunt.
Maybe, as the owners say, the contentiousness around the game is natural. Maybe, as one league official said last week, "10 years of labor peace doesn't mean 10 years of labor tranquility." Maybe, as the Browns' Watson says, "it's the normal course of big business in America." But now as much as ever, the NFL needs the actual football to get started. It needs Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III and a good Jets quarterback controversy to take football-loving minds off an off-season that has been one long bummer.
"I DON'T WANT TO SEE FOOTBALL DESTROYED," SAYS LEVENS. "MY GOAL IS TO GET LIFETIME CARE FOR THE GUYS WHO PLAYED THIS GAME."
FOLLOW THE BOUNCING BALL
Twelve months of NFL highs and lows
JULY 25, 2011
Lockout ends; owners, players agree to 10-year collective bargaining agreement
League releases study asserting that the 206 players drafted in '11 will have, on average, nearly seven-year careers, twice as long as previous estimates
NFL partners with Centers for Disease Control to educate clinicians about concussions in sports
League announces distribution of $620 million Legacy Fund for players who retired before 1993
NFL agrees to nine-year, $28 billion broadcast TV rights contract extension with CBS, Fox and NBC
Nielsen announces that 23 of the 25 most-watched TV shows of the fall season were NFL games
For the third straight year the Super Bowl becomes the most watched show in U.S. television history. The Super Bowl is streamed live for the first time
NFL announces findings of investigation into the Saints' pay-for-performance and bounty program. Among the suspensions: Coach Sean Payton for the 2012 season
Damning Bountygate audio emerges, capturing Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams exhorting his players to injure 49ers QB Alex Smith
Ex--Falcons safety Ray Easterling, lead plaintiff in a concussion lawsuit against the NFL, dies of self-inflicted gunshot wound at 62
Future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau dies of self-inflicted gunshot wound at 43
Former Super Bowl--winning quarterback Kurt Warner says on The Dan Patrick Show that he'd prefer that his two sons not play football
Malcolm Gladwell (left) and Jason Whitlock headline NYU debate: Should college football be banned?
Saints LB Jonathan Vilma files federal defamation of character lawsuit against the NFL
The NFL locks out its officials; NFL Referees Association later files charges of unfair labor practices with National Labor Relations Board
More than 80 lawsuits against the NFL are consolidated into one suit in federal court in Philadelphia
After meeting with Roger Goodell, Illinois senator Dick Durbin calls off congressional hearing into bounties in pro sports, saying he's satisfied with the league's response to the matter
NFL eases TV blackout policy; home teams only have to sell 85% of tickets (instead of 100%) to guarantee broadcasts in local markets
On The Dan Patrick Show, Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polomalu (43) admits to lying about concussion symptoms to get back into games
The Lions cut DB Aaron Berry (left) after his arrest on assault charges. It's the 29th reported arrest of an NFL player since the Super Bowl
Voices of Football
Kevin Turner, 43, played fullback for the Patriots and the Eagles from 1992 to '99. Diagnosed with ALS in May 2010, he is one of more than 2,500 former players who are suing the league
I'm hoping the lawsuit raises the concussion issue to the point where it's completely out in the open. Players will have to be aware of it. Families of former players will know about it. Fans will notice it when they turn on the TV or read the paper. Unfortunately, it takes being in the news for a long period of time for the culture of football to change.
Throughout the 1990s there was really no mention in NFL locker rooms or meetings of brain injuries or head trauma, and their possible lasting effects. We had players and coaches saying, "You just got your bell rung, get on in there." For years that's what I did. As long as you could line up on the correct side of the ball, you were good to go. I can't even guess how many concussions I had. I remember often [suffering a hit to the head] and asking, "Where are we?" and "How are we doing?" I wouldn't know if we were in Philly or Green Bay, didn't know the score or anything. A doctor would look at me, and I'd stay out for about 10 minutes to regroup, then go back out on the field. I hope those kinds of things don't happen anymore.
When I started playing, I knew the risk of walking around on gimpy knees when I was older, and I thought I might be nagged by a bad back. I was ready to deal with that and never once complained about any of those ailments to the NFL or anybody else. But after my ALS came along, I felt that this [lawsuit] was the right thing to do.
Sometimes it's hard to feed myself because I can't get my hands to my mouth. I can't cook anything these days. I even struggled with a gallon of milk the other night. Man, I never knew how heavy that was. With the help of some apparatuses on my steering wheel, I'm still able to drive, thankfully. My legs haven't been affected yet. But my arms, my hands, my back, my face and throat—they're all hurting. It's scary, because you start thinking, Am I not going to be able to swallow food next year? I've had episodes when I woke up in the middle of the night just gasping for air.
I'm not able to work anymore, but the NFL is doing what was negotiated in the most recent collective bargaining agreement. Since January, I've been getting $10,000 a month from the league. Before that, nothing. When I first filed for disability, they said my condition wasn't related to football. Under the new CBA they've made it so that everybody who files and is eligible will get $10,000 a month. It doesn't matter how you became disabled. They made a quick change on that.
I may not be alive in five years or 10 years. For my three kids, that's terribly costly in more ways than money. If I ever get money out of the lawsuit, my kids will probably get it. I have life insurance, so my kids will be able to go to college anyway. Joining the suit was not an easy decision for me, but I really just want to raise awareness.
I love football. Always have, always will. What I'm hoping for is a better way to play this game.
Voices of Football
George Smith, 64, coached at Fort Lauderdale's St. Thomas Aquinas High for 34 years and won six state championships. He sent 580 players to college football and 30 to the NFL, including Hall of Fame receiver Michael Irvin. Smith remains the school's athletics director
In the old days, every practice you would hit with your helmet and knock the crap out of yourself. That part of football has changed—the way people are taught to tackle. If we can get the proper teaching, that can alleviate a lot of the problems the sport has had. You can go to a Pop Warner league and probably 90% of the kids are taught correctly, and 10% are not.
What has to change to make the game safer? We have already made one change. Every athlete in a contact sport at St. Thomas Aquinas has to take an ImPACT test. It's a series of questions on the computer, and the answers go into a database to establish the athlete's [neurocognitive] baseline. Athletes diagnosed with a concussion or suspected to have one can't play again until they pass the test.
In the NFL, those guys assume the risks. I just don't know how you get out of the situation where, in the heat of battle, a player puts his head down and tries to run over somebody. But I think Roger Goodell will figure this out.
There's a satellite radio channel that has college football all the time. Listen to that show and you will laugh at how important football is in this country. You've got fans who don't care if a kid has a concussion. College football has hamlets everywhere across the country. I wouldn't say it's a cult—it's something that gets people together. That's never going to change.
Voices of Football
Charles Simpson, 49, is in his first year as administrator for 18 Pop Warner associations comprising some 200 teams in Central Texas. A former Texas Tech and CFL wideout, he has coached youth football for the past 12 years
At our level I'm not trying to get kids to put a hurting on anyone. I just want them to understand the game—what the positions are, what the concepts are. We try to eliminate injuries and fear. The quickest way to get a kid to stop playing football is if you can't get that fear out of him. He'll be more prone to getting hurt if he's second-guessing himself.
The only time I get questions about safety is when it's a first-time kid and Mom is concerned about him playing tackle football. I tell parents that at six years old, they're not tackling, they're just pushing each other down. If we get them at six and teach them how to play the game, when they're 10 and 11 they'll be a lot safer.
What I'm concerned about is a lot of parents are putting their kids in flag football leagues. Those parents are doing their kids a disservice. When that child gets older and plays in high school, somebody is going to hurt him because he's going up against kids who have been playing contact sports for 10 or 12 years. If you're 17 and an aggressive player, and there's a kid who had never played tackle football before, you would salivate at the opportunity to tear his head off. Those are the people who play football.
Tackle football will never be a safe sport. Even flag football will never be a safe sport. You can break an ankle, break a leg, tear an ACL playing flag football. The biggest concern now is head injuries, but the game is going to continue to get bigger, stronger, faster. We've got to figure out some way to account for that.
I don't think football is in trouble. I just think it's a ship taking on a little water right now, but it can be fixed. Each level of the game is going to have a different fix, but any change has to come from the NFL down, because everyone is looking up.
Voices of Football
In June, Buccaneers first-round pick Doug Martin signed a five-year contract worth a reported $6.8 million, with $5.5 million guaranteed. The 23-year-old back out of Boise State begins his NFL career with a training camp battle for the Bucs' starting job
I love my position. I played a lot of tag back in the day, and running away from people is what I've been doing since I was a young'un. I'm listed at 5'9"; maybe I'm 5'10" on a good day. I can get under the other guys' pads and give them a nice pop. I like to dish it out.
As rookies, we have a lot of things being thrown at us, and sometimes it feels fast-paced. You just have to take notes, memorize what they give you and then get ready for another wave of stuff to memorize. Sometimes it's overwhelming: There's a more advanced playbook to learn, and the expectations are way up there, especially because I was drafted in the first round.
I just came from the rookie symposium in Ohio. They tell you what to look out for and what to expect in the transition to the NFL. The most important things I took away from it were advice on how to extend your shelf life in the game and how to handle your money. They also talked about handling your family and girlfriends in different situations off the field.
The league is very sensitive to the concussion issue. I went to a concussion meeting, and they told us what signs to look for. I have complete trust in team doctors and trainers. If they even suspect you have a concussion, they'll take your helmet away. If you do have a concussion, then you're out.
Am I willing to play hurt? There's a fine line in the NFL between being hurt and being injured. If you're hurting, you're playing. If you're injured, you can't go. But you have to play through pain. It's not like college. There are no walk-ons. You're either on that 53-man roster or on the practice squad. There's not a lot of spots, and the pressure to perform is up there.
I haven't had my welcome to the NFL moment yet, but I'm looking over my shoulder for it. I really don't have any fears about playing in the league. You can't think about what your body is going to be like 10 or 15 years from now. You've got to focus on what you have in hand. If you focus on anything else, you're going to be hesitant, and you can't play that way. You've got to be going full speed.
I have no hesitation about playing pro football. I understand the risks, but you accept them because the rewards are greater—the bond you form with your brothers on the team, and the feeling you have after winning a game and eventually a championship. That feeling is why you play the game.
Photograph by ALEX BRANDON/AP
HANDS ON Goodell held a sheet of notes after a June meeting in Washington with Sen. Dick Durbin to discuss bounties in professional sports.
CHRIS PARENT/ICON SMI (SAINTS ACTION)
PUSHING BACK Suspended players such as Hargrove (69), who says he did nothing wrong, have contested their punishment.
ANDREW WEBER/US PRESSWIRE (GOODELL AND SMITH)
ROBERT BECK (SUPER BOWL)
Photograph by GARY BOGDON
INTO THE LIGHT While the link between head injury and ALS is speculative, Turner joined the lawsuit to help push the concussion issue to the forefront.
Photograph by GARY BOGDON
TAKE A STAND Smith is confident that widespread use of the ImPACT test will help reduce concussions among his players.
JONATHAN BACHMAN/CAL SPORT MEDIA
SANDY HUFFAKER/GETTY IMAGES
Photograph by GREG NELSON
NO FLAGS For Simpson, getting kids involved in tackle ball at an early age better prepares them for the violence of the advanced game.
Photograph by JED JACOBSOHN
GAME ON Martin is willing to accept the risks for the rewards—and says he's not thinking about what his body will be like 10 years down the road.
CHRISTIAN PETERSEN/GETTY IMAGES
KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT/US PRESSWIRE
COMSTOCK IMAGES/GETTY IMAGES