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Original Issue

Trying Times

As pro football becomes more popular than ever, the NFL finds itself all too often struggling with disturbing headlines

Several years ago Malcolm Gladwell, the best-selling author, stood before an audience of sports fans in Brooklyn and offered his thoughts on the contemporary NFL. "I feel quite confident in saying that we won't be watching football 20 years from now. We will have moved on.... In the '20s everyone in this room would have been a huge boxing fan. We're not anymore, in large part because the sport is morally indefensible."

As if performing stand-up in front of the faux brick wall, Gladwell drew big laughs from the crowd. A universe without football? At a time when throwaway NFL matchups draw higher ratings than World Series games? When even marginal franchises are valued at $1 billion? When every modern-day metric—eyeballs, clicks, tweets, likes—confirms the NFL's regency? Ha! Good one!

Gladwell of course, has made a career zigging where the rest of us zag; but lately his notion doesn't seem quite as counterintuitive. As prominently as the NFL figures in our culture, it's been accompanied by a steady drumbeat of unsettling news. Here's what's befallen the league since the Super Bowl: the Saints' bounty scandal, Junior Seau's suicide, an acceleration of players diagnosed with concussions, the replacement refs debacle, and the Jovan Belcher murder-suicide.

Cynics will contend that the league is collapsing under its weight, that the same violence and intensity that gird the sport, making it so compelling to so many, will ultimately lead to its undoing. Loyalists are inclined to point out that, as in any industry with thousands of employees (and relentless scrutiny), there will be some regrettable actors and regrettable acts. This debate over what Tony Dungy called "the soul of the NFL" will continue. Meanwhile, it all makes for such a strange time in the league's history: a wretched year in a gilded age.



PLAYING THROUGH IT Belcher's teammates took the field—and won—a day after the tragedy.