HOW DO WE FEEL
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BY GREG BISHOP AND MICHAEL MCKNIGHT
FOOTBALL IN AMERICA
BY GREG BISHOP AND MICHAEL MCKNIGHT
Photo illustrations by Stephen Goggi
Anger and elation, fear and fascination, hatred and love, all coexisting. Statistical figures that suggest one thing, boots-on-the-ground reporting that shows another. Sound familiar, America? In 2016 the sport of football, like this country, finds itself somewhere between a crossroads and an existential crisis. SI spent an entire month traveling the U.S., interviewing hundreds of people touched by the many tentacles the game stretches through society. The result: A portrait of today’s sport that answers the question, How do we feel about football right now?
ootball is under attack, unfairly maligned, too big to fail or already failing. It’s concussions and Colin Kaepernick-on-his-knee; it’s declining youth participation numbers and diminishing TV ratings. It has peaked. It’s $4 billion NFL franchise valuations, $60 million high school football stadiums and $100 million player contracts. Still peaking. It’s oversaturated, unwatchable and fragmented, too expensive to watch and too dangerous to play. Peaked. It’s the lifeblood of small towns, the front porch of universities, by far the country’s most popular and profitable sport. Forever peaking.
Football’s place in American culture in 2016 can be debated from thousands of competing vantage points. Which is why SPORTS ILLUSTRATED dispatched two writers to traverse the U.S., hitting 30-plus states over the course of October, conducting hundreds of interviews with NFL owners, high school coaches, Pop Warner parents, Uber drivers, professional dancers, veterinarians and teachers. . . .
All those disparate voices, all their conflict, all their angst, led to 345 Park Avenue in Manhattan on the day after Donald Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States. Trump had said that he would fire the NFL’s commissioner if he won. Yet here is Roger Goodell on Nov. 9, in his sixth-floor office at league headquarters, past the lobby adorned with glass-encased Lombardi trophies and an American flag. The NFL’s insignia, its famous shield, is splashed everywhere. The NFL Network—not one iota of election wrapup—plays on an array of TVs.
Goodell sits at an oak conference table. A framed print of falling confetti hangs on the wall behind him, near another Lombardi trophy. He leans back in a brown leather chair, sipping from a water bottle cradled in his left hand. He’s asked about the election, and if he sees any parallels between the country and its favorite sport—citizens and fans who want change, who don’t trust polls or ratings numbers, who think America has gone soft. “You guys are better to determine that than I am,” he says. “Listen. What’s going on in the country right now, we see it. It’s out in front of us. People are looking for change and improvement, and that’s our constitutional right.”
He pauses briefly and adds, “But I’m happy to talk about football.”
Three days ago, he attended the Eagles-Giants game in New Jersey, and he says the fans he spoke to at various tailgates gave him an earful—but not in the way anyone who’s worried about the game and its health and the safety of its players might expect. He says those fans spoke mostly about their teams, their favorite players and the various ways in which they consume football. They called the game an “escape”—like the Cubs winning the World Series. America needs those sporting diversions, Goodell says, now more than ever.
He’s asked how often he hears about concussions and player activism in his travels. He must, right? “The fans are more interested in football,” he says. “We are the ones who make safety a priority. They support that because they want to see their players play.” But, he adds, “I’d be fooling you if I don’t say: I hear guys that say, Just let them play.”
The conversation unfolds thusly for almost an hour, Goodell defending his sport and deflecting most of the criticisms lobbed its way with increasing furor. Take head injuries, for example. Goodell mentions that his twin 15-year-old daughters play lacrosse; how there’s a debate in his household over whether they should wear helmets. They don’t, he says, because lacrosse officials are afraid that would change the game; it will be become more aggressive. “O.K.,” he says, “but I want my daughters to be as safe as possible . . . and [at the same time] I want our kids to take risks.”
Goodell comes across at times like a job applicant who’s saying that his biggest weakness is “taking on too much.” Everything is perfect. Under control. Nothing to see here. But that’s not how the vast majority of Americans that SI spoke to felt. They said, en masse, that they think concussions are a serious problem. SI polled fans at airports and stadiums and restaurants and classrooms, and in a formal survey found that 94% of respondents believe head injuries in football are a “serious problem.” To this, Goodell points out that the NFL made 42 rule changes focused on player safety in the last 14 years. “The 94% is [reflective] of our effort to make the game safer,” he says. “The NFL has been a leader in this area. What we’ve found is that people don’t truly understand all the things we’ve done to make it safer.”
The ratings drop? That’s the result of a number of factors, Goodell says. Games that went head-to-head with presidential debates. The unpredictable competitiveness of certain matchups. The new ways in which young people watch. “Any theory or any consideration—we look at all that,” he says. “There are still the same number of folks—maybe even slightly more—actually watching. We’re reaching them [in ways other than through broadcast television], and they’re engaging with football.”
He says at least half a dozen times—in response to questions about perception and domestic violence and player discipline and approval ratings—that the league will do everything it can to grow football in the long term. That’s everything from studying the length of commercial breaks to how long it takes officials to review instant-replay calls, from streaming games on Twitter to growing football internationally. “Listen, I understand there are a lot of opinions,” Goodell says. “What we really try to do is get beyond just the opinions and get to what we’re doing to address the issues that have real substance to them.”
Rain falls outside his windows on the Manhattan streets. “Football unites people,” Goodell says. “It brings the country together.”
That’s one take on football in 2016, delivered from a perch high above Park Avenue where one of the sport’s most powerful figures directs the country’s most powerful league. Football in America? From the street level, it’s far, far more complicated.
Tampa Bay strip club
t’s Sunday afternoon, Oct. 2, outside Mons Venus in Tampa—one of 10 profitable game days the renowned strip club will enjoy in 2016. The Buccaneers and Broncos are about to kick off less than a mile down the six-lane urban highway that hums nearby. Manager Bernadette Notte isn’t a football fan, but she knows the Bucs’ schedule by heart. “In the late summer I put it up on the bulletin board in back so the girls can see it,” she says in a smoker’s rasp. She has spent the week reminding the dozens of dancers in her employ that the place will be packed today with football- and nudity-loving fans and their wallets.
A dancer named Josie approaches. Young and waifish, with a whiff of Goth to her look, Josie makes clear that she and her coworkers are independent contractors; they come and go as they please. “There’s no schedule.” Which means Josie can come in for the pregame rush, leave and do something else for a few hours, then return for more twerking and cash raking later. In total this evening there will be 30 to 40 girls dancing for 100s of patrons, a collision of football and vice that results in what Notte estimates is a 50% spike in business.
“Depends on who [the Bucs are] playing, what city [the guests] are from,” Josie says. Green Bay games mean plenty of loot for everyone. “The Cheeseheads are the best fans who come in here,” Notte interjects. “They’re amazing.” Saints fans too. “I’ll dance for beignets,” Josie says with a giggle that is drowned out by an apocalyptic rumble overhead—a fleet of choppers from nearby MacDill Air Force Base is rattling over Raymond James Stadium in a tribute to football and country.
Across the street at 2001 Odyssey, manager Shawn Douglas, a South Carolina native, likes the Gamecocks and the Panthers, but he loves when Carolina’s NFC South rivals win down the street. Home games increase his club’s usual Sunday haul by “50 to 100%—easy,” he says.
Inside Odyssey’s main door, visitors are greeted by an assault of deafening music and plasma TVs that right now show the Bucs’ offense hurling itself in vain at the Broncos’ defense. The stage is empty. Five performers work the sparse mid-game crowd. A dancer named Shannon sits in a private “champagne room” the size of a minivan’s interior. She is physically beautiful in the ways that most heterosexual men measure such things, but “my last game day I only walked out with $100 for about eight hours [of work],” she says. Shannon is in her 30s and has been doing this since she was 18.
“Denver is really far away, so I don’t expect too many of their fans here tonight,” she says, nodding to the plasma above the stage. “Dallas is usually good. Green Bay. New Orleans. Atlanta—those guys like to spend money. . . . Every girl knows when every game is. Most of us have little pocket calendars.”
Shannon is a football fan, albeit a conflicted one. “I’m definitely a firm believer in this whole CTE movement,” she continues, clad in nothing whatsoever. “It’s like the military—there should be more aftercare. Does the NFL cover them for life?”
No. “They should.”
“Football is an American institution,” she continues. “I don’t think you can have an America without football. If there were more rules to protect the players I don’t think it would make it any less manly or fun to watch—or any less American.”
A man hands Shannon a $100 bill. Her lips unveil perfect teeth. ZZ Top’s “Got Me Under Pressure” comes on and the lyrics might well have been written about the sport flickering silently across the room.
She’s about all I can handle.
It’s too much for my brain.
Later Shannon will point out that she’s a successful small-business owner who works here “because it’s an ego boost.” She says she’s concerned about her younger coworkers, who she says are uneducated and “express themselves poorly. . . . I wonder what their exit plan is.” The club has its Adam Vinatieris, too. “We have a girl who works at night who is 52. Gorgeous. Little bit of fillers around her eyes, but not gross looking.”
Shannon has a teenage son who played football until high school, she says. Despite his broken nose and separated shoulder, “I didn’t mind it at all,” she says. “We have good insurance! . . . My parents always told me to try anything I wanted.”
She might get out a nightstick
And hurt me real, real bad
By the roadside in a ditch.
A blonde stripper barely half Shannon’s age writhes expertly on the pole while, in an upper corner, Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy kneels near midfield, wincing, gripping a freshly injured leg that has ended his day and will keep him out of next week’s game too. The tableau evokes something Bernadette said earlier, about managing the roiling turnover on her roster of entertainers: “We get new girls every day.”
p the street, halftime of that Broncos-Bucs game features a 10-minute Pop Warner exhibition, as dozens of NFL games do each fall. But in this game a 10-year-old player named Charlee stands out in the areas of foot speed and physicality, not to mention for the brown ponytail that flaps behind Charlee’s helmet.
Charlee Nyquist is a girl, but the most important things to know about her have more to do with her speed and tenacity. The naked eye shows her to be faster than most boys on the field. An outside linebacker, she engages, sheds and swims past blockers despite a thin build and a face that American Girl magazine would kill to put on its cover.
“Because I’m a girl,” Charlee says, “people think, She just wants a touchdown—that’s why she’s playing. That’s not why I’m playing. I play because, first off, I want to be a role model for other girls. I want girls to get playing.” Her second reason for playing, she says matter-of-factly, is “hitting. It’s something that girls think of as scary and just . . . not normal. But I think it’s cool.”
Wearing her grass-stained jersey, without shoulder pads, Charlee sits in an empty concourse inside Raymond James Stadium. A lightning delay has interrupted the fourth quarter of what will ultimately be a 27–7 Broncos win. A mesh bag containing her helmet lies next to her pink-socked feet.
“I’m pretty fast, so next year I might be playing running back,” she says, “but I like hitting because it’s just”—she laughs—“I just think it’s fun. You get this feeling of excitement. Everyone around you is like, Yeeeah!”
Charlee’s dad, Eric, stands nearby, arms folded, beaming. He’s a NASCAR executive, but the most important things to know about Charlee’s dad are that he loves whatever his daughter loves and that he hardly misses a second of it. He isn’t delusional about her dream of playing college football. If anything, he’s frustrated. When Charlee’s out of earshot, Eric, 45, says, “Lingerie football is the only outlet for women who want to play tackle football. That’s ridiculous. Those women are amazing athletes, and there are lot of them. I bet every one of them loves playing the game.” How does this key player in a pro sports juggernaut, a businessman whose first job out of college was a two-year stretch as the NFL’s manager of business planning, recommend this chasm be filled? “If the NFL takes this on, they gotta start somewhere like Orlando or Dallas, where there’s enough collective mass [to sustain a women’s league].”
“I almost had a sack out there,” Charlee says later of her halftime performance, her little-girl lisp belying a confidence that makes her seem 20. “But he only got like a yard. And it [set up] second-and-long.”
Does she ever think about getting hurt?
“Yeah, sometimes, because one kid broke his rib cage. And one of my own teammates—I was substituted out one play, and he went in and broke his arm. And I thought, That could have been me. But it’s football. You’re gonna get hurt; you’re gonna get hit.”
Over the course of 20 minutes Charlee says something along the lines of “I want to be a role model for other girls” 13 times. She lays out her plans to start a league for women and she predicts that in 10 years she’ll be the first female in the NFL, “because it would show women that they’re as strong as men.” Even her dad seems a little stunned by the world-changer he and his wife, Michele, have created. “Our thing is, ‘kind and happy,’ ” he says. “We want our kids to be kind to others—and to be happy. That’s it. All of this,” he adds, waving a hand toward his child and the NFL stadium she just conquered. “All this is. . . .”
He can only shrug.
Tennessee players following upset of Georgia
(Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
bout 550 miles due north of Tampa lies Presbyterian College, a small liberal arts school in Clinton, S.C., that offers a freshmen class called The Religion of SEC Football.
Professors Terry Barr (English) and Michael Nelson (history) are fans of the Alabama and Arkansas football programs, respectively, although fans is probably too mild a word. So deep is their knowledge of those teams’ three-deep depth charts, so committed are they to the Tide’s and the Hogs’ Saturday kickoff times and the three hours that follow, that these academics often find themselves perplexed by the scale of their own devotion. Hence the course, which in essence asks, Why?
“Two guests today,” the tweed-coated Nelson says at the start of one class. “Dr. Sarah Burns is a PC graduate who went on to Tennessee to get her Ph.D. in psychology. She teaches in our psych department. And Dr. Doug Daniel, who teaches in the math department.” For these two scholarly visitors, Tennessee football is their fixation. What follows is not unlike an AA meeting.
Burns’s dad (last name: Connor) named his daughter so that her initials would be S.E.C. She accompanies her presentation with slides, including one that reads “Jesus is a Volunteer, Galatians 1:4”—a translation that she concedes is “a bit of a stretch.” The bearded Daniel reads aloud from a 10-page essay he wrote recently about his boyhood love for the Vols, which deepened even as he gathered postgraduate mathematics degrees. The harmonic analysis researcher points out that the mathematical chances of Tennessee completing the Hail Mary that beat Georgia four days earlier had been 0.23%.
A bed-headed freshman in the back row takes umbrage. He’s a Georgia fan, and he hasn’t recovered from that Hail Mary sufficiently enough to discuss it, much less joke about it. After the game he blocked the number of every Tennessee fan in his phone.
“We invest more of ourselves into this sport than we do in our faith,” Nelson, 46, points out. “Sometimes our families.” There are chuckles, but one listener disagrees. Burns, 37, cites her familial upbringing and the game’s “regional associations”—the us-against-them of college football—as the sources of her addiction. She talks about the weekly ritual of it, about how “we structure our entire lives around Saturdays.”
ew understand the church of Gators football better than Steve Spurrier, who was hired by his alma mater this past summer as an “ambassador and consultant” in UF’s athletic department. In other words: His job is to be Steve Spurrier, the smirking, wisecracking, charismatic face of Southern football. He loves this job. He is, inarguably, good at it.
Wearing khaki shorts and a neon-yellow golf shirt with matching Nikes, the 71-year-old Spurrier pushes a half-eaten turkey sub to one side of his desk. He’s deep inside the stadium that was renamed in his honor over the summer, the muggy 92,000-seat, brick bowl that he started calling the Swamp in the early ’90s, the spot where the country was first introduced to him exactly 50 years ago, when this place was just two sets of bleachers and he was the 1966 Heisman winner.
Why, he’s asked, has our love of football exploded in every direction over the intervening half century? “Because it’s a sport where coaching is so very involved,” the Ol’ Ball Coach explains. “You have a choice of a whole bunch of plays to run, and the defense has a choice of schemes to run—and it’s amazing when we see something that’s never happened before. Stuff happens all the time”—and here he rehashes the controversial final seconds of a recent Oklahoma State–Central Michigan game—“where I’ve never seen that before.”
Also unseen in his time: conference money, TV money, nine-figure contracts for pro players. . . . “I don’t think we ever saw that coming,” he admits with a wistful shake of his head. “I was with the 49ers in the late ’60s and we had just started the players association. One guy with the PA came through and said, ‘Someday NFL players will make around $400,000 a year.’ We were all making 25 or 35 [thousand]. We looked at each other and said, ‘This guy’s crazy.’ And now they make 20-25 million, some of these quarterbacks. My coach here at Florida, [Ray] Graves, the most he ever made I think was $35,000. Now almost every coach in the SEC is making over $4 million a year.” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell makes 10 times that, Spurrier is told. The number—an estimated $44 million in 2012—seems to surprise him when it’s said out loud. Spurrier grins again, adjusts his desk pad a little. “If that’s what the market can bear,” he says with a shrug.
Because of his personality and his college coaching résumé, we have forgotten that Spurrier started 38 NFL games and threw 1,151 passes in the ’60s and ’70s. His NFL career was typified by the 12 starts he made for the 0–14 expansion Buccaneers of ’76, whose members recall Spurrier being treated on the field the way police dogs treat training dummies. Is Spurrier O.K. then with his grandsons playing this sport? “Well, I got one who’s a backup quarterback out at Trinity University, in San Antonio. And I got another one, a ninth grader—he plays JV. . . . I don’t have any problem with them playing.
A beat passes. He senses the questions are over. He relaxes visibly, then hops to his feet, tugs at his waistband and resumes doing the job he loves. “Let me show you all the game balls I got in here! Heck, I had to do something with ’em! These here are all seven of the SEC championship balls. . . .”
piritually, it’s a long way from Gainesville, with its SEC titles and its new-money high-rises, to the single-lane roads that traverse Scooba, Miss., with its two gas stations and its population of 716. Scooba is home to a Subway, a motel, a row of boarded-up storefronts and, notably, one of the best juco football programs in America, East Mississippi Community College. Or, as the popular Netflix series filmed here calls it, Last Chance U.
Head west from those pump stations on Johnson Street, past the bank and the beauty salon, and there’s the Lions’ Sullivan-Windham Field, named after Bob “Bull” (Cyclone) Sullivan, EMCC’s coach from 1950 through 52 and again from ’56 through ’69. (Lest you forget him, there’s a 7' 6" bronze statue outside the stadium of the dually nicknamed coach whom Frank Deford, in a 1984 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover story, pronounced “the toughest coach of them all.”) Sullivan favored leather helmets without face masks long after most coaches. He conducted goal-line drills and sprints in a nearby pond, and when one lineman removed his new shoes so as not to ruin them, Sullivan ran him barefoot through blackberry vines and sticker bushes. Another player nearly drowned. “I’ve heard people say [Sullivan] couldn’t coach today’s athlete,” says 60-year-old Nick Clark, who played for the Bull from ’64 through ’66 and who now works as EMCC’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement. “If someone was rolling around with a knee injury, he’d yell, Boy, that damn knee is four feet from your heart! You ain’t going to die! If he did that today, somebody would probably sue him.”
If Sullivan embodies the tough-love, no-water-breaks, what’s-concussion-protocol? football generation, then the current program illustrates the way the game has changed. The Lions play on an all-weather turf field and wear eight different uniform combinations. For the last two seasons they’ve been chronicled on Netflix, whose cameras trail the players one October afternoon as the P.A. announcer leads a pregame prayer, asking God to watch over the teams and the country. There’s no kneeling during this national anthem. Every single player, coach and fan holds hand to heart.
Between EMCC and its opponent this evening, Northwest Mississippi Community College, roughly 50 Division I–caliber football players take the field, including Lions quarterback De’Andre Johnson, who was dismissed from Florida State in July 2015 after a video surfaced showing him striking a woman at a bar. (He accepted a plea deal for misdemeanor battery last December, apologized to his victim on national TV and has since volunteered at a battered women’s shelter. “This,” he says, “is my second chance.”) Fans with camouflage cellphone cases and American flag hats pack the stands as Johnson scores five touchdowns and accounts for 442 total yards in a 51–32 triumph.
Afterward, Netflix cameras roam the field, and Johnson takes a picture with his position coach, Clint Trickett. Like Johnson, Trickett, 25, never expected to settle in a one-stoplight town near the Alabama border. The son of a coach, one of three brothers who now work in football, he played at Florida State and West Virginia and then retired in 2014 after suffering five concussions in 14 months. The Johnson-Trickett snapshot is one of football in modern-day America: a QB kicked out of school after video of his crime went viral . . . a young coach who wants to stay in football despite his concussion history . . . a season chronicled for a popular reality TV show that is streamed over the Internet. . . .
Trickett, though, retains some of Sullivan’s tough-guy coaching ethos. “I hope it doesn’t get to the point where we’re being soft with [this game],” he says. “The second the softness takes away from the integrity of the game, you gotta draw the line.”
“Look,” he continues, “the good [of this sport] outweighs the bad a million to one. I’m fine. Football will be too.”
Clemson marching band
hat seems abundantly clear an hour west, on the campus of Clemson, which on a warm fall day provides a snapshot of a more traditional football player and program. Hunter Renfrow came here two years ago as a 155-pound walk-on wide receiver. Last January, at 175 pounds, he caught two touchdowns against Alabama in the national title game. He knows what it’s like to be on top of the totem pole and at the bottom.
Right now the redshirt sophomore is sitting in a sunlit terrace high above Memorial Stadium wearing a purple-and-orange DREAM THE DREAM T-shirt. Behind him, in the distance, lies a vast construction site, where Clemson’s new, $55 million training facility–palace is being built. The Tigers are unbeaten and ranked No. 3 in the country, but football’s advances stop for no man.
Renfrow, 20, has scored seven touchdowns in his college career and, by his estimation, suffered about that many concussions since he began playing football in grade school. “I played some of my best high school games with a concussion,” he says. “I was watching Last Chance U not too long ago, and Clint Trickett said football has given way more to him than concussions have taken away. I go along with that. I don’t really worry about it too much.”
What Renfrow sees as the biggest threat to college football has nothing to do with the game’s physicality. He hates the idea of scouting combines and Rivals camps, where individual players are valued above their teams. “That’s why some players don’t care about the team.” Clemson weeds out such players, he adds. “No one here thinks he’s bigger than the team.” The reason is “culture,” Renfrow explains.
No one expounds on that notion better than Thad Turnipseed, who is one of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney’s best friends, as well as his Director of Recruiting. More than any man but Swinney, Turnipseed is responsible for the palace being built adjacent to Death Valley. Today, huge tractors roll across the clay upon which the sprawling edifice is being built, forming orange clouds slightly darker than the jerseys Clemson wore three days earlier in an epic win over Louisville. Before you judge the building for its planned two-lane bowling alley, though, or its nap room, or the massive playground slide that connects the second floor to the ground floor, first listen to Turnipseed, 44, describe the philosophy behind it all. He doesn’t deny that the building’s biggest purpose is to attract recruits. It’s what happens after those recruits arrive that he believes sets Clemson apart.
“Dabo’s challenge to all college football programs is, We gotta start building better people and stop using kids,” says Turnipseed, who likes to show recruits’ parents the 38 surveillance cameras positioned throughout the property. (“This ain’t gonna be Animal House.”) He also shows them where the CU in Life program will be housed (“for training in life skills and community service”) and the future homes of the Fifth Quarter initiative (“for professional development and job mentoring from our alumni”) and the Tigerhood program (“How do you become a good man? How do good men think?”). “This is more about philosophy than facility,” Turnipseed says, adjusting his hard hat amid the whir of power tools.
How does he respond to those who criticize a college football program with a planned 12 plasma panels in its main foyer and a football-shaped couch the size of an end zone? “Right, wrong, or indifferent,” he says, “the front door of your university, at this level, is the football team. There’s no other avenue where you can have 30 to 50 million people engaged with your institution like we had at the national championship game. I’m not saying that’s right. I’m saying that’s reality. . . . It’s not debatable whether a successful football team is good for a university.
“So that’s how I’d answer that.”
Dr. James Andrews (left), Robert Griffin III (center)
t the Residence Inn in Pensacola, Fla., the middle-aged white woman holding down the front desk considers Football in America, same as Trickett and Renfrow, but without the personal investment. “Football is like riding a motorcycle,” she says. “There’s only so much a helmet can do.”
No one knows that better than 74-year-old James Andrews, who works across the Pensacola Bay at the Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine and whose cellphone rings nonstop at dawn on Monday mornings in the fall—20 calls one Monday, 45 the next. He puts the device on speakerphone and holds it inches from his face; it’s always a general manager, athletic director, agent, coach. . . . So-and-so hurt himself in our football game last weekend. Can we send you an MRI?
“We’re picking up the pieces from college and pro games that weekend,” sports’ busiest and most famous orthopedic surgeon says. “The wreckage.” Games mean broken bones, torn ligaments. . . . Football, Andrews says, is not a contact sport, as it is often described. “It’s a collision sport. If we started a new sport today and we wrote up the rules and regulations and we called it football, they probably wouldn’t allow it.”
On weekends Andrews attends games with Auburn, Alabama and the Redskins, all of whom he works for. Between weekends he repairs torn ACLs, busted shoulders and savaged rotator cuffs. Even though he’s perhaps best known for his work on baseball players and with Tommy John surgery, football is Andrews’s favorite sport.
Team doctors occupy an odd space in the sports universe. Many of the players they care for don’t want to let on that they’re injured; coaches don’t want to remove their best athletes from the game; fans want championships; universities want revenue . . . and here’s this doctor, whom nobody really trusts, trying to navigate a minefield where money matters most. Down the hall from Andrews, fellow orthopedic surgeon Steve Jordan, who previously worked as Florida State’s team doctor for 24 years, says that the players he encountered in his past rarely talked about head injuries—except for how to navigate around them in order to remain on the field. One player, he recalls, was knocked down, hit in the head right in front of him. “You O.K.?” he asked. The player bounced up, yelled, “Yeah, it’s my ankle,” and ran back onto the field.
“Most [players] were dishonest—a majority,” says Jordan, 60. “As a doctor, you felt the pressure from the player. You feel the pressure from the fans.”
But a doctor’s proximity to the NFL’s best players doesn’t mean he can easily connect with those directly responsible for their health. Back in April, Andrews sponsored a football-injury conference in Destin, Fla. He invited orthopedic surgeons, biomechanists, trainers, therapists . . . and coaches. Guess which group had the smallest numbers? “I’ve tried to get coaches to come and listen to injury prevention talks,” he says. “You almost have to trick them to come.” On the field, he says, “They have a taboo about even talking to the team doctor.”
Falcons moms camp
* Shot with an iPhone 7
ne group that will listen, undoubtedly: moms. An afternoon’s drive to the northwest, in Atlanta, more than 100 of them—the majority of them African-American, all local—are running go routes behind Rich McKay as the Falcons’ president and CEO explains the difference between the Moms Clinic he’s hosting one October evening at South Cobb High and the slightly patronizing “Football 101” seminars that the NFL has largely moved on from. “[Football 101] went through the basics of what a first down is, the four downs, timeouts. . . . It was more of a social event.” McKay spreads his arms wide, revealing the squadron of mothers behind him. “This is all about health and safety, arming moms with information about the risks of the game and how to mitigate those risks. Then we let them have a little fun on the field.”
The laughter and dropped passes and tackling drills in the background are a physical release for women who just spent more than an hour watching detailed demonstrations on how to properly fit their sons’ helmets and shoulder pads, how to navigate the confusing world of supplements and PEDs, how to balance academics against the statistically slim chance that their sons will play college ball.
* Shot with an iPhone 7
t’s 9 a.m. on a Sunday and a mostly empty city smells like urine and stale cigarettes. Welcome to Bourbon Street. A handful of Saints fans in Drew Brees jerseys search for coffee. There’s a street performer on the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter strumming a guitar, his case nearly empty save for a few coins. Between songs he declines to discuss the current state of football, waving dismissively as he talks. “What do I care about rich people destroying other rich people?”
An hour later, as kickoff between the Saints and the Panthers approaches, vendors hawk Mardi Gras beads and face-painting services on Poydras Street outside the Superdome. A woman dressed only in a bra, gold boots and a pink tutu dances under a fleur-de-lis umbrella.
Scalpers work the area across the street from Champions Square. One recalls how his father resold tickets at the Superdome, back when fans wore paper bags over their heads. Times change, same as football. Fans pay more now, especially the visitors. “I don’t watch football much,” he says. “But I damn sure need the money.”
Inside, the game kicks off, and from the top row of the stadium, in section 608, the players look like miniature toy soldiers clad in football pads. A middle-aged telecom executive leans back against the wall and says his “interest has waned significantly the last couple years.” He played lacrosse when he was younger, sustaining multiple concussions. An imaging scan recently revealed damage to his brain, he says. One of his sons is a jujitsu fighter, the other a professional wrestler; they’ve both dealt with head injuries. That concussions in football have always bothered him comes as little surprise. And yet there’s that conflict. . . . “They have to make the game safer or it’s barbaric—but then when they make it safer, it’s ruining the game. That’s the conundrum,” he says. “It’s an unsolvable conflict, an unfixable problem. I guess I’ll find something else to do.”
Besides the Saints, he hardly watches football these days. (“How many gladiators do you watch anymore?” he asks, sighing.) He’s aware of the decline in ratings and, like Goodell, thinks that results from many factors—the election, concussions, player arrests, diminishing interest in fantasy football . . . millennials. In New Orleans, specifically, he says folks like his brother-in-law swore off the NFL after the league levied severe penalties as part of the 2009 Bountygate scandal.
“There will always be football,” he says, “but it has reached its peak.”
The second half resumes, and he gets lost in a last-minute Saints victory. Afterward, inside the home locker room, veteran New Orleans safety Roman Harper is told about the musician who doesn’t care, the scalper who needs the dough and the fan in section 608. “I would tell them, Enjoy the product we put out there on the field,” he says. “We sign up for this. I’ve been trying to kill and hit people since I was eight years old. That’s my decision.”
“The game,” he says, “will change with the time. You can’t be the dinosaur. You gotta be the crocodile.”
he next morning, 80 miles northwest in Baton Rouge, Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jeffrey Marx considers the Saints and football over a shrimp-and-crawfish omelet. He’s not conflicted. Never has been. “In my writing I’ve tried to explore my belief that sports are the most popular platform in America. Period,” says Marx, 54. “Not just football—but football probably is the most powerful of sports in its ability to reach young people.”
Marx became a Baltimore Colts ball boy when he was 11 and worked four summers for the team. Those experiences, he says, changed his life. Fast-forward to 2001, when the team’s old venue, Memorial Stadium, was being torn down. Marx called as many of the players from his childhood as he could find. He stumbled upon Joe Ehrmann, a Colts D-lineman from 1973 through ’82 who had become a minister and high school football coach in Baltimore.
In the 1990s Ehrmann started a mentoring program called program Building Men for Others, and he attacked what he called fake masculinity in football. Instead, he emphasized emotions that one doesn’t typically associate with athletes. Love. Empathy. Kindness. His coaches yelled, What is our job? and players responded, To love us!
In 2004 Marx wrote a book about Ehrmann and his program titled Season of Life. In the subsequent 12 years he says he’s heard about the book’s impact from someone—a mom, a prisoner, a church group, a Boy Scout—every single day. He explains how a judge told him recently that he’d assigned a convict to read the book and then write about it. That essay partially determined his sentence.
That’s the kind of impact football can have, Marx says, why it will always exist, always thrive.
“It’s a fact that football is the most violent sport in America, and it’s causing all sorts of problems in people’s lives,” Marx admits. “It’s equally a fact that when the sport is used in a strategic way, it can change lives, families, whole communities. I don’t think those facts are mutually exclusive.”