McAteer: NFL losing its attraction

Pat McAteer | October 3, 2012    

Call me crazy, but I’m having trouble finding my passion for the NFL this season.

A few…Call me crazy, but I’m having trouble finding my passion for the NFL this season.

A few years ago, this notion would have seemed absurd to me. I played football for five years and still reminisce about it constantly. I’ve also watched my favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, win two Super Bowls and lose a third in the last decade.

But this year, I’m apathetic. And it all begins with the hypocrisy of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s refusal to budge on the NFL referee collective bargaining agreement before it was finally negotiated last week.

Goodell, who fined Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison $125,000 in the 2010 season alone for his use of illegal tackles, wouldn’t accept a CBA that would’ve given the referees minor concessions.

So despite his rhetoric of action and discipline against hits that result in head injuries, Goodell allowed a crop of replacement referees — whose members include former NCAA Division III and Lingerie Football League officials — officiate the highest level of a sport that is already under fire for its lack of player safety.

Unsurprisingly, the gridiron reverted to anarchy. Take, for instance, the Steelers’ Week 2 matchup against the Oakland Raiders. As he jumped to catch a pass in the end zone, Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey received a blow to the chin, courtesy of Steelers defensive back Ryan Mundy’s helmet.

Before he even hit the turf, Heyward-Bey was unconscious. He left the field on a stretcher, and, to the crowd’s relief, indicated he was OK with a thumbs-up.

But the referees did not throw a penalty flag in the end zone.

The call was as clear as day. Mundy drove his face mask into Heyward-Bey’s chin as the receiver sprinted across the field and nearly decapitated fellow Steelers safety Ryan Clark in the process.

This is only one example of the NFL and its franchise owners placing profit over the lives and welfare of their employees, but Goodell and the NFL owners comprise only a fraction of my recent qualms with the league.

After former NFL linebacker Junior Seau committed suicide this summer — a death some experts attribute to his numerous head injuries — I began to place more focus on each tackle I saw. I now wonder whether an injury suffered by a player during a game will affect him later in life. It’s reached the point where the final score of the game is only a minor detail.

And it all leads me to a single question: Will the NFL exist in 50 years? A few years ago, I would’ve scoffed at the question. But now it seems like a very real possibility.

In fact, I could imagine the NFL fading into obscurity as professional boxing has. Before the rise of the NFL and the NBA, boxing was king. Athletes like Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier dominated the headlines of newspapers’ sports sections. They became national icons.

But the brutality of the sport soon reared its ugly head. Today, Ali, who’s considered one of the greatest boxers of all time, suffers from Parkinson’s disease, a common occurrence among those who have suffered repeated head trauma.

As a result, Ali can no longer talk and struggles with movement. He’s become a symbol of boxing’s brutal side effects. Because of the post-career ailments of Ali and other boxers, the next generation of athletes decided, for the most part, to pursue sports like football, baseball and basketball rather than subject themselves to a daily beating.

Now, the sport of boxing is a shadow of its former self. And the NFL could soon join it. Over the past year, I’ve heard former NFL players as well as other people I’ve met say they wouldn’t allow their son to play football under any circumstance because of the sport’s inherent dangers.

And although I would’ve hated myself for saying this only two years ago, I agree with them.

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