Feb 3, 2013 / 11:44 am
The Super Bowl closes a tumultuous year for the NFL.
Suicides by former NFL players. Thousands of others filing concussion lawsuits. New studies linking football to brain disease. Still no testing for human growth hormone. The spectre of other purported performance-enhancing products, deer-antler spray, anyone?, being peddled to players.
A pay-for-pain bounty scandal. A lockout of officials resolved only after a ludicrous game-ending call. Zero minority hires for 15 coach or general manager openings.
And yet the league is as popular as ever.
Advertisers paid nearly $4 million per 30-second television commercial for the right to reach the 100 million or so Americans expected to tune in to Sunday's Super Bowl between the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens and NFC champion San Francisco 49ers. Eleven of the 12 most-watched TV programs during the last 2 1/2 years were NFL post-season games, according to the league.
Uncertain, though, is what the future holds for an NFL still coming to grips with the dangers of a brutal sport that makes it tremendously wealthy.
"The game has changed and keeps changing. ... It is such a violent game, and such a collision game, that careers are going to be kind of like not long at all. Because you take those licks â€” you've only got so many in your body, and at some point that's going to wear it out," said Ravens running backs coach Wilbert Montgomery, who played that position for the Philadelphia Eagles and Detroit Lions from 1977-85.
Montgomery said he got six concussions in one season alone, and others along the way, including one that knocked him out cold a few days before playing for the Eagles in the NFC title game at the end of the 1980 season.
"I know one thing: Back then, it didn't make any difference. They gave you smelling salts and then, after that, you went back in," Montgomery said. "I have headaches all the time. That's why I say my wife is always messing with me when I have outbursts, saying, 'You've been hit too many times upside the head.'"
Montgomery laughed for a moment. Then he rubbed his forehead and continued talking, mentioning former teammate and friend Andre Waters and opponent Dave Duerson. Both committed suicide; researchers studied their brain tissue and found signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a degenerative disease also found in boxers and often linked with repeated blows to the head. Former star linebacker Junior Seau, who shot himself in May, also was found to have CTE. Baltimore's starting centre on Sunday, Matt Birk, has pledged to donate his brain for study when he dies.
"It's a serious thing," Montgomery said. "It's scary."
Meantime, the NFL continues to look for new ways to increase its cash flow.
During his state of the league address two days before the Super Bowl, Goodell did not rule out increasing the regular season from 16 to 18 games, and he reiterated the possibility of expanding the post-season, too. He announced that two 2013 games in London already are sold out, and there could be three in future seasons, down a path that, eventually, could lead to a franchise based in Britain.
"For you to be adding games to the season, are you looking out for player safety? Or are you trying to generate more player revenue?" 49ers receiver Randy Moss said. "If you're trying to look and protect the players, and keep it healthier and better every year, I don't think it's a good idea."
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