One secret of the National Football League’s success is its ability to make every moment feel epic. What other major sport designates its annual championship with Roman numerals? Or produces highlight films with slow-motion close-ups on a spinning ball over surging orchestral music? This is a league that does not traffic in the trivial.
So how’s this for momentous? In the course of a little more than a week, we saw a player quit the Miami Dolphins because he was verbally and physically abused by his teammates. We saw another quit the game altogether, citing the long-term physical and mental damage he feared it would surely inflict on him. Then, as if to underscore the week's running theme of brutality, one of the game’s living legends, former Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett, admitted that he was suffering from memory loss and depression likely brought on by years of playing the game.
It’s only going to get worse. Over the course of the next few weeks, the Jonathan Martin bullying case in Miami will surely expose additional details about football's toxic culture, which cannot be separated from the violent essence of the game itself.
Yet the league’s biggest enemy may be science. Even just a few years ago, the only way to test for chronic traumatic encephalopathy -- a degenerative brain disease that has been linked to head injuries such as the ones sustained while playing football -- was at autopsy. Now, thanks to new methods being developed at the University of California at Los Angeles, players like Dorsett can be diagnosed with CTE while they’re alive. It’s one thing for damaged brains to be sitting under a microscope in a laboratory up in Boston; it’s another for them to be inside the heads of our heroes, causing them serious mental and emotional distress.
The NFL can continue to tinker around the edges of the game, introducing rule changes -- such as banning helmet-to-helmet hits -- or requiring that players who experience dizziness or memory loss be removed from the field until at least the following day. It can “raise awareness,” which is to say shake out a little more loose change for public-service announcements about the dangers of concussions. What it can’t do is make the game demonstrably safer -- at least not without fundamentally altering it.
As long as football involves 300-pound men hurtling into one another at high speed, the NFL has the potential to turn every one of its players into a living, breathing, broken argument against its very existence.
(Jonathan Mahler is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)