When the National Football League and its players announced that the lockout was over, the head of a fledgling organization called the Sports Fans Coalition couldn’t wait to get its message out. “NFL Lockouts End, Blackouts Won’t,” blogged its executive director, Brian Frederick.
Frederick made the same narrow point last September in a piece for Huffington Post under the headline “Ahead of Possible Lockout, NFL Owners Giving Big Bucks to Politicians.” Frederick cited research by the Center for Responsive Politics showing the unsurprisingly large NFL lobbying presence in Washington and campaign contributions by NFL owners.
But in case you were wondering, the “blackouts” to which the Sports Fans Coalition refers are not the ones causing early and violent deaths of football players and diminishing the mental health and future productivity of American youth. No, siree. Frederick is talking about the league’s policy of blacking out local-market telecasts of home games of teams that didn’t sell out their stadiums in advance. (Here in the Bay Area, this is almost never a problem for San Francisco 49ers fans and almost always a problem for Oakland Raiders fans.)
According to a new report by Politico.com, the NFL’s campaign contribution largesse extends to the freshman senator class, including Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. This is interesting on a number of levels. For starters, Blumenthal’s Republican opponent last November was Linda McMahon, founder and ex-CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment – which has a concussion toll arguably comparable to the NFL’s, and an early-death record second to none.
One of Senator-elect Blumenthal’s first orders of business last fall was to grandstand over the CBS blackout of a New York Giants game in Minnesota that got postponed from Sunday afternoon to Tuesday night after the roof of the Minneapolis Metrodome collapsed during a snowstorm. Blumenthal, who in decades past, as Connecticut’s attorney general, helped spearhead lawsuits against the tobacco industry to recoup public health costs from cigarette marketing and addiction, obviously knows where his populist priorities lie. And unless groups like the Sports Fans Coalition hold Blumenthal and his fellow profiles in caution to a higher standard, that will not change.
Just before the Senate election, Blumenthal had flown the late WWE wrestler Chris Benoit’s father, Michael Benoit, from Edmonton, Canada, to Hartford for a press conference laying bare the McMahon company’s sickening record of occupational health and safety. (The Blumenthal campaign contacted Benoit through me.) In March, the Journal Inquirer of Manchester, Connecticut, got the senator’s office to respond to my argument that he had a moral obligation to become more involved in the concussion issue.
“Senator Blumenthal is engaging in efforts to reduce injury and harm to athletes and competitors, and is considering additional measures to make sure law enforcement has the tools and resources they need,” his spokeswoman told the Journal Inquirer.
Shortly thereafter, Blumenthal was announced as one of the co-sponsors of New Mexico’s Tom Udall’s bill to reform football helmet safety standards. But as followers of my work know, I am a strong critic of these New York Times-inspired efforts to scapegoat the helmet industry. Instead of more hearings about helmets and more redundant studies of dead athletes’ brains with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, we need a serious national conversation about the medical and educational viability of amateur and youth football.
We also need to fix accountability at both top and bottom. At the top with Commissioner Roger Goodell and the $9-billion-a-year global pro football industry, now the target of a class-action lawsuit charging it with covering up evidence of long-term brain trauma. And at the bottom with immature fans who care about TV blackouts but not the real kind.
(In a wimpy Twitter exchange with me yesterday, Frederick said, “We’re just getting started. Focusing on blackouts first. Can only fight so many battles at once.”)
Look, I know the pull of junk entertainment – I can’t wait to see mixed martial arts hottie Gina Carano when she stars alongside Michael Douglas next year in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. But when it comes to the National Football League, we have on our hands a public health crisis, and the sooner smart fans get on board, the better. Those deluding themselves that this issue is going away have been playing football for too long, with or without helmets.
Irvin Muchnick (http://concussioninc.net; @irvmuch on Twitter) is a regular Beyond Chron contributor and author, most recently, of CHRIS & NANCY: The True Story of the Benoit Murder-Suicide and Pro Football’s Cocktail of Death.Filed under: Archive