Colin Kaepernick was hard to spot. He sat back from the edge of the field, just in front of an orange drink cart amid the swarm of people on an NFL sideline. His teammates stood in layers in front of him. Trainers, doctors, and other team personnel all stood, some with a towel over their shoulder, others with their hands clasped behind their back. Up against the sideline was a row of kids standing in black shorts and oversized San Francisco 49ers jerseys. They all listened to opera tenor Chris Pucci sing the national anthem. It took him 2:50.
That was Aug. 26, 2016, a sun-draped day in Santa Clara, California, that altered a league and spurred a national conversation about race, social justice, protests, law enforcement and whether athletes should be using their platform to distribute non-sports opinion.
The new batch of tumult uncorked by Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who remains jobless, added yet another layer of intrigue to a game and a league that remains America’s most-watched, most-discussed and most-dissected, despite new signs of trouble.
Along with national anthem protests, there were harrowing results from brain scans. New studies over the winter and summer again showed CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, as the reason former players became decrepit, or worse, before they were grandparents. The NFL players’ union remains the weakest in the country’s four major professional sports and has publicly sparred with the league about a recent domestic violence case involving a star player. Worry about waning interest and participation began to percolate in the midst of unexpected early player retirements.
National ratings sagged last fall before rebounding after the presidential election and showing solid returns this preseason. These issues have created fervent wonder about the future of the sport.
This weekend, the first of the NFL’s new season, those storylines will recede, if only for a few hours, as the game and its deeply embedded traditions again take centerstage. Stadium parking lots will fill early, tailgates will drop and charcoal will perfume the air. At home, feet will rest on a coffee table in between beer and chips. Games and hope arrive with the cooler fall air, helping chase the NFL’s problems and bringing its audience back to what is has always done: watch. This league owns a day of the week from September to February. Its grip on fans is yet to be undone by controversy or unsure moms.
Whether that’s still true five or 10 years from now likely depends on how successfully the league addresses the drumbeat of troubling news about the long-term health consequences of playing the game.
As part of its concussion lawsuit settlement, the NFL put together a chart of payouts based on age and affliction. For instance, if a player is less than 45 years old and has Alzheimer’s disease as a result of football, he is eligible to receive $3.5 million. The family of a player in the same age range who died from CTE is eligible for $4 million. The NFL expects to produce $14 billion in 2017 revenue.
The players press on because of pride, money and drive to provide. Washington Redskins tight end Jordan Reed has suffered at least five concussions, including one he hid from the team last season until the day after a game.
“I have to take care of my family, so I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do,” Reed said at the time.
Attempts to make the game safer range from technique to equipment. Work on better helmets continues. Teaching tackling techniques that clear a defender’s head from harm have been emphasized. Though, there appears to be no way to eliminate the inherent risk embedded in this specific game. The question, like so many things, has become if the cost is worth it to the individual.
“I mean, in this life, everything comes with pros and cons,” Redskins Pro-Bowl left tackle Trent Williams said. “My daddy worked on cars for 30 years and he got a bad back, bad knees, you know, and arthritis in his joints. So standing up on concrete working that long is going to have its effects on you, but you have to feed your family so you’ve got to make decisions. I mean, when you’re blessed to play something that you love and get paid handsomely for it, you know, can’t expect everything to be all peaches and cream. So if that’s what comes with it that’s what comes with it.”
In this environment, the Redskins wade into their 87th season devoid of a championship for a quarter century. Washington circled through the offseason headlines because of the odd circumstances around the dismissal of general manager Scot McCloughan and notable extension of coach Jay Gruden. McCloughan was fired after just two years with the organization. Brought in as a pure “football guy,” carrying the duality of past personal problems and vast football knowledge, McCloughan did not remain at Redskins Park long enough to see what he envisioned come true. Gruden, on the other hand, is well-positioned to last.
His March contract extension could keep him in charge of Redskins Sundays until 2020. Gruden will join a select group to have coached seven full seasons for one of the league’s most melodramatic organizations if he makes it to the end of his contract. Just Ray Flaherty, George Allen, Joe Gibbs and Gruden will be able to say they lasted that long running a football team in the nation’s capital.
Gruden took the bold step of challenging the Redskins’ hierarchy when he arrived by endorsing quarterback Kirk Cousins over Robert Griffin III. There is a direct correlation between that decision and Gruden’s longevity, though it would have been presumed at the time and shortly afterward that the idea would shorten his tenure, not lengthen it.
Washington is just 21-26-1 under Gruden. The first season was a 4-12 mess. A division championship preceded last season’s late-year folding. In their final game of 2016, the Redskins only had to beat a New York Giants team with nothing to play for at FedEx Field to enter the playoffs for consecutive years for the first time since 1991-92. They lost. If he had not selected Cousins, and reaped the goodwill and success that came with the decision, Gruden’s Washington timeline would have been truncated. He instead received an extension in March.
“I think there’s a comfort level there with everybody, them knowing me and me knowing them,” Gruden said.
Cousins, strangely, can’t say the same. At least in part. He knows the organization, the organization knows him, but it’s the comfort level that appears to be a sticking point. Washington took the rare and strange step of announcing the details of its contract offer to Cousins after he declined it in the offseason. Cousins, with midwestern politeness, parried back in radio interviews. Purposely working an offseason PR angle against the starting quarterback, who has set team passing records in consecutive seasons, was bizarre even by Redskins Park’s unusual standards. But, there they were by mid-summer.
There are strong odds that Cousins will not be back next season. Just like he influenced Gruden’s future before, his pending departure will do so again. If Cousins leaves, Gruden will have to play Colt McCoy or start fresh. Having a record-setting passer who knows the system is more appealing and increasingly expensive. Detroit signed quarterback Matthew Stafford to a league-record $135 million contract in late August. It’s easy to envision Cousins’ agent, Mike McCartney, sliding an 8x10 of Stafford across the table when the next round of negotiations in Washington begin.
The details of that, too, will be pushed aside Sunday. The Redskins have rampant defensive questions and an in-division home game against the Philadelphia Eagles to open the season. The sidelines will be scanned to see who stands, sits, kneels or raises a fist. If Kaepernick watches, it will be from home. Wherever he is, he will know that his decision a little more than a year ago has transfixed a league and sparked debate in the nation. By choosing to sit, the question, “What’s going on with the NFL?” was again asked before taking on a different meaning once the ball was kicked.
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