Sonny Says … The NFL Will Need To Evolve, Or Cease To Exist

Image Courtesy of Scott Troyanos/Associated Press

Image Courtesy of Scott Troyanos/Associated Press

George – “How long can the NFL exist in its current form given the devastation it does to the human body?” 

Believe it or not, this is one of the most frequent sports-related conversations I have within some circles of friends. Given all that we already know about the physical toll the game takes on both current and former players, it’s becoming more and more difficult to ignore what the NFL would probably love for its fanbase ignore, or even better, wholeheartedly believe isn’t true … playing football — regardless of level — for an extended period of time, to paraphrase how George put it, devastates the human body in an alarming number of ways.

We could spend hours talking about how the effects of repeated blows to the head are driving former players to take their own lives in ways that preserve their brains so scientists can determine not if there was damage done, but how much damage was done during their playing career. It’s definitely a conversation that is worth having, in particular when the conversation is centered on how the game can possibly become safer, or how the league can better compensate its former players after they retire. Fortunately, both of those conversations are seemingly becoming more frequently addressed in the public sphere; it still remains to be seen if there are any reasonable solutions to either issue, in particular the one that relates to player safety.

The conversation that I’m most intrigued by — and “intrigued” may not be the best word to use because the scenario legitimately terrifies me — is how a player dying on the field during an NFL game would impact the NFL as a whole, football in general, and how fans think about and watch the game of football.

It’s been almost ten years, but I still remember what happened to Kevin Everett. It was Week 1 of the 2007 NFL season, and as most football fans likely were as well, I couldn’t have been more amped up heading into the slate of Sunday games. Then this happened during the 1 pm slate of games:

Whenever a player is down on the field — whether he’s knocked out cold, writhing in pain because a limb is mangled, or because he’s unable to move at all because of a neck or back injury — it makes you think, at least for a moment, about just how dangerous the game of football is. But then once the player is carted from the field and play resumes, you forget about it … most of the time.

After Everett’s motionless body was taken off the field, I couldn’t shake a very abnormal feeling of uneasiness. When word came out shortly after that the injury was not just season-threatening or career-threatening, but life-threatening, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “Wait, did I really just witness a pretty normal play in a football game that will end up being the cause of someone’s death?” That’s not a pleasant feeling to have, and yes, it put a damper on that much anticipated Sunday.

I continued to watch, and I haven’t stopped since. I can’t say for sure how my viewing habits would have changed had Everett died (he ended up making a close to full recovery), but I can only assume I would have been so profoundly impacted if he had died that the way I feel about football would have changed. I’m not oblivious to the fact that this has happened elsewhere. The unfortunate reality is there have been incidents in the past where collegiate and pro football players died during games, and there are a handful of high school football players that die on the field or due to football injuries every year. In December 2015, ran a story about the 13 high school football players who died during the season. Seven of those 13 deaths could be attributed to an on-field collision.

We read these stories, we feel bad for the players and for their families and for the team, and then we move on, saying to ourselves “Thank God I didn’t see that happen.” But what happens when we do see it happen? There are hundreds of nationally televised professional and collegiate football games each year … what happens when we see a player die on the field on a game televised on ESPN or CBS or FOX? It’s really fricking grim to think about, but if/when it happens, what portion of the fanbase will decide that this was the final straw?

It’s inevitable that there will be an incident like this at some point unless the way football is played changes at all levels. I’m not advocating for flag football or anything ridiculous like that; violence just so happens to be a fundamental part of the game, and if it weren’t, fans would leave in mass quicker than they would if a player died on the field. It sounds crazy to type something like that, but the nationwide popularity of football would likely take a bigger hit if the game continues to get “softer” than if 20 million people saw a player die during a Monday Night Football telecast.

At a certain point, a number of factors — most of which I’ve already mentioned — will lead to a decline in the overall popularity of football in America. If you’re reading this thinking that it’s an impossibility, just look at what has happened to Major League Baseball. The similarities between the MLB and NFL are actually quite telling. Per a 2015 Washington Post report, the average age MLB and NFL viewers are steadily and quickly rising over time. In addition, there is a decline in the number of participants in Little League Baseball and Youth Football each year.

The NFL hasn’t seen this subtle change in viewers average age or youth participants impact TV ratings yet, but it may be only a matter of time until we see a decline in overall viewership. An average of 44.3 million people watched the 1978 World Series. Just twenty years later, when it seemed like baseball was at it’s absolute peak of popularity with the Sammy Sosa/Mark McGwire home run chase and the New York Yankees winning an American League record 114 games, the World Series had an average of 20.3 million viewers. People’s interests change over time, and the NFL’s reputation is hardly pristine. It won’t happen overnight, but eventually the way that football is played AND the space that the NFL occupies in our society will both change.

Gianni – “You have the opportunity to put together a starting 5, plus choose a sixth man, with one player from each decade: 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000s, 2010s.  For a player to be eligible to be chosen for a decade, he must have played at least 5 years in that decade.  Who do you got? And what were your toughest decisions (if any)?” 

Mary – “If you could pick an all-time starting five, who would it be?” 

Luca – “If you had to put together a team of the most exciting NBA players of all time, who would be your starting five?” 

It’s time to kill not one, not two, but three birds with one stone, a personal favorite pastime of mine because birds are unpredictable and frightening and all-around bad for society. Since these are moderately different requests, I wanted to provide moderately different answers.

All-Decade Teams: Apologies to my cousin Gianni, but there was no way I could I pick a starting five with only one bench player. I had to expand from just a sixth man to two picks for the bench, one guard/wing and one big man.

60’s – Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain … Bench: Sam Jones and Willis Reed

70’s Walt Frazier, John Havlicek, Julius Erving, Wes Unseld, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar … Bench: Rick Barry and Bill Walton

80’s – Magic Johnson, Dominique Wilkins, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Moses Malone … Bench: Isiah Thomas and Robert Parish

90’s John Stockton, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Hakeem Olajuwon … Bench: Gary Payton and Charles Barkley

00’s Chris Paul, Dwyane Wade, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Shaquille O’Neal … Bench: Steve Nash and Dirk Nowitzki

10’s Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, LeBron James, Kevin Durant … Bench: Russell Westbrook and Draymond Green

A few scattered notes on my selections:

-My toughest cuts for each decade: Hal Greer (60’s), Nate Archibald (70’s), James Worthy (80’s), David Robinson/Patrick Ewing (90’s), Paul Pierce (00’s) and James Harden (10’s)

-For what it’s worth, there were three players who could have been featured in two different decades, but hypothetically, if these games were actually being played, one player couldn’t play for two teams. So Kareem could have been on both the 70’s and 80’s, MJ could have been on 80’s and 90’s, LeBron could have been on 00’s and 10’s.

-I tried to let each line-up reflect the style and mindset of basketball in each decade. By this I mean that in the NBA’s earlier days, the common belief was that size wins games. The bigger you could play, the better off you’d be. So in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s, I tried to prioritize having as much size in the frontcourt as possible. The 00’s line-up I chose gets slightly smaller, with Kobe Bryant playing the ‘3’ position. And in the 10’s, I fully embraced the Small Ball/Positionless Era we’re watching, allowing LeBron and Durant to be my starting Power Forward and Center, and trying to emphasize shooting, off the dribble scoring and positional versatility. Honestly, the 10’s line-up is my personal favorite.

All-Time Starting Five: I took this question to mean “Which five players, one from each position, would you put on an All-Time team based on career achievement and basketball skill?” and not “If your life depended on the outcome of a pick-up game, which five players would you want playing together in hopes that they would be completely and totally unbeatable and preserve your life.” If I was meant to answer the second question, I’ll gladly think about it and include the answer in an upcoming edition of this column. Anyway, my All-Time starting five looks something like this:

Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Tim Duncan, Kareem-Abdul Jabbar

But again, just to clarify, if my life were on the line and I had to draft a team that would be totally unbeatable in a pick-up basketball game, these would not be my selections.

All-Time Fun Team: So the things I find to be entertaining about basketball are high IQ/high skill level players who play hard and make their teammates better. Think about the way the mid 80’s Celtics or Lakers, the 2014 Spurs, or the 2017 Warriors move the ball and get perfect shots on every possession … I want to build a team that is capable of doing that, but at the highest level imaginable. With that said, my choices are:

Stephen Curry, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, LeBron James, Hakeem Olajuwon

The lack of shooting worries me slightly, but good lord the combination of the post-up brilliance of multiple players and the passing clinic these five would put on would make for downright beautiful basketball. And how the F would anyone stop this squad if they got out and ran? I think I need a cold shower.

Mary Ann – “Do you think Rashad Jennings will be playing this year and if yes what team will be playing for? I love him and want him to play really bad!!!” 

Jennings is unsigned at the moment, but as I’ve already indirectly covered up above, no teams will make it through the season healthy enough where there won’t be a need to pick up free agents throughout the year, especially at a position that is as physically demanding as Running Back.

With that said, the lifespan of the NFL Running Back isn’t very long and Jennings is already 32 years old. By my calculations, there are only five Running Back’s in the league slated to be the starter or split carries in a Running Back by Committee backfield (Matt Forte, Jonathan Stewart, Frank Gore, Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch). I would say at this point you’re more likely to see Jennings on stage at a Dancing With The Stars taping than in the league, but anything is possible.

Collin – “Why was LeBron James allowed to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Kevin Durant allowed to join Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson in Golden State, but Chris Paul was blocked from joining Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles?” 

Full disclosure: Collin is a Los Angeles Lakers fan, and he’s not the only Lakers fan that I know who is still bitter about how things went down shortly after the 2011 NBA Lockout ended. In case anyone isn’t familiar with what happened, here’s the Spark Notes version to catch you up:

  • The NBA Lockout officially ended on December 8th, 2011. On that day, Dell Demps, General Manager of the New Orleans Hornets — yes, they were still the New Orleans Hornets — negotiated a deal that would send disgruntled Hornets Point Guard Chris Paul to the Los Angeles Lakers in a three-team trade that also included the Houston Rockets. Under the parameters of this deal, Paul would be traded to Los Angeles, Pau Gasol would be sent to Houston, and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, Luis Scola and a 2012 1st Round pick via the New York Knicks would be heading to New Orleans.
  • 45 minutes after all sides agreed on the proposed trade, Commissioner David Stern put the kibosh on the deal. At this point you’re probably curious as to how Stern could just say, “Nah” when it comes to a trade that all sides agreed on. Well, at this time the New Orleans Hornets were a franchise that was owned and operated by the National Basketball Association. The league bought the Hornets for a little more than $300 million in December 2010, and even though Dell Demps was still employed and still acting as the General Manager, David Stern had the final say on any roster moves the Hornets would make.
  • Needless to say, Stern’s intervention pissed EVERYBODY off.
  • One week later, the Hornets traded Paul to the Los Angeles Clippers for Al-Farouq Aminu, Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and a 2012 1st Round Pick.

So back to the original question: Even though LeBron’s move to Miami is perhaps the clearest example of tampering (because LeBron, Wade and Bosh supposedly hatched this plan during the 2008 Summer Olympics) and Kevin Durant’s move to Golden State is the clearest example of a move that threatened the competitive balance of the league (one of the three best basketball players alive joined a team that was coming off seasons of 67 and 73 wins and they also already had the two-time reigning MVP on the roster), Paul was blocked from joining the Los Angeles Lakers because David Stern had a hands-on opportunity to alter that move in a way he didn’t with what happened with Miami and Golden State.

Now the next logical question that should be asked is, “Well why exactly would David Stern feel compelled to prevent that trade?” So as I said, the league was in control of the Hornets, and this is a big problem for a myriad of reasons, one of which is that their actions will be driven by motives that are different than those of the typical NBA owner/executive. At this point, in December 2011, Stern was searching for buyers for the New Orleans Hornets. Therefore, any roster moves that Stern oversaw would be made in the best interest of eventually selling the team.

Chris Paul was the Hornets one and only star, and he had made it known publicly that he wanted to be traded, so Stern’s hands were tied. The league couldn’t deny Paul his wish knowing that he could just walk away as a Free Agent two summers later. There was no way that New Orleans was going to get equal value back in any deal for Paul, so the league had to find a deal that would give them the best chance of eventually selling the franchise for the largest price possible.

My guess is Stern ultimately decided to block the Paul to the Lakers deal because the pieces coming back would put New Orleans in a position where they would be too competitive to get a high draft pick, but not good enough to consistently sell out home games and make a splash in the Playoffs. The package from the Clippers allowed the Hornets to bottom out quicker, meaning they were one step closer to being wholly rebuilt.

On April 13th, New Orleans Saints Owner Tom Benson bought the Hornets from the NBA for $338 million. The Hornets had the fourth best odds in the Draft Lottery, and wouldn’t ya know it, they eventually ended up with the 1st overall pick, which turned out to be a sure-thing Forward from Kentucky named Anthony Davis. I’m not necessarily saying that there was a handshake deal between Stern and Benson when the sale was made that ensured Benson the Hornets would get the 1st overall pick, but I wouldn’t necessarily bet that it didn’t happen either.

Regardless, Chris Paul isn’t a Los Angeles Laker because the league needed to make money on the sale of the New Orleans Hornets, and because David Stern probably didn’t foresee there being so much backlash to his decision. On the brightside, in like four years all three Ball brothers are going to be playing in Los Angeles. So keep your heads up, Laker fans!

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