The startling Aaron Hernandez murder investigation and arrest, undoubtedly the biggest sports story of the year, kicked off the 2013 NFL season. The Jonathan Martin/Richie Incognito bullying controversy has disturbed the middle of the season, with charges of racial comments, death threats to families, and potentially even accusations of coercion including coaches who should be in charge of maintaining locker room culture. Not to mention the concussion pandemic, which is a severe, widespread, and ongoing health concern in the NFL. Retired players from the past are suffering from a variety of mental illnesses, which can lead to memory loss, motor skill degradation, depression, and even death, sometimes by suicide.
Until recently, it appeared that the NFL was unwilling to openly acknowledge that retired NFL players were suffering from brain damage as a result of the number of hits they'd suffered during their careers. Many players and NFL staff were eager to point out that Jonathan Martin's abrupt departure from the Miami Dolphins due to alleged extreme bullying was an isolated incident and that it was "part of the game," with Incognito himself stating that it was typical locker-room culture.
After acknowledging responsibility, the NFL must now address the issues head-on. Many of the procedures put in place to address the aforementioned issues, such as player hotlines for reporting bullying, are largely for show and to protect the league in the event that something goes wrong. Rather than being reactive, it may be time for the NFL to take proactive measures to address these concerns.
Whether or not that means adding multiple staff psychologists per team, creating frequent mandatory workshops to address locker room culture, or providing continued education on ways to handle the health problems inherent to being a professional football player, additional efforts need to be made to support the mental and physical health of the league’s players and staff. The league did $9.5 billion in revenue in 2012 – the resources are there.
It took days for the NFL and the Patriots to make a firm statement after Aaron Hernandez was arrested for shooting and killing his friend. Even worse, some of the early quotes failed to mention the victim or the incident — "I've seen a lot of things over 13 years," Tom Brady told Sports Illustrated's Peter King, "and what I've learned is that mental toughness and putting personal agendas aside for what's best for the team matters most... I've moved on." I'm concentrating on my fantastic teammates who are dedicated to helping us win games. The only thing that matters to me is that I win. Nothing will ever stand in the way of that ambition." The league needs to respond more quickly and maintain open channels of communication; perhaps more crisis communications training and a more forthright attitude would be more effective than prefabricated, ambiguous platitudes.
The NFL may claim to be committed to tackling the concussion issue, but its actions do not support this claim. The league is said to be considering a longer schedule with more games, which would cut down on rest and training time in the winter. This season, they've introduced weekly Thursday games, limiting players' recovery time and forcing them back on the field in a deadly sport with only three days' rest, which often includes travel. If the NFL promises it will make changes for the betterment of the league and its players, fans and players need to know that they mean it.
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