I love the game of football. Most people know this; however, some question it because of my decision to stop playing. Football has always been in my heart, and that will never change. I am a lifelong fan of the game.
On this the 10-year anniversary of The Huffington Post, seeing where this publication started and the evolution it's made in only a decade, I thought it would be fun to imagine where the NFL will be in 10 years, or at least what I hope to see from the game that we all love and want the best for. This is "The NFL in 10 Years, Maybe."
Maybe 10 years from now, people will no longer attack the entire NFL when a single player, who's most often 20-something years old, makes a mistake. Whenever something happens, there seems to be this repetitive dialogue: Is it the organization's fault? Is the league losing control of its players? There need to be stricter rules for these guys, etc. Realistically, it is impossible for the league to be in every home of every player, in every casino and every nightclub, trying to prevent situations from happening. That's not the responsibility of any organization in the world -- well, maybe the CIA. When former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner sent suggestive photos to women through Twitter, people didn't declare all elected officals perverts, nor did they blame the state of New York. It was understood that there was an individual who made a bad decision and had to face the consequences of his actions. Why don't we see the league the same way? I believe that when we collectively decide to stop condemning the NFL and everyone associated with it and choose to see every incident as an isolated event carried out by an individual who's fallen short, then each affair will be able to be dealt with properly, as opposed to the resulting penance being arbitrarily blown out by media and public hearsay. Maybe in the future there will again be a due process that doesn't include public opinion.
Maybe in 10 years a clear line will be drawn between the business and the sport of football in the NFL. Because of the high earnings of the league and all teams involved, decisions are made from a financial perspective just as much as they are made from a football perspective. This is understood around the league. Something that's often overlooked, however, is how the business element of the NFL is only respected on the front-office side, condemning players for making the same accords for the business of their playing careers. At any point a team can cut or trade a player out of a contract, release and distance themselves from a player who is undergoing scrutiny, or restructure deals handing players pay cuts to make cap room for other interests. All of this is within their rights. When a player rightfully plays out of his contract -- which for some reason must be respected now -- and wishes to restructure his deal, he's considered selfish. When a player has been abandoned by his team and wants to take his playing business elsewhere, like Adrian Peterson, he's not afforded the same trade/release opportunities. And when there's off-the-field business being carried onto the field and a player decides to walk off the field, like in the case of Legarrette Blount, they say he isn't a team player. The men who work their entire lives to play ball at the highest level are not babies. As a player you must look out for yourself, because no one else will. The other men on that field understand. It's way deeper than a guy giving up on the team. When you're not given the respect to make decisions for your career, this leaves you extremely vulnerable in a sport where you have a dangerously short life span that gives you only a brief space to make the most of your playing opportunities to prepare yourself and your family for a future after the game. It's unnerving how teams can make business and sport decisions on your body while you're not given the same grace to make the best choices for your own career. Maybe in 10 years the business of football will be equally regarded on all sides.
" At any point a team can cut or trade a player out of a contract, release and distance themselves from a player who is undergoing scrutiny, or restructure deals handing players pay cuts to make cap room for other interests. All of this is within their rights. When a player rightfully plays out of his contract -- which for some reason must be respected now -- and wishes to restructure his deal, he's considered selfish."
Maybe in the future of the NFL, defenders will be able to tackle again. I'm all for player safety, but come on! I'll start by dispelling this newly apparent myth. A concussion is not caused every time two helmets touch. Helmets touch in football. This is a part of tackling, which is part of the game. What's rightfully outlawed is the intentional kill shot meant to cause harm to a player; that's not cool and is rightfully flagged and fined. However, the overemphasis on fines placed on so many casual football hits is causing defenders to aim low in very unnatural instances, causing an even more serious injury risk to offensive players who would've rather been hit high. An example of this is what happened to Dustin Keller in 2013 when he took an unusual hit by D.J. Swearinger, tearing his ACL, MCL, and PCL, as well as dislocating his knee. Swearinger was even quoted as saying he "hit low to avoid being fined." Unnatural hits like this have caused career-threatening knee injuries to players who could have taken high hits and been fine. You can't slow down the real game like you do on TV; it all happens in a fraction of a fraction of a second, and the professionals trust each other. When the refs interfere with that, it interferes with the athletic calligraphy of the players. Maybe in 10 years players will be allowed to tackle within the rules, without the fear of being flagged and fined unjustly, because there will be a keen, impartial eye to come to the defense of the legal hit.
"You can't slow down the real game like you do on TV; it all happens in a fraction of a fraction of a second, and the professionals trust each other."
Maybe in the next decade of football, NFL players will have a true voice. In an odd and humorous way, this might've started with Marshawn Lynch. He is the most accepted defector of the NFL's media policy, but he's not the only guy in the NFL with a personality and a refusal to be forced into being someone he's not. What you hear in an NFL interview is the manufactured voice of media conditioning. That's why every guy sounds exactly the same, even down to the cadence of the way each individual speaks. I believe all fans of the sport would want the players to be able to speak freely and would enjoy seeing who they truly are, allowing them to respectfully be themselves without the threat of facing consequences for it. In most jobs there is a clear line between the workspace and your personal life. In the realm of professional sports, the line is so blurry that it's often challenging to make out when you are the person and when you are the brand. Is it fair to expect guys to represent the entire sport at the facility, outside the facility, at team events, at personal events, on social media, on vacation, when they encounter fans in any city, when they go out at night, when they're at restaurants -- basically whenever they leave the house, even when they're inside it? Other than the eight hours of sleep at night, at what other time are they able to be human? Maybe in the future players will be able to be who they are, rightfully expected to be role models and stand-up citizens but no longer expected to be robots and fined or disgraced if they're not.
Lastly, in the year 2025 football may become a team sport again. Although the game is still being played by teams who work hard in preparation to win, the result of the contest is being analyzed individually. An incredible amount of work and collective effort is put in day after day, leading to the outcomes of what happens on Sundays: film study, schemes put into place attacking each specific opponent, working and reworking of each scenario in practice, analysis of every play that's called, adjustments drive after drive, readings of pre-snap pictures play after play, and so on. With all the work that an entire team puts into each game, it's awfully shallow to measure individual performances in stats as the single means of production. Stats are a result of a collective output of production showing itself in an individual, not that individual's lone standing contribution. This leaves players in direct competition with each other for contracts and fantasy value, which is now their rank in the league -- players who may play the same position but have entirely different roles on their team. Now that games aren't analyzed in roles, these players are less incentivized to take a back seat to the team if it interferes with their individual stats, and if you decide to be a team guy, the sake of your career can suffer greatly. There's a classic sport saying: "Would you rather win and look bad or lose and look good?" I used to think nothing else mattered if you won, but that's changed. When a team wins, someone is given credit for the win, and when a team loses, someone's blamed for the loss. Whether it's spoken or not, the new model is really "You'd better look good no matter what." Maybe in the future the coverage of the game will once again reflect the work of a team.
Ten years from now, if nothing about football has changed, then it would still be the greatest game on Earth, and we'd all still enjoy it. This is just the imagining of a former player and fan of the game who would like to see the sport of football remain sport, and the entertainment of football be as entertaining as ever, and the business of football become the most thriving business in the world. When I see the younger generation of athletes, I just want them to remain focused athletes who know that you get to the highest level by training hard, taking care of your body and studying the game, not by having a signature dance, a bunch of followers and a shoe deal. The men who make it to the highest level of football are hardworking people, just like everyone else. Ultimately, more than anything else, I'd just like to see us all continue to enjoy this game together as it becomes greater and greater. Maybe....
This post is part of a series commemorating The Huffington Post's 10-year anniversary through expert opinions looking forward to the next decade in their respective fields. To see all of the posts in the series, read here.