The Washington Raiders

Yesterday, the DEA pounced on several NFL teams for inappropriate use of prescription painkillers:

The unannounced visits by the Drug Enforcement Administration were spurred, in part, by reports of widespread abuse of painkillers that were included in a class-action lawsuit against the N.F.L. The suit, which is being heard in federal court in California, claims that team doctors routinely dispensed Percocet, Toradol, Novocain and other drugs to energize players before games and relieve pain afterward. …  [In 2011], a dozen former players accused the league and its teams of repeatedly administering the painkiller Toradol before and during games, worsening high-risk injuries such as concussions. The players also contend that the league and its teams failed to warn them of the consequences of taking the drug, a blood thinner that, according to the suit, “can prevent the feeling of injury” and therefore made it harder for players to recognize when they had concussions.

Robert Silverman doubts there will be an impact:

The question then is, after decades of treating everyone that pulls on a helmet and pads like so much disposable meat, could this be the scandal-du-jour that proves to be the tipping point? Will the viewing public come to realize that football isn’t really an All-American national pastime, but more closely resembles a bloodsport that leaves an ever-growing list of casualties in it’s wake?

The short answer is, no. It won’t. Despite all of the negative press and worse behavior over the last few months, attendance is at a five-year high, and television ratings are holding steady.

Ed Morrissey sees a “simple solution”:

All teams need to do is have reciprocity in access to home-field dispensaries staffed by a doctor or nurse practitioner, while team doctors who travel on road games consult with the home-team staff. In fact, it’s so simple that I’d be surprised if teams aren’t already doing that — which may be why we didn’t hear about arrests last night.

The Long, Twilight Struggle For Independent Journalism, Ctd

Go here and here to catch up on our coverage of the Simmons-Goodell row. Sports fans from the in-tray have the floor:

Your take on Bill Simmons as a fight over journalistic independence is largely misleading.  Does ESPN have a stake in the economic success of the NFL?  You bet.  Does that mean that ESPN is going to stop criticizing the NFL or muzzle its journalists?  Absolutely not.  Don Van Natta, Jr. and Kevin Van Valkenburg, two ESPN writers, wrote the single best piece of investigative journalism in the Ray Rice affair.  Their carefully researched and written article was sharply critical of the Ravens and Goodell.  Not only did ESPN publish the piece – making it the lead story on their website for most of a day – but ESPN defended it on air, while other ESPN journalists and broadcasters praised it on twitter. That doesn’t wash with your conspiracy theory.

The problem for Simmons is that he wants to be both a journalist and an entertainer.

It is fine for radio shock jocks to call Goodell a liar (and most people would probably agree), but it is not ok for a journalist to make that kind of bald and inflammatory statement. You can criticize ESPN for trying to draw a line between journalism and entertainment when the network has frequently has blurred that line in other contexts, but that issue is a lot different from journalistic independence.  In the long run, ESPN needs legitimacy even more than it needs the NFL.

But Simmons was saying this on an avowedly free-floating podcast where the style is “anything goes” (see below). That context is relevant, I think. It’s possible to be a chatty entertainer in one media form and a sober journalist in another. Another reader pushes back in the opposite direction:

You write that Simmons was suspended because “Simmons out-and-out named Goodell as a liar – without proof.” At this point, we have four sources that verify that Goodell was told about the contents of the video. In addition, we have a source that says that the NFL received a copy of the video and has a voice message confirming his story. Further, we have multiple sources saying that at the very least the NFL was offered a copy of the video. Finally, we know for a fact Goodell lied when he said New Jersey law forbid him from getting a copy of the tape. What more proof do you need that Goodell is a liar? Do you need a video of him watching the video?

Bill Simmons spoke the truth and now he is being punished, while the most incompetent, immoral commissioner in sports continues in his job. The longer this continues on, the less I start to care about the NFL. I do not think that I am alone.

Another:

I’m a long-time Simmons reader/listener, and I want to give you some context and also contend that this is a blow for independent journalism, not a harbinger of its death.

I don’t think this was a spontaneous rant, as you say. Bill had a bee in his bonnet and he needed to get it out. The rant came in the middle of a weekly podcast he does during football season with his Cousin Sal where they talk about betting lines and generally ridicule themselves and all degenerate sports gamblers. It’s pretty light and funny. He stopped Sal in the middle of that to make his statement. He knew what he was saying was going to get his bosses’ attention, and even dared them to call him on it. He may not have anticipated the three-week suspension, but he knew there would be consequences.

That he did it despite knowing the consequences tells you everything you need to know about the power relationship between Simmons and ESPN/Disney. He knew they would have to take disciplinary action to kowtow to the NFL, but that the likelihood of them firing him was very low, and even if they did, there would be a slew of large offers from other media outlets bidding for his services, much in the way Nate Silver was wooed. He has the upper hand, not ESPN.

Had anyone else at Grantland said what Simmons said, they would likely have been sacked. During podcasts, when someone else takes a pregnant pause while discussing a controversial subject, Bill interjects: “Don’t get fired.” But he knows that doesn’t apply to him.

Another reader:

I don’t have a dog in this fight, but I rather suspect that Simmons‘ suspension by ESPN resulted from several factors you failed to note in your coverage, e. g., use of terms such as “fuck” and “fucking liar” in his rant filled harangue against Goodell and his acknowledgement that he had no evidence or proof that the commissioner was “lying.”

But another knocks that theory down:

Simmons‘ podcast begins with the disclaimer: “The B.S. Report is a free-flowing conversation that occasionally touches on mature subjects . . .” Ever since adding that disclaimer, and particularly since the advent of Grantland, foul language is common on the B.S. Report.  And the discussion frequently involves “mature” subjects.  Simmons referring to Goodell’s press conference as “fucking bullshit” is tame compared to the recurring discussions involving sex and drugs.  Not to mention, articles on Grantland routinely use swear words.

Another reader backs me up a bit:

I am a freelance sports reporter, journalism teacher, and avid Dishhead, so I feel I am uniquely positioned to riff about this Bill Simmons thing in context for a bit, so forgive me if I blabber.

First, I am also a Simmons/Grantland fan, and I listened to the podcast minutes after it was released. I thought his take was strong, but even I was a bit like, “Whoa, there. Careful.” The reason why is exactly what you stated: He called Goodell a liar without proof, and more importantly, without providing himself an out. Keith Olbermann, who has a show on ESPN TV nowadays, has also consistently championed Goodell’s resignation, but for all his blowhardiness, Olbermann cleverly leaves himself an out each time, saying for example (and I’m paraphrasing poorly here), that Goodell is either incompetent or lying, and therefore should resign. But never did he say Goodell is a liar, full stop. So that’s where Bill got into trouble with ESPN’s Journalistic Standards police: Lack of parsing.

But here’s the thing – I personally find even that laughable. Simmons isn’t a journalist per se; he’s an opinion-maker and a columnist, and also a pretty good, if homer-ish, NBA analyst. ESPN has no problem playing the journalism card on him in this case, but it’s totally cool with allowing fellow opinion-maker, columnist and NBA analyst Stephen A. Smith participate in Oberto beef jerky ads with Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks. That, apparently, is totally cool in Bristol.

It should also be noted that I personally believe the aggressive coverage of the Ray Rice case has partially been a reaction by all the networks to what they have long-viewed as heavy-handedness by the NFL in TV and advertising contract negotiations in the Goodell era. It’s no secret in the sports business world that the NFL has a very difficult reputation in negotiations. It’s as if the networks mutually decided when they found out that their reporters were lied to publicly that they would go open season on the league. And now that the story is waning a bit, and the league is regaining some ground (largely thanks to the consumption of its regular product every weekend), ESPN is pulling the reins in a tad.

I think there’s a bit more inside baseball going on here, since it’s in the networks’ interest to try to devalue the NFL as a commodity for the next round of negotiations by, well, doing their jobs and reporting facts. The NFL appears on ALL of the major networks – FOX, CBS, NBC and ESPN (which is owned by ABC/Disney), so whatever they can do to rein the NFL’s negotiating power in is  gravy to them, I’m sure, since it also owns the ratings for the dying major networks across the board.

I hope that helps at least a bit. Thanks again for all you and your team do!

If You Think Today’s Concussion Crisis Is Bad

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Take a trip to 1905:

Like the recent Time magazine cover featuring a 16-year-old who died playing the game, Americans are starting to ask, “Is football worth it?” Football has been here before, at a time when it was actually much more vicious. In 1905, 19 college football players died from injuries sustained while playing the sport; with five times as many college players participating today, the modern equivalent would be 95 on-field deaths. The San Francisco Call listed off the year’s fatalities: “Body blows, producing internal injuries, were responsible for four deaths, concussions of the brain claimed six victims, injuries to the spine resulted fatally in three cases, blood poisoning carried off two gridiron warriors, and other injuries caused four deaths.”

That year, amid calls for the abolition of football, Roosevelt hosted “an extraordinary private meeting” at the White House with the coaches of the three largest college teams:

Some say Roosevelt gave the coaches an ultimatum: Change the game or I’ll abolish it by executive order. But [historian John J.] Miller says that Roosevelt, characteristically, spoke softly, merely asking the leaders to save the sport by reducing the violence in whatever manner they could figure out among themselves. Given the fact that Roosevelt elevated the issue to the level of a presidential meeting, however, his implication was clear: It was time to fix football. “He didn’t have to say anything like a read-between-the-lines threat,” Miller says. “He wanted to nudge them in a direction.”

Miss Cellania notes, “Though he never played the game, partially due to his reliance on glasses, Roosevelt was a devoted fan.” She also provides context for the above image:

During the late 1870s, American “foot ball” resembled a combination of soccer and rugby with a riot mob mentality. Almost anything went: Players could carry the ball, kick it, or pass it backward. Starting in 1880, Walter Camp, a Yale player now known as the father of American football, introduced a series of changes to make the game more strategic. Unfortunately, some ended up making the game more dangerous. The most infamous example was Harvard’s “Flying Wedge,” inspired by Napoleonic war tactics: Offensive players assumed a V-shaped formation behind the line of scrimmage, then converged en masse on a single defensive lineman. “Think of it—half a ton of bone and muscle coming into collision with a man weighing 160 or 170 pounds,” wrote The New York Times in 1892.

For lots of Dish on today’s concussion crisis in football, go here. Update from a reader, who reiterates a key point about physics discussed throughout our coverage:

The issue with today’s concussion crisis – and why I personally think the NFL is in very, very bad shape long-term over it – is the intractable problem of F = dp/dt.  Simple physics, really.  Force is the first derivative of momentum with respect to time.  The intractability of the problem is that the object with the momentum in this equation is the player’s brain, and the thing which is rapidly inhibiting the brain’s momentum is the player’s skull.  The inside of their skull.

Football helmets are designed to prevent skull fractures and they do so quite well.  I don’t know that I’ve ever heard of an NFL player getting a skull fracture in my viewing life, from about 1980 to the present.  Maybe there’s been one I can’t remember, and perhaps there have been some in college football, which I have never followed very closely.  But they cannot lessen the kinetic impact of the brain, once it has been given a certain velocity, upon the inside of a rapidly decelerated skull.  Nor can they lessen it when a stationary brain is struck by a rapidly accelerating skull.  I don’t know if there’s any helmet or other device that we could design that ever could.

Lawsuits by former NFL players are such a threat to the league that it has changed its rules and settled for untold billions of dollars.  That an entity with as much power as the NFL flinches at the prospect of these lawsuits gives you an idea of how dangerous they are, but former high school and NCAA players have not sued their leagues and schools for the damage they likely suffered.  Not yet, at least.  I assume that some day they will, and I also assume that it will only take one or two judgments in their favor to create panic among university presidents and school board administrators – and the insurance companies that insure them.  These programs will either be unable to obtain insurance or it will become too expensive for only the richest programs to afford.

Not only that, but a large proportion of parents of high school-age boys will bar them from playing football, seeing the damage the plaintiffs in these cases have suffered.  Schools will no longer field teams and those that do will have a dearth of players to pick from.  The NFL’s talent pipeline will slow to a trickle, the product on the field will degrade, and sponsors and TV networks will balk at the prices the NFL and colleges demand for broadcast rights.

This may take the next 40 years to play out, but unless someone can come up with a solution to the problem of F = dp/dt, I don’t see how the league survives it.  They could of course keep changing the rules, making violent hits ever more rare, but diehard NFL fans are already distressed over the “wussification” of football already.  Much more and they’ll abandon it.  There might be an upstart league that gets started, promising all the hits from the good ol’ days of the NFL, and it will try to indemnify itself from the issue, but the problem is going to be with the high schools and the colleges, not the professional league.

Another physics nerd:

I love your work too much to let you get bamboozled by some bad physics logic. A reader wrote that helmets do not help to prevent concussions because of basic physics. He or she cites the right foundational formula, Newton’s 2nd Law in the calculus-snob form F = dp/dt, then fails to apply it properly.

First, let’s drop the calculus, because we don’t need it to understand this collision problem, and rearrange terms to get delta-p = F delta-t, or change in momentum during a collision equals force (the thing that cracks skulls and concusses) times the time elapsed during the collision. The change in momentum is roughly the same regardless of whether a helmet is worn: brain is moving before collision, brain stops moving after collision. So the left side of the equation is fixed which means the product on the right must also be fixed. The job of a helmet (or airbag, or baseball glove, or iPhone case) is to decrease the average force, F, by increasing the collision time. The right side of the equation must stay fixed, so by whatever factor we increase time we also decrease F.

That explains why a helmet prevents skull fractures: the cushion in the helmet provides a longer collision time which means less average force on the skull at any given instant, and therefore less risk of exceeding the minimum force required to cause a break. Now we just need one more important bit of logic to protect the brain: force transmission, which is really just a combination of Newton’s 2nd and 3rd Laws. The skull, being pretty solid, transmits the force from the helmet directly to the skull. So if the average force on the skull is decreased during the collision, then so is the average force on the brain. QED.

Drop me a line if you ever want some science fact checking. It’s what I do.

The Long, Twilight Struggle For Independent Journalism, Ctd

The comments that got Bill Simmons suspended:


My take is here. VanDerWerff considers the places of ESPN and the NFL in the controversy:

While it seems unlikely Goodell asked ESPN to suspend one of its employees for calling him a liar, the situation speaks to how much power the NFL has in the modern media environment. With football increasingly seeming like the only consistent ratings draw in a splintered TV landscape — and the NFL attracting more and more suitors every time rights to games become available — the league can essentially ask for whatever concessions it likes in broadcast coverage.

Vinik assesses Simmons’ claim:

Is [Goodell] a liar? That’s still unclear, but there is strong evidence that might be the case. Goodell has adamantly denied that the NFL knew the contents of the tape before TMZ released it on September 8. But last week, Don Van Natta and Keith Van Valkenburg reported for ESPN that “Rice told Goodell that he hit her and knocked her out, according to four sources.” It’s of course possible that those four sources are either lying or have the story wrong. But Simmons was just saying what the evidence seems to indicate. Is that really in violation of ESPN’s standards? In fact, on Tuesday, ESPN’s ombudsman praised Simmons for his comments, including it in part of the “strong coverage and commentary” from the network.

Richard Deitsch tries to understand ESPN’s rationale:

Someone familiar with ESPN’s management’s thinking said the combination of the nature of the personal attack on Goodell and the challenge to his bosses were the key elements in the decision and the length of the suspension. It should be noted that Simmons has been very critical of Goodell in the past and was not reprimanded. So have others at the network, including NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and Keith Olbermann.

There is also something else likely at play here. ESPN management is looking to become more decisive with suspensions when its employees go off the rails.

But Linda Holmes suspects the suspension has done more harm than good for ESPN and Goodell:

In all honesty, had he not been suspended, these comments from Simmons, who has all kinds of opinions about all kinds of things, might have passed largely unnoticed. It’s entirely possible that by suspending him for three weeks, ESPN guaranteed that the comments would reach many, many more people than they ordinarily would have.

Margaret Hartmann has more:

ESPN has a $15.2 billion deal with the NFL to air Monday Night Football through 2021, and it’s believed that the network cut its ties to the Frontline documentary League of Denial last year due to pressure from the NFL. A few people agree that there should be consequences for publicly taunting your employer, but … the Twitter reaction has been overwhelmingly negative. If ESPN cares about the backlash they can always follow the NFL’s example and reconsider Simmons’ punishment. On the other hand, $15.2 billion is a lot of money.

A couple weeks ago, Stefan Fatsis spelled out how the NFL manipulates the media:

The league’s financial muscle allows it to create its own quasi-journalistic outlets and to exert soft power over the media partners that pay it billions of dollars annually to televise its games. Last week, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft went on a CBS morning news show to promote the network’s new Thursday night football broadcasts. After a few questions about Ray Rice, in which Kraft criticized Rice and defended Goodell, the hosts moved on. “We’re so proud to be partnered with CBS,” Kraft declared as a countdown clock to Thursday’s game flashed onscreen. The chyron labeled him “Master Kraftsman.”

On CBS’s pregame show that night, anchor James Brown delivered what Slate’s Allison Benedikt called “a powerful speech about male responsibility, not just for domestic violence, but also for our collective devaluation of women.” It absolutely was. But it also was devoid of criticism of Goodell or the NFL. That wasn’t surprising. John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reported that CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said he instructed on-air talent to refrain from criticizing “individuals involved in the story, whether it be team ownership, whether it be NFL management.” According to Ourand, McManus said the talent was encouraged to “express opinions about the situation, to express opinions about domestic abuse, to express opinions on how the NFL has handled this.”

The Nonprofit Football League

Philip Klein calls the NFL’s tax-exempt status “bad policy that exemplifies the problems with the nation’s disastrous tax code”:

The NFL’s nonprofit status was enshrined into law in a 1966 act meant to protect the league from antitrust issues surrounding its merger with the rival AFL (which was considered a lesser league until my Jets pulled off the greatest upset in football history in the 1969 Super Bowl). The same law added, “professional football leagues” to the part of the tax code listing entities granted nonprofit status.

Though the league distributes lucrative television and licensing revenue among the 32 teams, which do pay taxes on their earnings, the teams also send dues to the NFL league office. The office does not pay taxes on those dues, and the fees could be deducted from the teams’ taxes.

The NFL reported total revenue of $326 million for the 2012 tax year, according to its most recent publicly available filing with the Internal Revenue Service. During that year alone, the NFL paid $44.2 million in compensation to commissioner Roger Goodell. Goodell earned $105 million over the course of the five-year period from 2008 through 2012, according to a CNN report – more than any player.

Well, it might fall under the religious exemption, no? At this point, it requires blind faith to believe in its future. But Jordan Weissmann notes that revoking the NFL’s tax-exempt status “wouldn’t drastically change its finances”:

Only the league office, which considers itself a trade association for its clubs – just like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce or the National Dairy Council—is a nonprofit; the teams themselves are purely for-profit. As a result, pro football’s copious TV revenues are taxed once they’re passed down to the franchises. A separate, for-profit company called NFL Ventures, co-owned by the teams, handles the league’s merchandising and sponsorship earnings. Finally, the league office often operates at a loss—in 2011 it finished more than $77 million in the red, while in 2012 it only had $9 million left at year’s end. Without profits, of course, there’s nothing for the government to tax. …

Congress itself doesn’t think the NFL’s tax bill would be that big. [Tom] Coburn has suggested that taxing the NFL and NHL alone would raise about $91 million per year. But the Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation – probably a bit more credible in this instance – believes ending tax exemptions for all sports leagues would bring in just under $11 million per year. Booker hopes his bill would raise about $100 million over a decade, which would go to support domestic abuse programs. That’s a mere trickle compared with the geyser of cash the NFL generates each year.

However, he adds:

If money isn’t really the issue, what is? It’s about principles. Letting the NFL operate tax-free makes a mockery of the entire concept behind nonprofits, which is that we should give a special break to organizations that do the useful, unprofitable work normal corporations won’t.

Update from a reader with expertise on the subject:

As an accounting professor specializing in nonprofits, I wanted to reiterate the view that the NFL is not really avoiding any taxes with its status (true, it has a lot of revenues, but it shows even more expenses, so the profits are really held by the for-profit teams). I would also like to add that one big benefit of the NFL’s nonprofit status is that it requires the NFL to make its financial statements and executive pay public (without the required form 990, we never would have known that Goodell got a $40 million bonus in 2013). Here is a bit more on the misconceptions about the NFL’s nonprofit status.

In short, does the NFL deserve its nonprofit status? Probably not. Does stripping the status accomplish anything? Again, probably not.

By the way, thanks for your team’s consistently great work.

The Other NFL Abuse Scandal, Ctd

A reader lends his expertise to the Adrian Peterson case:

I am a psychologist who works primarily with very young children and their families. It is disturbing to me, especially reading the comments sections of sites that are covering this story, to see how few people seem to have gotten the memo about the impact of early violence on the developing brain. While Mr. Peterson’s son was being whipped, and for some long time thereafter, his nervous system was being flooded with stress hormones (cortisol is the primary culprit). Shame, anger, and fear states cause the body to respond this way, as stress hormones can also help mobilize us into fight or flight states when danger is near. The problem is that sustained, repeated exposure to these hormones causes structural changes to the developing brain, including the hippocampus and the amygdala – structures that are responsible for emotion processing and memory.

The result? A nervous system that is “primed” to scan for danger and ready to fight to protect itself rather than one that can safely engage in play, exploration and learning (these brain states are incompatible). Research is very clear that kids who are exposed to this kind of violence (fear states) are much more likely to be violent as they grow up.

So you want to have fewer future Ray Rices clocking their partners? Figure out ways to keep kids like Adrian Peterson’s safe.

Meanwhile, Margaret Hartmann flags yet another story of an NFL player in trouble for domestic violence:

Police tell the Arizona Republic that the incidents [involving Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer] took place over two days in late July but were not reported until September 11. … Dwyer was booked on suspicion of aggravated assault against his wife for fracturing a bone and aggravated assault against his child for throwing the shoe. He could also be charged with preventing a 911 call and damaging property. Dwyer’s wife and child left the state shortly after the incidents. He admitted that they were arguing, but denied that any physical abuse took place.

Doktor Zoom of Wonkette notes:

Dwyer is actually the Cardinals’ second player with a domestic violence charge: Linebacker Daryl Washington pleaded guilty in March to assaulting his girlfriend, but he was already indefinitely suspended from the team for an earlier substance-abuse violation. No NFL discipline for him on the domestic assault charge yet.

Meanwhile, Rich Lowry defends the NFL from all the bad publicity lately:

[T]he media has lost its collective mind. It’s as if the people who controlled CNN’s programming in the aftermath of the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 have been put in charge of all press coverage of the NFL, and brought to the task the same sense of proportion, good taste and dignity that characterized the network’s handling of the missing plane. The coverage of the Rice elevator video managed to combine moralistic preening with voyeuristic pandering. Everyone on TV professed to be so outraged by domestic violence that they had to show a clip of a woman getting viciously punched, over and over again (until many of the networks finally recoiled from their own overkill).

Read all of the recent Dish on domestic violence here.