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Settlement Leaves Fans at a Moral Crossroads
The simple answer is that football is a powerful lure, a fascinating social institution that speaks volumes about the American psyche.
The more complex answer is that football is in my blood. I played the game from sixth grade through college. I knew early on that football was violent, and I have close friends who suffer from chronic ailments because of their participation. On the other hand, the game has its own code of ethics: you accept the risks, and scholarships and contracts are hazard pay.
Two weeks ago, the N.F.L. agreed to a $765 million settlement with more than 4,500 plaintiffs who had sued the league, contending their health problems were the result of their years in professional football. By settling, the former players and their families won immediate financial assistance for pressing and sometimes costly medical problems. However, they lost a golden opportunity to learn more about what might have caused them.
A trial would have forced the N.F.L. to make a concession similar to the one made years ago by the tobacco industry. That industry was ultimately forced to agree with the overwhelming medical and scientific consensus that smokers are far more likely to develop serious diseases like lung cancer than nonsmokers. There is no safe cigarette.
I had wanted to hear that kind of point-blank honesty from the N.F.L.: an acknowledgment of a correlation between violent collisions and long-term physical and mental health problems. There is no safe way to play football.
The N.F.L. has not come close to admitting its possible culpability in the debilitating injuries sustained by former players. Because of this settlement, it probably wont have to.
By accepting the leagues settlement offer, the former players and by extension current players have spoken: they know what they signed up for and are willing to take the risks. Without admitting guilt or revealing what it might have known about head injuries, the N.F.L. agreed to pay for the outcome of those risks. The settlement was a game-changer in the discussion about head injuries and player safety, and for the N.F.L., it came with a relatively cheap price tag.
The N.F.L. generates nearly $10 billion in annual revenue. The $765 million settlement represents less than half of the $1.9 billion the league receives annually just from ESPN for the rights to Monday Night Football. Even better for the league, information that might have been exposed during the lawsuits discovery process information that might have showed that the league knew more than it let on about long-term consequences of head injuries may never be revealed.
Before the agreement, fans could stand shoulder to shoulder with the retired players who were demanding money and disclosure of what the league knew about concussions, and when. The players contended they had been lied to and misled. Those pushing for answers could claim that they held the moral high ground.
The settlement has left critics of football stranded on a moral island, though I suspect a large number have not lost much sleep over the moral and ethical costs of Americas brutal pastime.
I think the fans have read about it, they think about it for about a week and they dont think about it anymore because the product is still there, said Roman Oben, a 12-year N.F.L. veteran now working as an analyst for MSG Network.
For at least a decade, fans have been exposed to dreary statistics about debilitating injuries, and they have seen a parade of retired players who continue to pay a physical and emotional price for their lives in the game.
They say, Thats awful, but the Redskins are playing the Cowboys, Oben said. Let me turn the game on. Its 1 oclock.
A lot of fans say: I cant save the world. I cant stop poverty and bring about world peace. Its out there, but I cant do anything about it except go to work, save my paycheck, pay for my DirecTV package and keep it moving.
The settlement has put all of us who watch pro football on a moral hot seat. Former players have taken the money, leaving the fans three ways to rationalize their addictive zeal for these weekly spectacles.
You love the product and dont really care about its costs.
You are troubled by football but will continue to watch.
You will walk away.
I will continue to cover football as one who appreciates the opportunities the game has provided and as a cultural critic who thinks that football is merely evidence of erosion in the American soul. But the moral pendulum has swung from the owners, the executives and the players who produce footballs violence to the millions who consume it.
The league wins again, and fans are left to find their way out of a deepening moral and ethical quandary.
USC's Barkley, 3 other QBs picked in 4th round
Starting with Matt Barkley, the NFL Lines fourth round of the NFL draft was the landing spot for quarterbacks who carried hopes of going much higher. Philadelphia traded up with Jacksonville to get the Southern California QB with the opening pick Saturday.
''I try not to get stressed about things I can't control,'' Barkley said when asked about his drop in the draft from likely first-rounder in 2012 to No. 98 overall. ''I'm just glad I know where my home is and I can't wait to hit the playbook.''
Yes, it was three rounds later than Barkley hoped for. Same thing for Ryan Nassib of Syracuse, Landry Jones of Oklahoma and Tyler Wilson of Arkansas, the other quarterbacks chosen in Round 4.
''We're going to take the best value on the board,'' coach Chip Kelly said, adding the Eagles rated Barkley in the top 50. ''There's a prime example. The best value on the board by far was Matt. He's an extremely mature young man, intelligent, articulate. He has that 'it' factor.''
Perhaps. But he seemed to have a lot more of it last year, but Barkley opted to return to school. He and the Trojans slumped, Barkley injured his shoulder, and his stock plummeted.
He will join quarterbacks Michael Vick and Nick Foles in Philadelphia.
The New York Giants, hardly in need of a quarterback with Eli Manning in his prime, still dealt with Arizona to move up for Nassib.
Nassib, from the Philadelphia suburbs, took a call from Giants coach Tom Coughlin, but wasn't sure what Coughlin told him.
''To be honest with you, I blacked out. I didn't get everything,'' Nassib said. ''What I did get from him was that first off I had to cut my ties with the Philadelphia Eagles and switch, which won't be a problem.''
Oakland, which acquired Matt Flynn from Seattle in the offseason to be its starter, followed two picks later at No. 112 overall with Wilson. Three spots after that, Pittsburgh grabbed Jones, probably hoping to groom him behind Ben Roethlisberger.
''I just think it was time to start grooming a new player, freshen up the room if you will,'' quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner said.
''I get to learn from one of the best quarterbacks to play the game,'' Jones added.
Before Saturday's surge, quarterbacks were rare - only one was chosen in each of the first three rounds: Florida State's EJ Manuel by Buffalo in the first round; West Virginia's Geno Smith by the Jets in the second; and North Carolina State's Mike Glennon by Tampa Bay in the third.
In all, 11 QBs were selected, the same number as last year. But four went in the first round in 2012.
A former quarterback, Denard Robinson of Michigan, is headed to Jacksonville, which had one of the league's worst offenses the last two years. Robinson will be switched to running back or receiver by the Jaguars; he set the NCAA record for career yards rushing (4,495) by a quarterback.
''A lot of people have put me at different positions,'' he said. ''Now it's time to go to work.''
South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, who would have been a high pick if healthy but is coming off a second severe knee injury, went to the 49ers 131st overall. San Francisco can afford to ''redshirt'' Lattimore because it has a strong stable of runners, including Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
''We really haven't even talked about that, so I don't have any clue,'' Lattimore said about possibly sitting out 2013 to heal completely. ''My main goal right now is to go in there and work hard, go in there and learn the offense, and if I'm ready to play, I'm going to play, and if I'm not, I'm not.''
Lattimore, who dislocated his left knee and tore three ligaments last season, said he spoke with Gore during his rehab.
''And now I'm with the 49ers, and it's just a great, great situation for me,'' Lattimore said.
Special teamers finally got the call when three kickers went in the fifth round: punters Jeff Locke of UCLA to Minnesota and Sam Martin of Appalachian State to Seattle, and placekicker Caleb Sturgis of Florida to Miami.
National champion Alabama, which had four players chosen previously - three in the first round - had five more go on the final day: linebacker Nico Johnson to Kansas City with the pick after Barkley was taken; guard Barrett Jones, who can play all offensive line positions, to the Rams; DTs Jesse Williams to Seattle and Quinton Dial to San Francisco; and tight end Michael Williams.
Mr. Irrelevant, the 254th and final pick, was tight end Justice Cunningham of South Carolina by Indianapolis.
AP Pro Football Writer Rob Maaddi and Sports Writers Tom Canavan, Will Graves and Mark Long contributed to this story.
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