NFL Free Agency is open so football is on the minds of many Philadelphians again. (The Flyers can never seem to catch a break it seems.) Howie Roseman’s apparent mastery of trades and contracts, though, isn’t the top story. It’s all about Jeff Miller’s, the NFL’s senior VP for Health and Safety, admission that there is a direct link between playing football and CTE. It was the first time that an NFL official publicly made that connection and it has the sports world a little rattled (no pun intended).
Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease found in many athletes who play in aggressive sports like football, hockey, wrestling, bull riding, rodeo, even motocross. It was the subject of the 2015 film, “Concussion.” (One New Yorker writer argued that the film makes a Christian argument against football.) Will Smith played Dr. Bennet Omalu (really, in a convincing role) who discovered the disease. The film tells the story of the NFL’s brutal treatment of Omalu and how hard they tried to discredit him despite his absolutely noble endeavor.
CTE is a condition that is only really diagnosable after one’s death, and from 2011 to 2016, many deceased NFL players have been diagnosed with it. Many players that are currently living are also suspected to have it. This has led the league to react. They have introduced new equipment, new rules, and a huge legal settlement. Despite all of this, Miller’s acknowledgement is the first direct confirmation of a link between playing football and CTE. This may change the big business that is the NFL, it may cause many to stop watching, and it is convincing many parents to not allow their kids to play football too.
I seriously doubt that the NFL’s bottom line will be affected. Roger Goodell’s league has a vice grip on the American audience, and it is so lucrative for the owners of the league, that Goodell is unlikely to be fired despite his reprehensible behavior.
But the fact is, Goodell’s success doesn’t outweigh his bad leadership. Miller’s acknowledgment comes five years too late, and Goodell’s avoidance of confirmation put players at risk. For Goodell, this is par for the course, though. He doesn’t want any bad press about his league, so he tries to control damage all day. If he protected his players as much as he protected himself, maybe his players would have less health problems.
The political games that Goodell plays, though, aren’t just bad leadership, they are immoral. Goodell is playing with players’ lives and livelihood, and it seems to me like he is putting the almighty dollar ahead of them. As long as he’s getting paid, morality doesn’t matter.
I hope this is a lesson for all of us then. Christian leadership, and I’d say leadership in general, is about building trust. Goodell has failed to do that in his league, and really without any financial consequence. He doesn’t have the trust of his players and many of his viewers are suspicious. They don’t stop watching football, but they know something is rotten in Denmark. His empire, built on deception, will eventually collapse, I predict. One built on lies, falls apart. I suppose that’s why Donald Trump’s is successfully shaking the entire political establishment.
One wonders if Goodell thought he had the whole thing under wraps until Miller finally fessed up. The emperor wasn’t wearing clothes, but I wonder if he knew that or not. I think Goodell is teaching us that if we just convince ourselves that our life is OK, it will be. He is teaching us that if we invent our reality, real reality doesn’t matter. It is not just Roger Goodell who thinks this, we are socially constructing our worlds and have been taught to do so for decades.
But the world is real, our actions have consequence, and we can be a part of making it a better place, a place where God’s spirit is known, felt, and embodied. I, for one, am thankful that I am motivated by more than just my own construction of reality and the money I make off of it. I am grateful that I am called by Jesus to follow in his way, even if it means that I will suffer pain and loss. That what moves me to follow Jesus isn’t money, success, or prosperity—but a vision for another world. Circle of Hope is giving us an opportunity to do that. You can be a part of it.
As we venture in Holy Week, let’s set our eyes on the alternative society that Jesus is creating. One that he is inaugurating through his own death, ushered into Jerusalem on a humble colt. One where our suffering is revolutionary and makes a difference. Rather than taking a page out of Goodell’s book and cover up wickedness before a do-gooder official pipes up and tells the truth, we are acknowledging our mistakes and moving with God toward healing. This whole season, we’ve been getting aware of our pain and suffering, trying to make meaning out of it, and moving toward healing. Join us.