Football is at an interesting cross-roads right now, and changing in many new and interesting ways. Sure, the game on the field is still about running, passing, and tackling, but the overall culture and philosophy that serves as a backdrop to the what you watch is seemingly keeping up with contemporary times.
At the NFL level we have recently witnessed several major paradigm shifts, including the ways in which the league deals with homosexual players, and players who have been bullied. In both cases, greater sensitivity is being shown. Similarly, the NFL is more concerned about on-field injuries, especially head injuries. Never before have we seen such efforts to protect players from concussions, a move likely triggered by the massive $700+ million law suit former player won against the NFL last year.
Supporters of these changes will claim they are long overdue, and that players should not feel discrimination for being gay, nor should they play in fear because of bullying in the locker room. Protecting players from future brain injuries is also important, even if it means more rules and penalties on the field. Conversely, critics argue the league is becoming too soft, and that football is a rough game played by men with no place for dealing with politically correct topics like gay rights, or protecting players from bullying. Whether you like these changes or not, the NFL is addressing them and the culture of the game is changing as a result.
Changing the culture within a very rough game
Critics feel that the NFL is going too far in attempting to “humanize” social unjust within a game that is laced with machismo, aggression, and physical play. Unlike the work environment you are a part of that probably consists of sensitivity training, professionalism, and specific rules around what constitutes a civil and fair workplace, the NFL hasn’t really been concerned with those things before now. In fact, the NFL locker room is probably a place like you have never seen – at least according to one player who describes it in detail.
Understanding that the NFL is a rough place, the questions then turns to how much can the league really change? Some might even be wondering what “next issue” is coming in the years ahead that will further impact the previously accepted tough culture of the league? With players these days that have been bred their entire lives to play aggressively and fight tooth and nail for every non-guaranteed contract they sign, is it fair and/or worthwhile to push sexual orientation sensitivity and anti-bullying campaigns on them? Many players have already spoken out about these changes.
The question isn’t whether issues like treating gay players fairly or protecting players from bullying are worthy topics for the NFL – they clearly are. The problem, however, is in integrating new philosophies within a culture that has for decades not really focused or shown concern for “soft” issues that are not congruent to the tough guy culture of the game.
What does the future hold?
Where the needle ends up with respect to social and human issues is anyone’s guess, but it will likely be a combination of fan support and the NFL’s own guiding principles. Will the NFL continue to make strong efforts to protect players – both in and out of the locker room? Or will fans have the final say with how they respond to these issues — including how they feel about openly gay players, or the lengths the league will go to better protect players by instituting more rules and penalties for hits to the head? Similarly, will fans scoff at the idea that the league is dedicating efforts to protect NFL players from being bullied, and thereby stop the movement dead in its tracks? All these questions will be answered in the years ahead.