Super Bowl XLVIII: The national game at a crossroads

| Senior Sports Editor

For the 30th year in a row, football is America’s most popular sport, and it’s not even close. In fact, it has been America’s most popular sport ever since the Harris Poll started asking people in 1985, with more than twice as many survey respondents saying they preferred the NFL to baseball, our supposed national pastime.

The NFL reigns supreme, but consider some of the scandals the league has endured in just the past two years:

Replacement referees botched calls in spectacular fashion before national audiences.

A linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, Jovan Belcher, shot his girlfriend nine times, drove to the team facility and shot himself in front of the head coach and general manager. Belcher’s suicide has been one of seven among former NFL players since the beginning of 2012. His mother filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Chiefs, alleging a relationship with his death and a mishandling of post-concussion symptoms.

The league settled a $765 million lawsuit with over 4,500 former players for covering up the risk of long-term damage from repeated blows to the head. A federal judge recently rejected the settlement, deeming the payout potentially insufficient to cover all the players’ medical costs.

New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was charged with murder.

Miami Dolphins offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the team after enduring racist, homophobic and misogynistic bullying, exposing a culture of hazing within NFL locker rooms.

Former Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe, an outspoken gay rights advocate, claimed that special teams coach Mike Priefer told him, “We should round up all the gays, send them to an island, and then nuke it until it glows.”

All along, a bumbling owner in the nation’s capital, Daniel Snyder, continues to defy reason and human decency by refusing to drop a slur from his team’s title.

This record of controversy would have closed your neighborhood mom-and-pop shop long ago, but two weekends ago, the NFL delivered a pair of perfect (I would hit caps lock on “perfect” if I could) matchups. First, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady flashed us back a decade in the AFC Championship Game, and Manning made us wonder whether he is the greatest ever at this quarterbacking job.

The ensuing NFC Championship game between the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks was predictably breathtaking and predictably brutal. Between “12th Man” roaring and “Beast Mode” scoring—plus relentless quarterback pressure from San Francisco—a new player went down with a gruesome injury seemingly every other possession. Then Richard Sherman happened.

We have talked and fumed and trolled extensively about Sherman already, so I will try to keep it brief. But if I see one more post from an ESPN commenter (those vaunted sages and impartial judges of all things classy) deriding Sherman’s classlessness, my head might explode. You know, the same way the heads of football players do when their brains crash against their skulls, which rattle inside their helmets as sculpted, 240-pound bodies bulldoze into them.

It’s war out there on an NFL field, and some of these people—like Sherman and Crabtree—aren’t exactly planning postgame dinner dates with each other. Many of the same comment boarders piling on Sherman watch football for precisely this spirit of combat. But then the artificial post-mortem “sportsmanship” display cleanses fans of their own self-doubt toward such morally fraught rooting interests.

Fear need not be lost for the classiest among us, however, thanks to prince Tom Brady, who quipped to the media, “We win with graciousness.”

Sorry Tom, I can’t help but ask on behalf of all the St. Louis Rams fans still out there somewhere: Remember how your team sent someone to play secret agent on the Rams’ practices before Super Bowl XXXVI? Remember how that victory launched your dramatic ascent from sixth-round pick to three-time champion and future Hall of Famer?

Humor me a final thought on Sherman: the guy started work on a master’s degree in communications from Stanford University. Please, oh classy and gracious ones, do not be so naive as to think that his persona is not a product of careful consideration. He knows that outlandish interviews will be shared and discussed far more than the usually drab postgame sound bite.

We won’t dive into the obvious racism here since Sherman can explain that part much better himself. Just watch his interview about the word “thug.”

Fortunately for the Seattle and Denver fans overcome by restless anticipation of the Manning-Sherman duel, those 21 and over puff the anxiety away. Washington and Colorado are the two states where recreational marijuana is legal, and the coincidence has touched off a debate about whether the NFL should consider allowing the drug for medicinal purposes. Numerous medical experts and writers have touted possible benefits of pot in reducing concussion symptoms, and commissioner Roger Goodell suggested that the league may eventually reform its strict anti-marijuana policy.

Of course, pot will hardly be sufficient to solve the head trauma crisis. With more studies of brains and more horror stories of former players, the severity only continues to grow more chilling, and so does the inherent danger of our cherished national game.

The complications of football fandom are so messy that even the president of the United States can hardly make sense of them. He equated football to smoking (tobacco, that is) and said he would never allow his theoretical son to play. Yet he still watches the game regularly.

So do I, and so will millions of us on Sunday. Let the moralizing begin.

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