Does The NFL Have The Moral High Ground?

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We're doing a season-long NFL roundtable with our friends at Slate. Check back here each week as a rotating cast of football watchers discusses the weekend's key plays, coaching decisions, and traumatic brain injuries.

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From: Josh Levin
To: Tommy Craggs, Stefan Fatsis, Tom Scocca

The NFL is America's favorite institution, the country's last remaining pocket of mass culture. As the league's "Back to Football" ad campaign captures in a saccharine sort of way, the game is beloved by fathers, sons, high-schoolers, cubicle jockeys, the elderly, and waddling bulldogs. It is the only thing we can all agree on, the one sport to rule them all.

In the NFL's most-violent weeks, football also seems like a bloodsport that will soon be a relic of the blockheaded past. As we approach Thursday's season-opening hullaballoo between the Saints and Packers, though, the chatter about football's moral bankruptcy has receded. Perhaps that's because the gray-matter-obliterating NFL at least feels less spiritually empty than the college game. Last month, the owners and players signed a new labor deal that will keep the league's TV billions flowing for another decade. Yes, football pulverizes your brain, but at least the guys in the pro trenches don't have to hit the black market to get paid. Moral advantage: NFL.

The biggest recent ethical headache for Roger Goodell and Co., it must be said, was instigated by dirty, dirty college football. Yes, as Tommy argued in Deadspin, the league's decision to suspend Ohio State's Terrelle Pryor for violating the NCAA's rules was probably illegal. I won't complain, though, because it led to my favorite offseason move: the Indianapolis Colts' decision to suspend Pryor's old coach, the team's newly hired "video-replay consultant" Jim Tressel. For all the boffo transactions the last few months—everyone good to the Eagles, everyone who's fat and/or on Twitter to the Patriots—the Colts' hiring of the tattoo-undone Tressel was the most delicious. Each Sunday, the sweater-vested Big 10 outcast will sit high atop some domed stadium, scrutinizing a flat screen for officiating errors. For Tressel, this is essentially a season-long stint in football's penalty box—video-replay consultancy as purgatory. After further review, this is kind of awesome.


The Colts' on-field situation is less awesome, with franchise totem Peyton Manning likely to miss time with complications from off-season neck surgery. Stefan and Tommy, you've both written about Indy's nerdy, socially stunted, genius, pain-in-the-ass quarterback. By all accounts, Manning is a control freak who believes he can move defensive backs with his mind and studies film until the projector wants to go home. While Brett Favre pathetically tried to play like a kid as an old man, Manning played like an old man even as a kid. Though there's no defeating old age, especially when old age gets imposed on you by a 350-pound nose tackle, the latter approach is at least more dignified.


The only way to leave football with all of your dignity intact is to retire, like Barry Sanders did, when you're close to your physical peak. Peyton's older brother Cooper Manning actually had to quit the game before his college career began due to a congenital narrowing of his spinal column. I wonder if Cooper's spine will make Peyton ponder the wisdom of playing in the NFL after two neck surgeries. Ravens tough-guy Ed Reed, after all, said that he'd quit if he had to go under the knife like Manning. "I love this game," Reed said, "but I love myself more."

Stefan, as an impartial observer, what do you love more—pro football or Ed Reed? I'm also curious to hear what you think about Mike Tanier's recent New York Times story, which argued that we're in for a low-scoring, penalty-laden season on account of this summer's work stoppage. Do you buy that argument, and do you think that fans will be able to tell if the game is just a bit sloppier?


The previous paragraph is under review.


Josh Levin is a Slate senior editor. You can e-mail him at, visit his website, and follow him on Twitter.