The Ethics of Professional Football: “Nonstop frat party”

Ah, the NFL, where owners, and by extension, we fans, treat players as so much cannon fodder. Two cases stand out this week as particularly egregious.

In Cleveland, Browns tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. revealed that it was a staph infection that put him in the hospital last week, making him the 6th Brown to be so stricken in recent years. The team, upset with Winslow for creating a “distraction,” is threatening to punish him for violating the locker room code of silence. Said Winslow:

“Nobody knew that I had staph on the team because the Browns didn’t want it to get out…But it’s my teammates’ right to know what’s going on at the facility to protect them. Their safety is at risk, too, and I didn’t agree with the Cleveland Browns, because they are protecting the organization and not the players…I didn’t get a ‘How are you doing Kellen? It’s good to have you back.’ Nothing like that,” Winslow said. “I was very disappointed. I basically told him I don’t feel appreciated on this team by you [GM Phil Savage], and I feel like a piece of meat sometimes.”

The second incident involves the Dallas Cowboys. After fighting with his body guard (!?), Cowboy Adam Jones was suspended for at least for games by the League and enrolled in an alcohol treatment program. His coach Wade Phillips offered these words of support:

Asked if he believed the treatment will help Adam Jones deal with his problems, Cowboys coach Wade Phillips stammered a bit before reiterating that he wasn’t going to discuss players not with the team.

“Same as last week, he’s not with us,” Phillips said. “My concern is the guys that are with us, and try to get them to play well.”

Dave Zirin explored related issues when writing about Vince Young’s mental health issues last month:

In football, it is well understood that performance-enhancing drugs, legal and otherwise, are part of that process — just not antidepressants.

In such a high-pressure sport, where contracts aren’t guaranteed and any play can be your last, depression lurks like a blindside linebacker. This shouldn’t surprise anybody. Studies show that repeated concussions are linked to depression. One 2007 study that examined more than 2,500 retired NFL players found that those who had suffered at least three concussions had triple the risk of clinical depression compared to teammates. Those with one or two concussions were one-and-a-half times more likely to be diagnosed with depression.

And yet the NFL is selling a fantasy about professional football: It’s all perpetual adolescence and a nonstop frat party. Fans don’t want their star players to be human.

(Full disclosure: I’m partial to Kellen Winslow Jr., as his father was one of my favorite players of all time, due in no small part to 1982’s Epic in Miami.)

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