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What Happened To the NFL?

Tonight, I’ll watch when Washington visits Minnesota, just as I’ve enjoyed the NFL since I was a boy 50 years ago. My father, my son and I have watched the evolution of the NFL for generations. It’s been the backlighting for Thanksgivings and a cause for phone calls of delight or misery as recently as last Sunday. But, especially in the last couple of years, the deluge of ugly, even horrific news surrounding the NFL has become a source of shock, chagrin and even critical self-examination for many of us.

Where are we, where is pro football? The NFL doesn’t have a PR problem. It has a reality problem. And it may be a grave one. Every month, and it seems every few days, the NFL is inundated by new barely-suspected revelations. What has the NFL become? Or is this what it has been for some time? Is the truth coming out of the shadows?

The list is stunning. It’s cumulative effect, not any one particular item, is the true confidence-shaking shock.

The NFL is now the league of murder charges against Aaron Hernandez — gang execution style. The NFL is the league of murder, then suicide, with Jovan Belcher killing his girlfriend then shooting himself in the head in a parking lot by his stadium as his coach and general manager watched.

The NFL is the league of concussions, cover-ups for decades and in-house pseudo-science to discredit critical research. That is, until dementia, insanity and a $765-million settlement with its own players hits the headlines. The NFL is a “League of Denial.”

The NFL is the sport where future Hall of Famer Junior Seau, barely retired, shot himself in the heart so his brain could be studied by science to help prove that chronic traumatic encephalopathy is a core part of football, with risk of brain damage down to the smallest kids who play it. It’s the league of Dave Duerson, 50, who took the same bullet to the chest exit in 2011. CTE found. Ray Easterling, 2012 suicide, CTE found. Six weeks ago, Paul Oliver, 29, committed suicide in front of his wife and children.

The NFL is the league of chronic degenerative injuries and grotesquely crippled stars, like Jim McMahon who can’t remember his name just 25 years after playing quarterback in the Super Bowl.

The NFL is the league of thug bullies like suspended Miami Dolphins guard Richie Incognito, who allegedly extorted money, texted racist insults and made death threats to a young teammate. It’s the league of $15,000 stripper parties in Las Vegas, paid for by intimidated, hazed rookies that don’t make the trip but pay the check even if it busts them.

The NFL is the league where, a year ago, greedy owners planned union-crushing lockouts and pulled it off. It’s the league where owners gang up to enforce collusion and punish Washington with a $36 million salary cap penalty because it didn’t go along.

The NFL is the workaholic league of coaches who know 100-hour weeks are expected and self-destructive obsession — who says that’s so bad. On Sunday, Gary Kubiak had a minor stroke and collapsed as he walked off the field; just two days earlier John Fox, who had heart surgery Monday, collapsed on an off day when he took a break to play golf.

The NFL is the league where famous teams and coaches, like the Patriots and Bill Belichick, are fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for cheating, where a Super Bowl winning coach (Sean Payton) is out of work for a year because his assistants offered cash bounties to injure opposing players (more if they are carried off the field). It’s the sport that suspends and fines Brandon Meriweather for intentional hits to the head only to have him respond that he’ll just switch to “ending careers” with hit-the-knee injuries.

The NFL is the league where star quarterbacks face sexual harassment or rape charges and where a hero of the last Super Bowl has beaten a murder rap. The NFL is the league that, to save money, fights in court to maintain a college-based feeder system for its pro talent, contributing to corruption of college athletics. The NFL, last year, used incompetent scab referees to wrestle a few bucks from its real officials.

The list seems endless, yet it never ends. The NFL is the league where you hold your breath week to week, almost day to day, to find out what crime, what betrayal of trust, what warped values for the young the sport can become identified with next. The NFL is the league where a nickname, like “Redskins,” looks comfortably at home.

This is what we know, what we now have to digest, as individuals and as a sports-fascinated culture that has raised the NFL to the status of “favorite game” — by far.

We already know these NFL shock headlines and more. What we haven’t done yet is put it all together, look at the monstrosity that’s risen before our eyes in the last couple of years, and weep. The NFL PR machine always has small-picture rebuttals for big-picture incriminations. That works one issue at a time. But the day comes, and may have arrived, when the correct response is simply, “Look at all of it. Explain away the entire pattern.”

If the NFL doesn’t alter its culture, it won’t be “America’s game” forever. Pro football isn’t going away, any more than prize fighting has died. But status among sports can change — a lot. Is the NFL already so violent and infatuated with its own wealth that its phenomenal success will handicap it in facing the breadth and depth of its problems and prevent it from properly protecting its long-term future?

Tonight, I’ll still be watching. What my late father and I didn’t know when we cheered the sport we’d both played was that, someday, a game that linked generations would also be the source of so many ugly questions.

Like millions, I grew up as pro football grew up. It’s been part of my life. But, in time, I can gradually change.

Can the NFL?