Sports biz: We are what we watch

In his introduction to the 2001 book, Fast Food Nation, The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, writer Eric Schlosser makes a gentle suggestion: Be an informed eater.

“People should know what lies behind the shiny, happy surface of every fast food transaction,” Schlosser writes. “They should know what really lurks between those sesame-seed buns. As the old saying goes: You are what you eat.”

For me, the National Football League’s recent concussion saga evokes a similar sentiment. What I’ve learned from the storyline is that there are two football games being played in the NFL every Thursday evening, Sunday afternoon or Monday night. There is the game I watch on TV – rich with pageantry and color, beautifully captured in dazzling slow-motion replays, scripted to segue gracefully into interludes for advertisements.

And there is the game that is played down below, on the field. That game is sweat and muscle and mucous and vomit against a backdrop of repeated violence. It’s the smacking of helmets against kneepads, helmets against shoulder pads, helmets against helmets, every down, every drive. An essential and brutal confrontation, synchronized to a play clock.

Young men who have played competitive football probably get this. The rest of us probably don’t. And probably, we should.

Because otherwise, it’s all a glittering fantasy. The NFL and its business partners – TV networks, especially – are very good at dressing up the game of football as an irresistible, made-for-television spectacle. It’s their business imperative to do so. Commissioner Roger Goodell has suggested the NFL can go from being a nearly $10 billion annual business to a $25 billion business by 2027. You don’t nearly triple your money without having a pretty good marketing playbook.

Still. The NFL’s late-August settlement of a lawsuit brought by 4,500 former players drew attention to the nearly unimaginable trail of brain trauma that has afflicted thousands of men who once played professionally. It is not a shiny or happy story. Watching the once-irrepressible Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon stumble through a television interview, unable to recall what question he’s answering, is heartbreaking. Knowing that some players chose suicide as the remedy to the moment-by-moment torment caused by the degenerative brain disease known as CTE is worse.

The better news – the news that is supposed to help us rationalize away the cognitive dissonance here – is that the NFL’s record of callousness about a possible link between the sport and brain damage has given way. The funding of medical claims and related efforts to study safety and health issues signal that the NFL is addressing the concussion tragedy with a conviction that is good for the game.

That’s not to say the league admitted publicly to a link between playing football and brain injury. Settlements don’t work that way. But fans aren’t naïve. And the public exposure of an issue that is highly unsettling forces a reckoning with a game many of us love.

What you do with it is your call, of course. I can only tell you what it means to me. It doesn’t mean I’ll stop watching. It does mean I’ll regard the game differently. I’ll admire the players a little more and the NFL a little less. I’ll be more apt to dismiss the mid-week coach’s interviews on the radio as marketing hoo-haw and the TV promotions for Monday night’s game and the smoke that ascends from the giant inflatable horse when the Broncos storm Sports Authority Field.

I’ll be more cynical about television’s penchant for replaying crushing hits as a way to promote football. The hardest thing to admit: I’ll recognize that the price somebody else is paying for my entertainment might be the quality of the rest of their life. In short, and with apologies to Eric Schlosser, I’ll know exactly what I’m eating.