Rose-colored glasses conceded, the ’50s were still the best decade ever. Uncle Sam was propping up recovering Europe, our borders were not being overrun, the French Riviera was not covered by cement and inhabited by oligarchs and oil-rich camel drivers, tennis players played for love, and Mickey Mantle hit balls way out of the park without the aid of steroids. And pro football had suddenly caught on. The pros ran onto the field wearing those capes that made them look like ancient warriors, and once the game began we heard the noise—unheard-of until then—of bodies hitting bodies at great speed. That wonderful novelist Irwin Shaw once took me to the Giants’ training camp and told me to just listen: for the noise. I was hooked. There was the great Sam Huff, a nice boy from the South, whom Time magazine had put on its cover when Time was the No. 1 weekly in America. The story was called “The Violent World of Sam Huff.” There was the all-American boy hero, clean and handsome Frank Gifford; the Texan Kyle Rote; the two grizzly, beaten-up quarterbacks Chuck Conerly and Y.A. Tittle; the two Roosevelts, Grier and Brown; and Arnie Weinmeister; and Andy Robustelli; and many more. The present winless Cleveland Browns had not lost a game throughout the ’50s, or so it seemed, as they won the NFL championship year in and year out. Their quarterback was Otto Graham, their fullback Marion Motley; and coach Paul Brown had given his name to the team. There were other great stars of other teams—too many to mention, but names like Unitas, Bednarik (last pro to play both offense and defense), Van Buren, Waterfield, and Ameche stand out.
With the ’60s came the great Green Bay Lombardi teams, so disciplined and drilled there were games the Packers were not charged with a single penalty. Fuzzy Thurston led an offensive wall that made it easy for glamour-puss Paul Hornung to pay dirt. The biggest personality of all belonged to a Greek American, Alex Karras, an All-Pro tackle for the Detroit Lions, who made such funny remarks in the middle of mayhem that opponents and teammates complained that they were laughing too hard to function. Alex went on to a lucrative Hollywood career and married the beautiful Susan Clark.
But that was then. And this is now: cheap shots, head shots, blindside shots, tackles designed to disable, unsportsmanlike conduct as routine, post-play trash talk, taunting of fallen opponents, and, of course, exploitation of the national anthem to show the rest of us that NFL players are righteous, socially concerned young men. Oh yes, I almost forgot. Once upon a time a touchdown was celebrated not at all, the player simply putting the ball on the ground and returning to the bench to be congratulated by his teammates.
Off the field, NFL players are leaders in beating up girlfriends and wives, arrested for drugs, jailed for murder, and prone to all sorts of antisocial behavior. Some of them are the same social scolds who kneel during the anthem. The extracurricular violence is too widespread and the incidents too numerous to list in this space. I will just mention the last one I witnessed, while watching the Steelers play the Bengals on Dec. 4. JuJu Smith-Schuster, a black defensive back for the Steelers, leveled a black Bengal, Vontaze Burfict, who was away from the action and not anticipating a block, with a high hit helmet-to-helmet and laid him out cold. JuJu then stood over him, taunting him and yelling profanities. Instead of being ejected from the game, his team was charged with a 15-yard penalty. His coach said nothing.
The man who could put a stop to all this mayhem, Commissioner Roger Goodell, makes $50 million annually and is guaranteed a private jet for life as well as health insurance for the duration. Instead of declaring the violence illegal and calling career-threatening hits what they are, Goodell turns a blind eye because he believes the violence keeps audiences glued to their seats. In this he is mistaken. Americans continue to tune out the NFL. The decline in NFL viewers is accelerating yearly.
When pro football caught on, teams like the Bears, the Giants, and the Steelers were owned by men who had invented them, like George Halas in Chicago, Art Rooney in Pittsburgh, and Wellington Mara in New York. Today, new billionaire owners like Snyder in D.C., Kraft in Boston, and Blank in Atlanta made their dough outside football and only look at the bottom line. Like the commissioner, they believe violence pays. Whereas in the past an owner would fire a player for crimes committed outside the field, here’s Janoris Jenkins of the Giants (I will give only one example for the sake of space): Jettisoned from Florida U following two assault arrests and two drug busts, he was nevertheless signed to a five-year, $62.5 million deal.
Which brings me to who is responsible overall: universities that sign up high school thugs who can play, call them student athletes, and award them scholarships, then after four years let them loose for the NFL to recruit, although the college “grads” can mostly neither read nor write. And many of them are so inarticulate they can hardly string two words together without the obligatory F-word ever present. The Sam Huffs and Frank Giffords of yesteryear could not only read and write, they followed up their careers with successful businesses. Alas, many of today’s stars will end up in the penitentiary. There’s a reason for this: The original game of football was played by young white men who were taught to tackle hard but low. Now it’s mostly young black men who are taught to tackle helmet to helmet and hope they disable their opponent for life. So what else is new?