Will this “Hitting Montage” be followed by a “Pretend To Be Concerned About Player Safety Montage”, CBC?
— Andrew Bucholtz (@AndrewBucholtz) May 9, 2012
Since the conclusion of the draft, ESPN’s NFL coverage has seemed to focus on two areas. The continued spotlight on Tim Tebow has certainly irked many fans like myself although in all fairness, ratings and page-views indicate that more Tebowmania is what the people want. The other area of focus is the much darker storyline of the NFL’s two front war with player safety, and in particular, concussions.
On one front, the NFL is doing its best to mitigate a growing legal battle waged by a bevy former players via multiple class action lawsuits. The NFL is also battling increased scrutiny and criticism from fans and the media.
Although I can recall ESPN covering health of former players in the past, only recently have they seemed to really sink their teeth into it. Across all platforms and programs, ESPN is now churning out numerous thought provoking segments bringing to light the unfortunate toll professional football has taken on many of the greats of the gridiron.
ESPN is an interesting entity as they often flex their journalism muscle while also showcasing personalities who clearly aim to garner ratings and interest by fanning the flames of self created controversy. But there is a new found appetite for content covering the growing pressure on the NFL to address the long term effects the game has taken on its former employees.
The NFL is on trial. Not yet in court, but by the media and by fans. Looking at how the public sentiment is lining up behind former players, the NFL’s ability to stonewall this blooming controversy doesn’t look good. Whatever the end result is legally, the core issue boils down to the league’s culture of sacrificing long term safety for the short term on field product.
The NFL’s hypocrisy in this manner has been well established, selling pictures of hits they were punishing as illegal. But with that in my mind, the NFL isn’t alone in this “sin” of a culture that didn’t yield to player safety. When your quarterback was questionable with a head injury or any injury, were you crossing your fingers saying,”I hope he doesn’t play because the long term effects of head injuries concerns me.” No chance.
Both the local and national media also share in that guilt for contributing to that culture as well. Although the media has suddenly been forced via public sentiment to trade in their “These guys are warriors who will do anything to win” hats for “The NFL has been negligent for decades in taking care of their own.” It’s clear that it’s a little late and they’re merely following the sudden sway of public sentiment.
ESPN, by sheer size, is the easy target to point to. They’ve done an excellent job of late covering player safety, yet we’re not too far removed from moments like this where some of their largest personalities delight in kill shots to the head aimed at mostly unprotected players.
Even in 2006 (way ahead of the current outcry for player safety), the segment was drawing some controversy from the likes of SI’s Dr. Z:
“You ever watch that “Jacked Up!” thing before the Monday night game? Some poor guy gets leveled with a kill-shot, and the yahoos in the studio all yell, “Jacked Up!” I think I wrote this last year but I’ll repeat it, if you don’t mind. Those network commentators were born into the wrong era. They’d have been right at home in 17th or 18th Century England, enjoying a nice outing at a public hanging. And when the trap is released and the poor guy is hung, they’d all yell, “Jacked Up!””
Michael David Smith shared in that sentiment and pried for some clarification about the segment’s tone from Tom Jackson and Chris Berman:
“I always thought Jacked Up! essentially celebrated cheap shots and injuries, making it the closest thing basic cable had to a snuff film. But before tonight’s installment of Jacked Up!, Jackson and Chris Berman made pains to preface the segment by telling the viewers, “nobody got flagged, nobody got hurt.” Apparently there’s a policy in place that Jacked Up! won’t include any hits that caused injuries or drew penalty flags. This is a good thing, I guess.”
Seems like we’re splitting hairs here. To ESPN’s credit, Jacked Up was done away with and ESPN was certainly not alone in glorifying hits that may have proven to be harmful to player safety. Also it’s not like people didn’t revel in these segments as I was even in one fantasy league where an owner proposed a rule rewarding defensive players with points for hits that would be featured on Jacked Up. (The rule didn’t pass.)
Flip flopping on how you view an issue isn’t always wrong nor should it be villified. Perspective and sentiment evolve over time. With that said, when you have segments like Jacked Up and then spearhead the investigation into player safety, I think an explanation or some level of discourse on the issue is warranted. There are many personalities at ESPN and it’s easy for ESPN and others to blame the zeal for knockout shots on just rogue personalities, producers, shows, and segments and then pretend it never existed.
At the end of the day, Jacked Up was a featured part of Monday Night Countdown and was celebrated with unbelievable enthusiasm from Tom Jackson and the guys on set. For the same group of personalities to suddenly have a bleeding heart for player safety feels very disingenuous. While ESPN continues to embrace/evolve the new found interest in player safety, it’s fair for fans to question the media and ESPN’s role in glorifying and embracing the very culture that is currently on trial. Washing your hands with no explanation on how and why they got dirty just isn’t enough. The idea that there is a singular entity, person, or decision for a cultural problem that purveyed the sport for decades is what’s really jacked up.