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September 05, 2017

Storm clouds hover over NFL’s 2017 kickoff party

The National Football League starts its season this week, and once again, some ominous shadows hover over the sport: concussions, spousal abuse issues, and national anthem protests

None of these will matter in the short-term, but the NFL truly needs to address these problems before they really do impact what happens on the field.

More importantly, the league needs to worry about how these situations will play in the homes of people who watch the games.

While it would seem that the NFL is idiot-proof in terms of its decision-making, the bottom line is that if you make enough wrong turns, you will eventually wind up in a rut. And at this point, with Roger Goodell behind the wheel, the league appears to be heading toward a deep ditch.

There will be great excitement when former Eagles coach Andy Reid leads his Kansas City Chiefs against the New England Patriots on Thursday night. The excitement will peak in Philadelphia on Sunday when the Eagles attempt to break a hex in Washington against the Redskins.

Nothing, it seems, can interfere with the entertainment and excitement of the actual games … but even during the regular season, there is a great deal of time when teams aren’t banging heads – time when the deepening cracks in the NFL shield become even more pronounced.

The reality is that professional sports have become a year-round business. The days of checking out once the games have concluded have given away to a 24-hour news cycle during which a league in any sport is subject to relentless observation and analysis.

The most worrisome long-term issue is concussions, and specifically, the NFL’s complicity in the problem.

The NFL has to be concerned that parents will be less and less likely to allow their sons to play football. At this point, it seems a far away worry, but generations of players turn over quickly and a sport thrives when kids are playing the sport. Just look at the problems Major League Baseball faces as interest in the sport at its lowest levels wilted in big cities.

It’s not a difficult equation – fewer kids play Little League, fewer kids take an interest in the sport.

The Buffalo Bills will enter the season with a pair of quarterbacks who are currently under the league’s concussion protocol, and as the season goes on, they will be joined by countless numbers of others.

It’s time for the NFL to admit its past mistakes and prove that it’s serious about the problem by teaming with the medical community to make the sport safer.

Despite the NFL’s attempts to make clear that fact that it has zero tolerance for players involved in domestic abuse, there is a continued perception that locker rooms are havens for unsavory characters.

The Ray Rice incident looked to be a turning point for the league, but it hardly put a stop to these kinds of stories. Days away from the opener, the league is in a stare-down with the Dallas Cowboys over the suspension of star RB Ezekiel Elliott.

Love them or hate them, the Cowboys are a benchmark for the league – the team that drives it in terms of interest and marketing. Not even the New England Patriots and their great success, GOAT quarterback and Darth Vader of a head coach can match the interest in what happens with the Cowboys.

The problem faced by the NFL is that the Cowboys have decided to time and again roll the dice with players who have followed regrettable paths off the field, and then show up ready to hear the roar of the crowd on Sunday afternoons.

No doubt that the NFL under Goodell has attempted to take a more forceful stance against such actions, but until the individual teams hold their players to higher standards, there will be an unfortunate belief that NFL locker rooms are filled with bad acts.

The real truth of the matter is that the majority of NFL players are most likely stand-up citizens, but the few renegades throw a tremendous shade of doubt on the whole bunch.

The other ongoing issue facing the NFL is probably the one it could do something about right away, and that involves the national anthem debate that began when quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to not stand for the anthem.

As if things were not bad enough in Cleveland, the Browns are now facing a standoff with local law enforcement officials who don’t want to be part of pregame ceremonies because members of the team wouldn’t stand for the anthem during the preseason.

Then too, until and unless Kaepernick gets a job, there will be those who think his status has more to do with his politics than his abilities.

For what it’s worth, there isn’t much merit to the argument that players should “stick to sports.” There is too much history of athletes making a difference from Ali right up to J.J. Watt’s ability to raise millions upon millions of dollars to help with flood relief in Houston.

It seems pretty clear that the NFL should just make a simple rule that if you elect to come on the field during the playing of the anthem a player must stand, and if he doesn’t want to stand he can just stay in the locker room until the anthem is over.

As always, there will be great excitement when the NFL season kicks off this weekend, but the league had better figure out a way to fix its current problems or it will be sooner rather than later when the sport proves to be not so idiot-proof.