The Gut Check No.281: League of Denial, Culture of Ambivalence

Metaphorically speaking, there's little difference between change and death. If you've followed the concussion issue in football then you know that the sport must die. Fortunately, there's still room for a fantasy resurrection.

League of Denial, Culture of Ambivalence

War stories and battle scars are a rite of passage to becoming a man. I suspect many women would say confrontation is a gender-neutral initiation into adulthood and I agree. However, I can only speak with 100 percent certainty from the male perspective. Be it blue collar or white collar, gay or straight, or financial heads of household or stay-at-home dads, the ability to handle a physical confrontation earns a badge of merit in American culture.

Like many of you, I earned my first badge of manhood earlier than anyone should. It was St. Patrick's Day and my mother's husband (he didn't earn the title step-father) made the wrong decision to funnel his frustration of being unemployed into an attempt to beat my mother. I was in my bedroom trying to ignore the yelling when I heard a scream and a thud against a wall.

When I ran to the kitchen I saw that this 6'1", 230-lb., former Big 10 fullback had my mother pinned against the wall with one hand around her neck and his other hand was balled into a fist.

"Hey!!!" I yelled. He looked at me frozen in that horrifying position that was about to change our lives for good or bad. His eyes drifted to the bronze-colored, aluminum Louisville Slugger I brought with me. "Let go of my mom right now, leave, and don't come back here, or I swear to God I'm knocking your head through this window and over that fence."

He removed my mother from the wall, unclenched his fist, and walked out the door. I was 11.

Four years later, I had to ask my mother if I dreamed it. She told me that I remember it exactly as it happened. This is a badge I've learn to carry with quiet pride (and a certain amount of ambivalence) that I could protect people I cared about even if the experience left some scars. 

But there are some passages of manhood that I have accumulated where my feelings about them have grown more ambivalent as I've aged. Football war stories are among them. I didn't play organized football for very long, but I played tackle football at least three to four times a week until I was 18. Sometimes my buddy Tres and I found others also willing to square off with members of our high school team.

Tres was on junior varsity for a couple of years, but despite the fact that he had speed, smarts, and could hit like a truck, the coaches wouldn't let him play in games because they feared that he was too small. By the time he grew enough to earn consideration with our high school varsity team he was already a freshman at Alabama. No matter, he made his presence felt in our local games. I still hear the hit he laid on Joel Harrison on that muddy practice field on a rainy Sunday afternoon when we were 15. 

That was one of his badges. One of mine came on the same day on a crossing route Tres threw my way. I leaped for the pass and as my hands got a grip on the ball flying over my head, the safety on our varsity team shot for my legs. I saw sky-ground-sky in quick succession as I somersaulted through the air and landed flat on my back.

The mud padded a lot of impact, but I do remember thinking as I was airborne with my feet pointed towards the clouds that I better hang onto the ball if I have to go through this kind of mess. I hung onto the ball. But my second thought should have been my first: I hope I don't break my neck.

The next day at school, the safety saw me passing through the hallway of the locker room, pushed me against the wall, smiled, and said, "nice catch," just before patting me on the back walking away. As meaningless as it is in the scheme of everyday life, you remember those things. I occasionally spoke of it with pride when swapping war stories with friends. But when I think of a 15-year-old child taking some of the risks I did, I feel a stronger dose of foolishness than pride with each passing year.

It's a badge of manhood with the stitching coming loose. There's nothing contrived about defending yourself or a loved one. I'm not sure I can say the same thing about the many displays of toughness in sport where it's questionable that this exact kind of grit was necessary when the rules could be different.

I came home from some of my pickup games with lots of minor injuries, including a few headaches that lingered into the evening, but the only time I know for sure that I ever suffered a concussion in sport was skiing with my father. A Denver native, he was a fine skier who routinely flocked to black level slopes. Growing up in Georgia, I didn't get to ski often.

However, after a few lessons in my early teens I was able to handle some easier blue-black grade courses and I tried to mimic my dad while following him through a mogul-strewn hill. Watching him jump one of the moguls, I tried the same but landed at a downward angle into another, planting my poles, and the impact ejected me head-first through the air. 

Hitting the ground, I blacked out. When I came to, I lifted my head, felt my bare hands stinging with snow, and turned around just in time to see a kid no more than 10 years-old slalom my ski poles stuck straight into the ground five yards behind me with my gloves still gripping them.

"Are you alright?"

"Yeah."

But all I could think about were my gloves still gripping the poles without my hands in them and wondering if I was dreaming. I had a headache for two days.

I didn't even think of telling my dad about it. I'm sure if I did that he would have taken me to a doctor, but I played sports all my life and my common sense was skewed by what I saw around me. If nothing was broken, required stitches, or too swollen to have full range of motion, I figured everything was ok.

It's a story of self-deprecating humor fused with a pride that comes from handling punishment. In the same way I can speak to what it's like to walk away from MARTA bus broadsiding you after it fails to break in time to stop at a crosswalk just as I was riding my bike across the street. Whether it's an encounter with the forces of nature, man, or machine, there's a primal part of us all that love the test of physical confrontation.  

Society taught me that being a man required a certain type of toughness and part of aspiring to be tough included knowing the difference between pain and injury - even if we discover in hindsight that the line was too fuzzy for even the trained medical establishment to define. Of all the sports I watched, football offered these lessons in the most compelling package - and this is coming from a writer who grew up during a generation of boxing when the heavyweight division was at its best: Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Norton, Shavers, and Holmes. 

But life is about change and death. Business writers, executives, and entrepreneurs love the term "change or die". Metaphorically speaking, there's little difference between the two. If you've followed the concussion issue in football closely over the years or watched the PBS Frontline investigative report League of Denial last night, then you know that the sport must experience some form of death. 

Most of what was in League of Denial wasn't new if you're an avid reader of this ongoing issue, but the reporting of years of events packaged into a 120-minute chronology was an important overview of the health of the game. I thought the investigative report did a fine job of demonstrating that the NFL crossed the line from protecting it's image to employing strong-arm legal and PR tactics to delay and obfuscate the concussion issue in the court of law and public opinion. 

While I think the NFL eventually did more to get things right when it decided to donate money to the medical researchers they initially opposed and then agree to donate money to independent research as a part of its settlement with the players, they were able to achieve this agreement from a position with great leverage. I'm not sure that leverage won't come at a later cost.

As a a fantasy writer and a business owner who relies on the game to put food on the table and a roof over my head I'm relieved that the NFL is moving forward. As a fan of the players who instilled my love for the game, I'm still wrestling with it all. If you ever watched former Giants defender Harry Carson play, it's difficult to ignore his statement that "The NFL gave 765 million reasons why you shouldn't play football." 

There isn't a week that goes by where I don't think about the way the game is changing. Although I know they aren't best for the players, the game, and ultimately the fans, I miss the many of the old ways: the hits on the quarterback, the enforcers over the middle, and late shots. Those were badges of courage and testaments of the character of your football team. These days I find myself talking footbal with a professor in the hallway of my office - one of former Colts GM Bill Polian's oldest friends - and lamenting that the NFL passing game has it so much easier than it did just 15 years ago.

However, I think about real life outside the lines. Real life can kick your ass far worse than anything on a football field. Young former football players like my friend Ryan Riddle may say that NFL players know they what they signed up for when they don the helmet and take the field.

I respect his perspective. I also respect Riddle's view and the view of the league that there are still a lot of questions to answer about the correlation between head injuries sustained in football and degenerative brain disorders.

Yet, the early evidence is compelling enough that it should all give us pause about what we're doing moving forward. Riddle and other football players may know in theory that life will get harder as they get older. They say they will have no regrets.

But I can't help but think that they aren't older yet.

And there is a line where we have to consider public safety. Are we on the wrong side of history? Are we sanctioning a game that society will eventually knows too much about its brutality to allow?

These questions are worth wrestling if you love the game. It shows you care about it. For football I've skipped school, worn out my knees and ankles, and changed my line of work at the height of a non-football career to write about it. I'm committed to this sport.

Nor am I blind to its flaws. I want to see the game get safer, yet I complain about the decline of its physical nature. I hope for a technological miracle in terms of equipment while knowing that the laws of physics and biology as we know them aren't receptive to our football religion. I want the NFL to take care of the men who built this game, but I know if justice were served the league would be bankrupted.

My job is studying players my daughter's age who want to make a living in football. But if I had a son, I can't say I'd be disappointed if he never did more than learn the route tree as I targeted him in the back yard. Despite the appearances of finality with the NFL's legal settlement, there are no clear answers about the physical health of football at this time.

All I know is that I'm ambivalent about it all. J.R. Moehringer's Football Is Dead. Long Life Football captures it better than I could during the wee hours of Wednesday morning. However, I needed to share what I know many of you are feeling about football: Regardless of the cause and beyond those to blame, we hope our love for the game evolves in the same direction as its rules and care for its players. Fortunately, it's not too late to resurrect the health of the game.

Candidates for a Second-Half fantasy Resurrection

It's also not too late to resurrect your fantasy team. What we know after the first half of the fantasy season doesn't always apply for the rest of the year. I think that's what Adam Harstad's basic point has been during some of his Twitter debates in recent weeks. I can get with that perspective.

Russell Wilson was the 24th-ranked fantasy quarterback after six weeks in 2012. He's was the 10th-ranked fantasy quarterback from Weeks 7-16 and the No.5 fantasy passer from Weeks 9-16. Doug Martin was the No.23 fantasy runner during the first six weeks of 2012, but the top-ranked back the rest of the way. Cecil Shorts was the 66th-best fantasy receiver after Week 6 last year, but finished 25th overall by season's end - No.9 among fantasy receivers between Weeks 7-16. 

Who are my candidates who will resurrect their fantasy seasons and possibly yours? Here are my potential Heavenly Seven worth pursuing:

1. WR Keenan Allen, Chargers: The 6'2", 206-lb. Allen was my No.2 receiver in the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. I stated that I actually felt bad about ranking Allen No.2 overall because in any other class the general talk among the football media would be about how great Allen is in the open field and making "wow" plays on the football. A knee injury hurt Allen's stock and limited his chances to earn a starting gig in Chargers' camp, but for the past two weeks the rookie has displayed all the skills I saw from him in college. 

Philip Rivers loves to give his receivers chances to win the ball in tight coverage. While Vincent Brown demonstrated flashes of this skill as a rookie, Allen is the receiver best-suited to handle these targets. Physical, graceful, technically sound, and sure-handed, Allen has everything it takes to develop into a red zone threat and a consummate route runner. Get him now. 

2. WR Vincent Brown, Chargers: I gave him up for dead in several leagues when I needed help elsewhere, but the issue with Brown wasn't talent but its proper application. The Chargers' receiver is a technician, not a speedster and San Diego's coaching staff featured the third-year receiver on fades and go routes where the targets came in tight coverage and Brown had to win the ball. Many of these targets in September were not thrown well enough for Brown to even make a reasonable play on the ball. And with Malcom Floyd, the Chargers already had an experienced player in the role of underneath route technician. 

Despite Floyd's size, he's not a lesser Vincent Jackson. Keenan Allen on the other hand does have more of this offer and a dash of big-play, quick-twitch power as an open field runner. This gave the Chargers an opportunity to let Brown work against off-man and zone coverage in the short and intermediate zones and set up double moves to exploit the deeper reaches of the field. 

San Diego has done enough to establish the dangers not addressing the talents of Antonio Gates, Danny Woodhead, and Eddie Royal that Allen and Brown should continue to see quality targets - especially on a team that must throw to win. Allen is the most likely candidate of the two as a fantasy WR1, but I think Brown will make a quality WR3 down the stretch. 

3. QB Terrelle Pryor, Raiders: He's completing 68 percent of his passes and averaging 8.13 yards per attempt. Sure he's only completed 71 passes, but Michael Vick has only completed 72 with a completion percent of 54.1 percent. He should be a cheap risk for fantasy owners who went with a QB-by-committee approach with limited returns thus far or their choice of Cam Newton, Tom Brady, and Robert Griffin has bombed thus far and they need a hedge. 

If it helps you overcome an skepticism, know that I'm a Pryor convert. He was a horrible passer at Ohio State. If you judged him on his performances as a starter this year as if this was his rookie season, Pryor would have been up there with E.J. Manuel as the biggest upside passers on the board. 

4. RB Eddie Lacy, Packers: Admittedly, Lacy appears a bit sluggish in terms of quickness. I'd say the same about all the Alabama backs I've seen enter teh NFL during the Nick Saban era. However, the agility and power are present and I think the Packers schedule is favorable for him to earn a lot of carries in the second halves of games, including great opportunities against Minnesota, Philadelphia, New York Giants, and Atlanta.

5. RB Andre Ellington, Cardinals: I wasn't a believer in Ellington at Clemson. I liked his receiving skills, his speed, and his willingness to work inside. However, I wasn't sold on his size, vision, or an NFL team's willingness to allow the scat back-sized Ellington to handle the lead back duties. I'm still not, but I've seen enough good things from Ellington to have an open mind as a fantasy owner. Bruce Arians might need more convincing, but if Rashard Mendenhall gets hurt or his production declines past the point of inaction, the Cardinals schedule of Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and Tennessee from Weeks 11-15 could be a boon to those in need. 

6. WR Hakeem Nicks, Giants: Reuben Randle is the is the hip fantasy flavor of the week, but I believe Randle's physical talent only makes life easier for Nicks. The difference between the two right now is route running and the money plays. Early in the Eagles contest, Randle was open on a deep post between two defenders and he couldn't maintain possession of the ball. The next play, Eli Manning targets Nicks in double coverage on the same route and the veteran comes down with it inside the Eagles' 15. Randle is making plays on crossing routes and working open on scramble drills. Give me Nicks, who will see Philadelphia again as well as Washington, Dallas, Oakland, San Diego, and Green Bay. Thank you very much. 

7. TE Garrett Graham, Texans/Heath Miller, Steelers: With Owen Daniels likely to miss a few weeks and the Texans passing game struggling, look for Graham to earn that old-reliable role that a tight end offers its quarterback. If you're seeking a more long-term option, go with Heath Miller. He's only played one week thus far and posted top-12 production. He's literally the best old-reliable check-down in the league after Tony Gonzalez and Antonio Gates.