To help celebrate the upcoming NFL season, which starts in just a few hours as the Saints visit the NFL Campion Colts, Bob Costas devoted his weekly sports journalism show on HBO, Costas Now, to, you guessed it, football. The hour-long program was composed of four excellent interviews with San Diego Chargers running back Ladainian Tomlinson, NFL Players Union President Gene Upshaw, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and NFL Hall of Fame running back Earl Campbell and a panel discussion with Phil Simms and Michael Irvin. Each segment of the program contributed directly to my recent thoughts on the the intersection of sports, ethics, spirituality, and theology.
Given the controversy surrounding the NFL this summer, Costas’ interview with Tomlinson was a breath of fresh air. Here is a man who seems to carry himself off the field like he scores touchdowns on it, with quiet dignity. The interview focused mainly on Tomlinson’s heritage in rural Texas and the place where his slave ancestors first heard the Emancipation Proclamation. Tomlinson is as clearly aware of and respectful of those who came before as he is of his family and neighbors back in Texas. He has benefitted from the absence of hangers-on, yet one can quickly sense that he would be quick to support anyone in a time of need.
Costas’ interviews with both Goodell and Upshaw signal another ethical problem in the NFL, the health and financial well-being of retired players. The issue is much too complex to discuss here in full and is certainly one that demands further consideration, especially as so many critics heap praise on the NFL as one of the greatest professional sports leagues ever. Its fame was clearly built on the arms, legs, and backs of an underserved work force whose salaries pale in comparison to today’s league minimums. These men are also facing the delayed on-set of physical ailments as a result of not only a physically demanding game, but inferior protection (helmets, pads, treatment, etc.) as well. Costas’ panel discussion with Simms and Irvin was especially insightful as Irvin, only a few years removed from the league and still relatively young, already compains of daily aches and pains. Both Simms and Irvin recognized the need for current players to be willing to give more (financially first and foremost) to the great generation who helped bring the league thus far.
Costas’ final segment on former Houston Oilers running back Earl Campbell was saddening and sobering. After a career as one of the greatest running backs of all time and certainly the most punishing, a 52-year-old Campbell movels like he is 90 years old. When compared to Tony Dorsett who is a year older than Campbell but ran with a different style, Campbell’s poor health seems even more tragic. Thankfully, the NFL is paying greater attention to the threat of multiple concussions and trying to improve the regulations on players returning to the game after suffering a concussion. However, many questions still remain and improvements can always be made to protective gear as well. One question that immediately sprung to mind, however, while watching Campbell struggle to take a few steps was what current NFL superstars will look like in the future, both physically and financially. Will they suffer the same aches and pains as Campbell and other stars of his generation? Of course, NFL players make infinitely larger salaries than their predecessors; however, the spend infinitely more amounts of money on cars, homes, clothes, etc. than their football ancestors could have ever dreamed of. In the not too distant future, will the NFL be forced to financially compensate these players if they cannot pay their medical bills? Are current players being warned adequately enough and instructed on life after the game?
On a somewhat different note, HBO Sports has quickly become the source for serious sports journalism and analysis. While ESPN, and especially Sportscenter, tries to figure out how many graphics they can fit on a television screen, HBO Sports has remained true to all that really matters, probing interviews and intelligent analysis. Costas Now airs on Wednesday nights as does two other fantastic sports programs, Hard Knocks which focuses on the Kansas City Chiefs training camp and Inside the NFL.