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The 'Dangerous Times' For The NFL


As the 2018 NFL season begins, professional football is still the most popular spectator sport in America. But it's declined 10 percent in viewership last year and is beset with tough questions about how the game destroys players while it earns billions of dollars and a continuing controversy over players demonstrating their social and political concerns during the national anthem. A sport once considered a source of national unity now inspires divisions.

Mark Leibovich, The New York Times Magazine correspondent who got the goods on official Washington, D.C., in his bestselling "This Town," has turned his attention to the National Football League - his new book, "Big Game: The NFL In Dangerous Times." He's in our studios. Mark, thanks so much for being with us.

MARK LEIBOVICH: Good to be here, Scott.

SIMON: I have to ask you a hard news question first. An arbitrator ruled this week Colin Kaepernick's grievance against NFL owners could go to trial. He says NFL owners have been colluding to keep him out of the game. Does this case have what I'll call Mueller-like potential?

LEIBOVICH: It clearly does. I mean, what we learned this week is that this is a serious case. The league has, for many months, just assumed that this was a summary judgment. It was a case that was going to be thrown out. This headache was going to end. Now, we know it's going to go forward.

And one thing I have learned in writing "Big Game" is that the NFL is a big club. We think we know everything; there's all this insider access that the NFL sells. But Colin Kaepernick, Donald Trump - these are outsiders who sort of stormed the club in their own ways. And they try to reveal things. And Colin Kaepernick, by way of this lawsuit, is going to put some very, very uncomfortable people in open court, potentially, in ways that could really expose a lot and sort of open a lot more Pandora's boxes.

SIMON: Moving on in your book, I infer that Donald Trump might never have become president if the NFL owners had let him buy a football team.

LEIBOVICH: That is the great thought experiment here. Donald Trump - he's tried to get into the NFL for maybe about four decades. If Donald Trump had gotten the Buffalo Bills in 2014, and it's not clear that he was ever close - he was sort of laughed out of the room in some ways - the NFL might have a very different headache or non-headache from the White House. And Donald Trump could be torturing them from within.

SIMON: Well, why didn't they like his bid for the Bills or any other team he's made over the years?

LEIBOVICH: They thought he was a clown. They didn't think he was serious. There's obviously a lot of history because he owned the USFL's New Jersey Generals. But no, I mean, I think between the league looking at his books or wanting to look at his books and people seeing the way Trump has operated over the years, I think many of these people or most of these people wanted no part of doing business with him.

SIMON: This book, I think it's fair to say, begins with your adoration for Tom Brady. And the...

LEIBOVICH: It doesn't begin with it, but yes, it is definitely a part of it. I have to be transparent about my...

SIMON: Oh, yes.

LEIBOVICH: ...New England roots and my New England allegiances.

SIMON: I am still flabbergasted to read about the every-minute-of-the-day discipline that goes into his life.

LEIBOVICH: Tom Brady is one of most disciplined people I have ever seen. His diet is so regimented and so - if you ask me - disgusting, but his one treat is avocado ice cream. He wears these biometric or thermodynamic sleepwear that he has patented. And apparently, it helps his restoration...

SIMON: So even while he's sleeping, he's improving...

LEIBOVICH: Yes - time's a-wasting.

SIMON: It is alarming and instructive in your book to read about your encounters with a lot of great players - Jim Kelly, the NFL quarterback - my gosh - Earl Campbell, who I think of as a tank - what they're like now because of the game in which they excelled.

LEIBOVICH: Because of the game. And you ask them, they wouldn't change a thing. I mean, I had this moment where - it was at the NFL Hall of Fame inductions in 2016 or maybe '17, I think. Tony Dorsett was in his gold jacket - Tony Dorsett, the great Dallas Cowboys running back. And I said, Tony, I remember watching you on "Monday Night Football" do that 99-yard run from scrimmage - the longest in history. And he said, there was only 10 men on the field for that. I said, really? Yes, Ron Springs, the fullback, thought - got confused, and he was actually on the sidelines. And also, we did this formation. And, by the way, that record can never be broken; it can only be tied, which, of course, is true because a play from scrimmage can't begin in the end zone - which was stunning because he could remember everything about that play, and yet I have read and learned enough about Tony Dorsett over the years and read a lot of these really sad profiles about how his life is absolutely ravaged. He cannot remember what he did, you know, 10 minutes ago. He has all kinds of physical problems from football. And you ask him at the end of these conversations, would you do it again? He said, absolutely.

SIMON: Jim Kelly, the great old Buffalo Bills quarterback, can't remember the fourth quarter of the most important football game. And as he works all his life to get into that fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, and he can't remember.

LEIBOVICH: Can't remember it, but it's on video. No, it's - I love Jim Kelly. I mean...

SIMON: Yeah, I do too.

LEIBOVICH: ...He was a great player to watch. And he's in a special case because he's had several cancers that keep returning, and he's lost a son. He suffered in ways not of his own choosing. I mean, football was his own choosing. It was very poignant, though, because he told it, like, sort of joyously. He said, oh, yeah, we called it dings back then. You know, we call it concussions now and CTE, but no, no, no, it was great. I don't remember anything. I remember wandering back to the team hotel the day after the Super Bowl and wondering why I was there and not remembering - and he thought it was a funny story.

And eventually the crowd around him - the crowd of press, kind of got a little bigger. And he sort of looked around and said, maybe this is not something I should be laughing about because, you know, we are in a different age.

SIMON: Mark, I've got to tell you - this is why I watch the Super Bowl, but I can't watch football during the regular season. It is hard for me to look at those talented athletes and think half of them, if not more, are going to wind up being permanently damaged by what I'm watching them do on the field.

LEIBOVICH: I will tell you, Scott, that the National Football League is very worried about the likes of you and people like you, of which there are many, who are taking a more closer moral look at what they're watching. I mean, football, for many years, has been the great spectacle of American life. Every year, it's, like, 70 or 75 of the most watched television shows in America are almost always football games. We love football.

Having said that, there are a lot more people, and it happens every year. And you have research that comes out every week, it seems, and testimonials from retired players and researched brains from dead players that tell us a little bit more. And as we get smarter, I think the league, you know, has to try to keep up with some kind of rule changes and equipment changes.

But ultimately, this is not a safe game. That's something we need to sort of bake into our perception of this game that has given us so much - you know, it just - we've been infatuated with for so long.

SIMON: Mark Leibovich - his new book, "Big Game: The NFL In Dangerous Times" - thanks so much for being with us.

LEIBOVICH: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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