Dave Zirin on NFL Season's Lowlights: Domestic Abuse, Concussions and Seahawks' Super Bowl Screw-Up

February 02, 2015

The National Football League’s tumultuous 2014-15 season ended Sunday with the New England Patriots’ dramatic Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks. The game capped a year that saw growing scrutiny of the NFL, most notably its poor handling of domestic violence cases. More than half of players accused of domestic violence during commissioner Roger Goodell’s tenure have gone without league punishment. The NFL is also under fire for its handling of player safety, predominantly concussions. While fans still turn out in record numbers, four in 10 parents now say they would think twice about letting their own child play football. We are joined by Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation magazine and host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM. In addition to talking about these NFL controversies, Zirin discusses the Super Bowl’s closing moments, when the Seahawks chose not to give the ball to against-the-grain star running back Marshawn Lynch and opted for a risky play that cost them the game.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn to the biggest football game and the biggest television event of the year: the Super Bowl. On Sunday, the New England Patriots scored a dramatic 28-24 comeback victory over the Seattle Seahawks. An estimated 113 million Americans were expected to tune in to the game, making it among the most watched Super Bowls in history. Advertisers spent around $150,000 per second of air time—about $4.5 million for a 30-second commercial. Last season, the National Football League, or NFL, earned at least $1 billion in profits.

The Super Bowl comes as the NFL is embroiled in a number of controversies, including its poor handling of domestic violence cases. More than half of the players who have been accused of domestic violence during Roger Goodell’s tenure as NFL commissioner have gone without punishment from the league. During Sunday’s game, the NFL teamed up with the No More campaign to run an anti-domestic violence PSA. It features an abused woman dialing 911. She’s ostensibly trying to order a pizza, but the police dispatcher listens carefully and realizes the woman is actually speaking in code because her abuser is in the room with her. During the call, startling images of the inside of a wrecked home are shown. Let’s go to the PSA.

911 OPERATOR: 911 operator, 911, where’s the emergency?

CALLER: 127 Bremier.

911 OPERATOR: OK, what’s going on there?

CALLER: I’d like to order a pizza for delivery.

911 OPERATOR: Ma’am, you’ve reached 911. This is an emergency line.

CALLER: Yeah, a large with half pepperoni, half mushroom.

911 OPERATOR: You know you called 911. This is an emergency line.

CALLER: Yeah, but do you know how long it will be?

911 OPERATOR: OK, Ma’am, is everything OK over there? Do you have an emergency or not?


911 OPERATOR: And you’re unable to talk because?

CALLER: Right, right.

911 OPERATOR: OK, is someone in the room with you? Just say yes or no.


911 OPERATOR: OK, it looks like I have an officer about a mile from your location. Are there any weapons in your house?


911 OPERATOR: Can you stay on the phone with me?

CALLER: No. See you soon. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: The PSA ends with the words across the screen: "When It’s hard to talk, it’s up to us to listen." The PSA was based on a true 911 call taken by a dispatcher named Keith Weisinger.

Meanwhile, the NFL is also under fire for its handling of player safety, and concussions, in particular. While fans still turn out for the Super Bowl in record numbers, four in 10 parents now say they would think twice about letting their own child play football.

The NFL is also dealing with a scandal over the alleged under-inflating of footballs used by the New England Patriots in the AFC Championship game. Journalists have raised questions about the league’s handling of the scandal known as "Deflategate."

Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by none other than sports journalist Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation magazine, host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM. He’s also host of a Pacifica Radio show with Etan Thomas called The Collision, where sports collide with politics.

Dave, welcome back to Democracy Now! But before we go to the issues I just addressed, let’s go to those last seconds of the game: With less than a yard, why didn’t the Seahawks give the ball to Marshawn Lynch? Can you explain who he is, for people who don’t watch sports—


AMY GOODMAN: —and why this matters, why we’re talking, actually, sports right now?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, I’m very aware that maybe a lot of Democracy Now! listeners chose to join the two-thirds of Americans who did not watch the Super Bowl last night, but this will probably be discussed around your water cooler today. The Seattle Seahawks were down four points, from the one yard line, with under 30 seconds to go. It was second down. And they had one of the most punishing running backs in the history of the National Football League, Marshawn Lynch, ready to give the ball to score the winning touchdown. It seemed like it was already written. People were already celebrating on the sidelines. The tweets were already flying fast and furious that the Seahawks were going to win the Super Bowl. Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady’s head was already in his hands. But unexplicably—inexplicably, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, Russell Wilson, was told to throw a crossing pattern across the middle of the field from the one yard line—a play that, honestly, is never called in any game under any situation. The Patriots picked the ball off, and the game was over.

And already, you are seeing a rebellion in the Seahawks locker room—in the very authoritarian structure of the National Football League, this is very rare—questioning why the coaches made that call, questioning why Marshawn Lynch was not handed the ball, and even asking much more pointed, conspiratorial and political questions about whether there was some kind of vested interest on the Seattle Seahawks sideline in making the clean-cut Russell Wilson the hero of that game, instead of the more rough-and-tumble Marshawn Lynch.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk more about why you think that happened.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, first of all, let me say that this is not my conspiracy theory I’m pulling out of whole cloth. A player said it off the record to Mike Silver from the, and I spoke to somebody who was inside that locker room. And granted, they were in a state of shock, but all they kept saying over and over was, "They didn’t want Marshawn to be the hero. They didn’t want Marshawn to be the hero." And without judging the veracity of this theory, it is worth explaining why.

Russell Wilson is very young. He’s very clean-cut. He’s 26 years old. He’s about to get a new contract. Him being the face of this billion-dollar entity that is the Seattle Seahawks going forward is something that the people of the NFL would absolutely love.

Marshawn Lynch is going to be 29 years old this summer. That’s actually quite old for a running back. And he’s also due a new contract. If you haven’t paid attention over the last two weeks, you might not know this, but Marshawn Lynch is very, very interesting and rebellious. The best way to put it, like labor journalist Sarah Jaffe put it, is that Marshawn Lynch is someone who believes in seizing control of his own labor, meaning he won’t talk to reporters even though it’s in his contract to talk to reporters, meaning he refuses to do anything that the NFL wants him to do. As one teammate said, he refuses to dance. Instead, he is himself. He is Marshawn Lynch. And so, he just says, over and over again, "I’m just talking so I won’t get fined." And he said that 29 times at the Super Bowl Media Day. "I’m just talking so I won’t get fined." Saul Williams, the great poet, he described that as poetry: "I’m just talking so I won’t get fined." He said, "Marshawn Lynch is a poet." And there’s a way in which that connected with a lot of people who don’t like being told what to do by authoritarian, top-down corporate structures.

So Lynch became somewhat of a folk hero, and also somewhat of a bête noire for the people in the higher offices of the National Football League. So hence the theory goes, "OK, we’re going to win this game anyway. Who’s going to be the person who says, ’I’m going to Disney World!’ and gets to be the big star at the end of the day? Let it be Russell Wilson," who’s kind of like Derek Jeter 2.0. "Don’t let it be Marshawn Lynch."

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the issue of domestic violence. Miko Grimes, the wife of Dolphins cornerback Brent Grimes, took to the Twitter—took to Twitter last week to excoriate the NFL. In a series of fiery tweets, she said, quote, "The NFL is the [bleep]iest, SHADIEST, DISRESPECTFUL professional sport in the WORLD and as long as i breathe air, I will talk [bleep] about em!" and "I have friends that were beaten, thrown down stairs WHILE PREGNANT, guys arrested, & the NFL suspended them ONE [bleep]ing GAME! Now yall care?" she wrote. So, talk about what she said, and also talk about the PSA that went out to this 100 or so million people who were watching the Super Bowl last night, Dave.

DAVE ZIRIN: No, absolutely. I mean, the argument that Miko Grimes is expressing is one I have certainly heard from a lot of people who are connected to the NFL, from NFL families, and from people who work on the issue of domestic violence and intimate partner violence who are trying to partner with the National Football League, that it’s all optics, it’s all public relations, that the National Football League has spent decades covering up issues of domestic violence, and that if Ray Rice had not been caught on videotape punching his then fiancée Janay Palmer, that would have been just another time when it was brushed under the carpet. Yet it went viral, and the NFL has had to respond by doing these kinds of PSAs.

Now, maybe these PSAs will do some good. As we know, raising awareness does have its benefits on this issue. It cuts against the shame that too often accompanies issues of intimate partner violence. Yet, at the same time, the folks who actually do the work are very concerned that the National Football League is far more concerned with the public relations of this, and far too concerned with operating as a model of punitive measures, to actually punish players, suspend players, expel players from the league who are caught in acting in domestic violence, and aren’t trying to reach out to families. And the fear is that if you are an NFL wife or girlfriend or child who’s in this situation, you would be less likely to come forward if you think that the entire financial future of your family would be imperiled.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to the president of the National Organization for Women, Terry O’Neill, who has called the NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell—she has called on him to resign.

DAVE ZIRIN: Mm-hmm, she’s absolutely correct. Yeah, oh, yes—

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s—I want to go to Terry O’Neill.

DAVE ZIRIN: Yes, yes.

TERRY O’NEILL: Roger Goodell has done some things right. He reached out to the National Network to End Domestic Violence. He established a new policy. The policy is not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction. But the problem is he is continuing to treat this as an image problem. He’s trying to diminish it, deflect, evade, that it’s just about Ray Rice. We believe that it is really not just about Ray Rice. Roger Goodell cannot credibly commit to making the kinds of changes throughout the organization that we believe need to be made, and that’s why we think he needs to go.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Terry O’Neill. You, too, Dave Zirin, have called for Roger Goodell to go. Talk about her views and your views.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, she’s absolutely right, because there’s a legal term, "fruit from a poison tree," and that’s who Roger Goodell is at this point. He’s a poison tree. So no matter what he does, given the fact that the first 55 players who were accused of domestic violence under his tenure, Roger Goodell effectively just sat on his hands, everything is going to look shady this way forward. You need to have a new commissioner who’s actually willing to work with the Players Association to figure out how to have a sensible policy on this issue, how to do something that doesn’t just show the league cares, but actually does care and actually is trying to do something to reach out to families. Roger Goodell is just not seen as an honest broker.

And you saw this in his press conference, where—that he did before the Super Bowl. Frank Luntz, the Republican spinmeister, the person who tried to teach us all that global warming was really just suntan day, just if you rebrand things, everything will be fine—Frank Luntz was there in the press conference, practically mouthing words to Roger Goodell as he said the word "integrity" like 21 times and didn’t use the phrase "domestic violence" until 21 minutes in. And then, the one time the mask slipped was when he threw some serious shade on CNN reporter Rachel Nichols, one of the few women to even be able to ask him a question in this press conference, when she asked him about the conflict of interest around the fact that the NFL is basically hiring its own independent investigators. That’s the problem. And then you see Roger Goodell snap at Rachel Nichols, you see Frank Luntz in the room, and all you can think is: How sincere really is this?

AMY GOODMAN: For years, the NFL has disputed evidence, moving on to another issue, that its players suffer a high rate of severe brain damage. However, according to a September article in The New York Times, the league stated in federal court documents it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems. The statement is the league’s most candid admission yet that the sport’s participants sustain traumatic brain injuries at a far higher rate than the general population. Last week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell praised the league for its recent efforts to protect its players.

ROGER GOODELL: We are doing more to protect our players from unnecessary risk. Hits to defenseless players this season were down 68 percent. And there were similar decreases in other areas pertaining to the safety of the game. We reported yesterday that concussions were down 25 percent this past regular season, continuing a three-year trend. And we are establishing the position of a chief medical officer. This individual, who we expect to have in place very soon, will oversee our medical-related policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Dave Zirin, that’s Roger Goodell.


AMY GOODMAN: You tweeted, doctors told the Patriots during the Super Bowl last night that their wide receiver should be checked for concussion, but he stayed in the game?

DAVE ZIRIN: Not only did he stay in the game, Julian Edelman, but he caught the winning touchdown in the game, which is just going to be more incentive to cover these things up.

Look, those percentages that Roger Goodell just put forward, those numbers are more massaged than the police numbers on the TV show The Wire. They are put forward as a way to say the NFL is doing something about these kinds of injuries. Yet we still have a commissioner in Roger Goodell who took the ALS ice bucket challenge while still denying publicly that there’s any connection between head injuries and ALS. That’s the sort of person we’re dealing with here. That’s the fruit from a poison tree. And that’s why I don’t believe anything—and no one, frankly, should believe anything—that’s coming out of his mouth about the game being any safer. Football is like smoking. And if you want to smoke, that’s your freedom, that’s your business. But do not kid yourself to think that just because you’re smoking an American Spirit and not an unfiltered Camel, that it’s somehow healthier for you.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, thanks so much for being with us, sports editor at The Nation, host of Edge of Sports Radio on SiriusXM, also with Etan Thomas does a Pacifica Radio show on WPFW, The Collision.

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