I was listening to a sports radio call-in show the other day when the host wondered if Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins might be gay. It was an expression of puzzlement, not contempt; the host just couldn't understand why a 6-foot-5, 310-pound man had become depressed and quit when he was bullied and ostracized by teammates. A straight man — a real man — would have punched some people in the face. In the NFL's prehistoric culture of manhood, it's a widespread sentiment: Other players have sneered at Martin as "soft" and "weird." Hall of Fame linebacker Lawrence Taylor — who's been convicted of having sex with a 16-year-old prostitute — mocked Martin and his principal tormentor, Richie Incognito, for acting like "two women."
Pro football is America's most popular sport. It's an incredibly lucrative business, generating annual revenues of $10 billion. But if I were NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the league's owners, I'd be a little worried right now. Every time the public gets a glimpse behind the curtain, the view is extremely unappetizing. Too many NFL "heroes," we've learned, have fathered five or more children with multiple baby mamas; too many have amassed long rap sheets involving sexual assault, drugs — and even murder. Too many former players are now admitting in slurred voices that years of brutal head-knocking has permanently addled their brains, leaving them in a fog of dementia in their 50s or 60s. A recent poll found that about a third of parents would now worry about letting their son play football, because of the damage the game might inflict on their neurons. The more immediate danger is what the game might do to their values.