Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Frank Deford wishes the NFL would learn some lessons from professional baseball. He says what's worse than football's violence problem is what's happening off the field.

FRANK DEFORD: Aaron Hernandez, who appears to be a monster, can no more be held up as representative of football than can Oscar Pistorius be fairly presented as an archetype of track and field. But still, Hernandez does become a culminating figure. The sport is simply more and more identified with violence, both in its inherent nature and in its savage personnel.

For so long, of course, we were all complicit in ignoring how dangerous was America's favorite game. All of us not, just the coaches and players and fans, but no less the media and the team doctors, too. More recently, we have tended to excuse the virtual cavalcade of criminal actions committed by players away from the gridiron. Why, 29 NFL players have been arrested, just since the Super Bowl.

Institutions, especially popular cultural ones, periodically need overhauls. With football, right now, it isn't just a matter of tidying up. We need to somehow clean the Augean Stables of the stink of violence. This will be difficult, for violence is the very essence of the sport's appeal. And notwithstanding all the talk about concussions and thugs, football is more popular than ever. It is not like baseball found itself after the Black Sox scandal of 1919, when America seemed ready to abandon such a corrupt competition.

But there is a lesson there. Baseball, desperate, created the position of commissioner and brought in an outside magistrate, the federal judge, Kennesaw Mountain Landis. By contrast, the current NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell, like all his predecessors, is an insider. He's been superb as a businessman - stiff-arming the players' union, ransacking the networks' exchequers. but in response to revelations of how barbarous modern football really is, Goodell, like so many men who have been inoculated by football, has only reacted - hesitantly, incrementally.

Now, yes, football extends well beyond the domain of the NFL, from the cruel college system right on down to little boys scrimmaging. But the NFL commissioner is, in effect, the spiritual head of the game. Where else do we turn to for moral leadership - the NCAA, the presidents of the Southeastern Conference, the network pre-game shows?

Our other team sports: baseball, basketball, ice hockey, not to mention soccer, all have strong foreign elements. Football is the All-American game. but ironically, already, middle-class all-American parents - even fathers who played themselves - are showing a reluctance to allow their sons to play so at risk.

Whenever Roger Goodell steps away, his legacy will be determined not by how much his franchises grew in value, but by whether or not he saved our American sport from becoming a gladiator game. Or perhaps football can only be cleansed by someone, like Judge Landis, with no previous commitment to the enterprise. Whether Goodell or an outsider, football now needs a guardian, not a CEO.

MONTAGNE: Commentator Frank Deford joins us each Wednesday. And today is a very special Wednesday for him. Frank will receive a National Humanities Medal from President Obama. And from all of us here: Congratulations, Frank.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yeah, congratulations. That is great news, Frank.

MONTAGNE: And this is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

GREENE: And I'm David Greene.

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Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford