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Barbershop: NFL's 100th Season


And finally today, the NFL is celebrating its 100th season this year, which officially began Thursday night when the Green Bay Packers beat the Chicago Bears 10-3. But really, the NFL has been in the news all year long. There was the sudden retirement of one of the game's superstars. There were monetary settlements for players Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid, who accused the league of blackballing them in retaliation for kneeling before games. There was this ongoing debate about on-field protests. And then there's this new partnership between the NFL and the rapper and entrepreneur Jay-Z.

With all of that, we thought this was a good time to ask what all this might say about the state of the NFL today and the future of what is still the most-watched U.S. sports league. So we've decided to take this to The Barbershop because that's where we talk with interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And joining us today are Kevin Blackistone of ESPN and the University of Maryland here with us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Welcome.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you for the invite.

MARTIN: Also here, Dave Zirin, sports writer at The Nation. He's also the host of "The Edge Of Sports" podcast. Welcome back to you as well.

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, great to be here. Thank you.

MARTIN: And joining us on the line from Phoenix, Ariz., is Jason Reid of ESPN The Undefeated. He's a senior NFL writer. Welcome to you.

JASON REID: It's good to talk with you. Thank you so much.

MARTIN: And I want to start with today's big story. Wide receiver Antonio Brown has agreed to a one-year deal to join the New England Patriots. This is just hours after the Oakland Raiders announced that they are releasing him. Big star. He has been talking about this on social media. And he wrote - I'm going to have to edit this for NPR-ness, but - he says, (reading) you are going to annoy a lot of people when you start doing what's best for you. And he says, and that's fine. I've worked my whole life to prove that the system is blind to see talent like mine. Now that everyone sees it, they want me to conform to that same system that has failed me all those years. I'm not mad at anyone. I'm just asking for the freedom to prove them all wrong.

Now, I know that people always have lots of opinions about different sports stars. But Kevin, get - start - does this say something bigger about the state of the sport?

BLACKISTONE: Sure. He is free to be who he wants to be and few times do NFL players actually exercise that. But he has done that. He has gotten out of a situation that he didn't want to be in for whatever reasons. And he has gone a very circuitous route in order to get to the best football team in football, where championships come down like rain. And so I think he should be an example to other football players to really take hold of your of your future and don't let it be run by coaches and general managers and owners.


ZIRIN: Yeah. Antonio Brown has a child. One of his children is named Autonomy.- Autonomy Brown, which in addition to being a very cool name, I think speaks to his attitude towards his place in the National Football League. Antonio Brown is someone who wanted to be able to control his situation, and controlling your situation as a National Football League player is not easy in a league that does not necessarily have guaranteed contracts.

And players aren't able to move around as easily as they would like. Much of their destiny is controlled by the team themselves. And when you consider that the average career is just 3 1/2 years, your time in the spotlight and your ability to max out your prime is something every player has to take extremely seriously. So Antonio Brown chose to take, as Kevin put it, an extremely circuitous route to express his own autonomy.

MARTIN: And he did leave money on the table. I mean, it has to be said...

ZIRIN: A lot of money on the table.

MARTIN: ...He left at least 50 million on the table, so it obviously meant something to him. Jason, thoughts about that?

REID: Well, I mean, I'm all for player empowerment. I've always felt that, you know, with the way professional sports has historically been skewed against players, that I always - or generally speaking, I come down on like, hey, what the players can get - the risk of injury, the fact in the NFL there aren't really a lot of guaranteed contracts - I mean, truly guaranteed. But I kind of take a little different view on this. I mean, the - Antonio Brown did things to get out of Pittsburgh.

And, you know, we can debate, you know, the NFL and their salary structure and their contract structure, but he did things to get out of Pittsburgh. And he went to the Raiders. And, you know, by all accounts, from everyone I've talked to about this situation, the Raiders were very supportive of him throughout the whole helmet thing, throughout the feet - the thing with his feet with the cryogenic chamber.

And I do think that there's also a certain point that you have to take personal responsibility, and you have to be a professional. And just talking to guys I know in the game, no one I know is defending his behavior right now.


REID: I mean, so I do think that that while, yes, there's a lot to be said about player autonomy and players being empowered to, you know, to get what they can, I don't necessarily think this is quite that situation.

MARTIN: OK. All right. Fair point. That's why people - that's why sports is fun because people have lots of different opinions about it. Well, let's talk about some of the other issues in the game because one of the things that all of you have written about is Andrew Luck retiring. We talked - Dave, we talked with you about that, the, you know, star quarterback. I know lots of you have different takes on the significance of that. So I don't know. Jason, you wrote about this. I'll go back to you on this. You says - you wrote about - what you say it says about the future of football, especially in regard to other players in the league, particularly to a new crop of black quarterbacks. Talk about that for a minute, if you would.

REID: Well, yeah. I'm doing a series for ESPN's Undefeated on kind of the evolution of black quarterbacks in the NFL. And just one of the things that I looked at with the retirement of Luck is, I mean, clearly you're talking about someone who is - was at the pinnacle of the game. He just won the Comeback Player of the Year Award. He is an elite pocket passer. He's a guy who probably had another $200 million or more in earnings. And he was so mentally taxed and physically taxed because of the toll this game takes on players that he just, you know, I can't do this anymore.

Now, he created an opening for Jacoby Brissett, who is a young African American quarterback who is now going to be the Colts' starter. So he created a lane for him. But I definitely think for the NFL, when you look at youth participation in the NFL - in football not being what it once was, this is kind of an ominous sign, I do believe.

MARTIN: OK. Dave, you talked about this, too.

ZIRIN: Exactly. I think this is an existential crisis for the National Football League because in Andrew Luck, you have a player who's under 30, who comes from a wealthy background, who is a Stanford graduate and who is white. And this is exactly the demographic that is turning away from the National Football League, that's turning away from looking at football as a prospective sport, that's turning away at the high school level, that's turning away at the Pop Warner level.

And so what you look at is an acceleration of trends in the National Football League that already exist, where you have a sport that is predominately played by African American talent from poor or economically disadvantaged backgrounds for a largely white fan base. And as that develops. And as people don't necessarily play by choice but play because they have to, you're going to develop into more situations where people start wondering about the moral calculus of the league itself.

MARTIN: And, Kevin, you've been talking about this, too. You mentioned that NFL viewership remains high and by some accounts is up. But attendance at the games is down.

BLACKISTONE: Right, and that may be more of a function of the way we entertain ourselves with sports these days. It's much easier and much safer to watch games on our tablets and at home in the comfort of friends and family. But what I think the Andrew Luck situation and the Rob Gronkowski situation - the star tight end who also retired and cited just the mental strain and the physical strain of playing the game - just reminds me about how difficult a game it is. Now, is the game going away? We have seen different reports about participation at the high school level. But what the concern may be is that it turns into a gladiator sport.

REID: Exactly.

BLACKISTONE: Right. And so that is' populated by black athletes from more difficult means, and everyone who's watching them is not their brother or sister and their parents.

MARTIN: Well, that leads to the last thing I wanted to talk about today - that we have time to talk about today is this whole question about how the NFL is going to respond to the demands that were put forth most sort of acutely by the Colin Kaepernicks and Eric Reids but to have more to say about the social justice issues that affect the majority of the players. And Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid defined those as police conduct, but there are others.

Now, you know, that Jay-Z has partnered with them now to do some things, direct the music on big events and so forth. But there's already controversy about some of the groups that they are partnering with. And I just wanted to ask each of you as briefly as you can - for a topic as complicated as that - what you make of all of this.

BLACKISTONE: Well, it is a complicated situation. You know, one thing I would say is that players, just like those of us sitting around this table, need not wait for an organization to be put together for us to contribute to - either monetarily or with our feet to make some strides against - strides with social justice. So saying that, I don't think they should wait around for the league. I think they should pressure the league as much as they can. But I think they should also step out and form their own organization. They have a Players Association which does some things along the social justice way.

MARTIN: Quickly, Dave.

ZIRIN: Quick. Yeah, the NFL is not a social justice organization. It's like asking a dog to meow. And so I agree with what Kevin said. I mean, if the players want to see social justice, they need to figure out a way to organize and act for it. Asking the NFL to do it will end with discussions like this where there is perpetual dissatisfaction.

MARTIN: OK. Oh, thank you so much. I see you, and I raise you. OK.


MARTIN: Jason, I'm going to have to come back to you next time on that one. That was The Nation's Dave Zirin. That was Kevin Blackistone at ESPN and the University of Maryland. We also heard Jason Reid of ESPN's The Undefeated. Thank you all so much. We'll try to do better next time for you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.