It seems to me that the NFL, and by extension, the sport we all hold dear, football, is under attack from two separate, yet related, problems.
First, the NFL has been and continues to ward off assertions that it doesn't care about the health of its players. While it has made significant strides in this area, it can still continue to improve player safety while also maintaining the physical nature of the sport (the fact that helmet-to-helmet penalties, etc. are not subject to review is ludicrous - the players should be protected, yes, but the calls should also be made correctly).
Second, the recent scandals involving player violence off the field has come to a head after multiple scandals this season, not the least of which concerns our own Ray McDonald. So long as Roger Goodell emphasizes disciplinary action, and this might not remain true, the NFL will likely be embroiled in a constant scandal now that domestic violence has become a prominent social problem. Frankly, I worry that they NFL will never get past this problem with Goodell in charge (and his lack of sensitivity towards those who have been abused by husbands, fiancés, etc. seems enough evidence that he really is not capable of handling this issue). Nevertheless, it appears as if he won't heed calls for his resignation.
So, as a consequence, I think we need to - in turn - heed the call of Eric Kester, an ex-ball boy for the NFL, who recently wrote an interesting article for the New York Times. I would recommend it. In discussing the role that violent hits play in the NFL, he says:
So what do we do, those of us who are appalled by the run of domestic violence, saddened by the brain injuries and utterly in love with the sport of football? Because it is a wonderful game most of the time, and while the big hits do draw millions, we are just as enthralled by the drama of a goal-line stand, the beauty of a perfectly choreographed pass completion, the freakish athleticism of men who represent the pinnacle of human physiology.
We can start by having this conversation about the emotional health of players, and having it frequently enough that the N.F.L. has to start listening, just as it did in 2011 when frenzied media coverage of head injuries forced the league to adopt safer concussion protocols. The N.F.L. can provide its players with more and better mental health resources, and it's time fans start demanding that it do so.
Kester is totally right: we need to continue to have a conversation about how the NFL, Goodell, the owners, and even front offices are handling different scandals. The fact of the matter is, there are incredible cultural forces at work that inhibit change and impede justice. While I continually change my mind about what the 49ers should do about Ray McDonald, typically settling on the opinion that they should wait for some sort of legal action before determining his guilt (though I have argued otherwise before), I do think that it isn't as simple as some people say. The fact of the matter is, when it comes to athletes, we cannot trust the legal system to actually reach a just decision about the issue. People who argue - people with whom I generally agree! - that we should just wait in silence until the police bring charges and the court makes a decision about McDonald's case might not be dealing with the reality of the situation.
Given the fact that McDonald's own case has been plagued with potential pitfalls for the proper adjudication of justice should give every one of us pause. This situation is only complicated by the fact that, as others have noted, the justice system likely screwed up just as much as the NFL did in respect to the Ray Rice situation. Moreover, who should not ignore the recent allegations coming out of Florida that the Police and Florida State both had a hand in taking steps "to both hide, and then hinder, the criminal investigation into a rape allegation against" Jameis Winston.
After reading many comments and arguments on this site, I have come to realize that, yes, due process matters; it should be respected. But, let's not treat McDonald's case as simple as that. Let's acknowledge the fact that, frankly, we can't trust the justice system to do the right thing when it comes to athletes, just as we can't trust the NFL.
I love football. I have my entire life. I want to watch this sport for the rest of my life. But, I think it is threatened by a host of scandals and incompetent leadership. As a consequence, I will continue to highlight these problems with the hope that they are addressed and addressed adequately. I just hope that we can continue to have this conversation, putting pressure on those people in power who need to act with character and integrity. Let's not pretend the 49ers face a simple choice. There are many nuances here that need teased out, and we aren't doing the sport any favors by ignoring them.