Several days ago, a longtime reader who demands to remain anonymous ("because my conservative friends would not like seeing my name in the Independent") came up at a holiday function and wanted to talk — about sports.
"Isn't it amazing how much the Denver Broncos still affect the mental health of this state?" he began. "I know so many Bronco fans who are very happy right now. But I remember just a couple months ago when Denver was 2-3, all I could think about was how this was such a horrible time for the National Football League."
He talked about how the New Orleans bounty scandal had left him with a sour taste, realizing that players actually received bonuses for taking out star players from opposing teams. His ill feelings were heightened by the fast-mounting evidence that many former NFL players have been (and obviously still are) suffering from the after-effects of multiple concussions and head injuries.
"But then the Broncos started winning," he said, "and nobody seemed to care anymore. Now there are millions of us who are convinced this is one of the greatest football seasons ever, at least since John Elway retired."
I brought up two of the latest episodes, just a week apart, that suggest something is very wrong in the NFL. First, the shocking murder-suicide in Kansas City, as Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot his girlfriend to death — in front of her mother — and then took his own life in front of team officials. Then, the story of Dallas players behaving badly, with heavily inebriated defensive lineman Josh Brent wrecking his car and killing linebacker Jerry Brown. (And after all that, the Cowboys let Brent stand on their sideline Sunday for their game against Pittsburgh.)
Let's see, that's a bounty scandal, too many concussions to count, a murder-suicide and intoxication manslaughter. Are we having fun yet?
Depends. In Kansas City, with a 2-12 record amid that senseless tragedy, you might find longtime fans ready to do away with pro football. In Dallas, we hear that many are shrugging it off as "Boys will be boys" because, hey, the Cowboys have won five out of six and are playoff contenders. Can't let anything spoil that, right?
My acquaintance could understand. But all he wanted to talk about was the Broncos: how Peyton Manning has proved so many people wrong, how defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has made such a difference, how Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman are among the NFL's best young running backs, and how Denver's destined for the Super Bowl.
"Dammit, Ralph, don't spoil this for all of us Bronco fans," he said. "We can worry about that bad stuff in March and April. Not now, OK?"
Granted, it's rare that any team experiences what Denver has in turning 2-3 into 11-3. And yes, it'll be interesting to see how far Manning can take the Broncos in the playoffs, especially if they earn a first-round bye.
But you still can't help but wonder whether the NFL is endangered. As potentially damaging as the bounty issue already has been, other teams may be found to have had similar reward programs. The antics by overpaid players, who don't seek (and aren't forced to receive) mental-health help, should be accelerating the league toward a crisis point. And the prospect of a class-action lawsuit by former players, who might be able to prove that the league knew about the rising concussion problem but ignored it, could undermine the multibillion-dollar industry.
"Go ahead, write about all that crap," my buddy the reader said. "But just watch, nothing's going to change. Nothing."
I think he's wrong. I think the NFL has lost its way — lost its moral standards, integrity and sense of accountability to anyone. What will it take to change all that? Perhaps a federal court, or Congress, ordering the league to shut down for a year or more, until it can fix its problems and start over.
Go ahead, call me crazy. Just don't be surprised if it happens.