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America's Game, Warts and All 

Publisher's Note: Super Bowl Special

Once upon a time, it was just a game. You could play anywhere — out in the street dodging cars or just flicking little paper footballs across history class. Then came the money — like, really, really big money — and football got... well, more complicated. The players are always fun to watch, but the NFL itself seems, more and more, to be cast as the villain.

Still, with 184 million of us expected to tune in on Sunday, it's clear we're obsessed. How else do you explain a week spent dissecting the proper inflation of a game ball?

click to enlarge mcgregor.jpg

Despite the players' amazing stories (human Ken doll Tom Brady passed over by the other 31 NFL teams during the draft, Richard Sherman's path from Compton to Stanford to Seattle) and cool nicknames ("Gronk," "Beast Mode"), it's getting harder to look past the sins of the league that employs them. Greed is taking its toll.

To start with, the $9 billion-a-year business we know as the NFL is... a tax-exempt nonprofit? (Thanks, Congress!) That's just the tip of the iceberg. All season, the league has dealt with questions about its wishy-washy domestic violence policy after star Ray Rice punched out his wife. Many domestic violence activists are still asking the owners to fire NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who is paid $44 million a year to take exactly this kind of flak.

Then there are the devastating aftereffects of head injuries, what the league is doing about preventing them and how they are repaying retired players who still suffer. People as diverse as legendary coach Mike Ditka and noted contrarian Malcolm Gladwell are troubled by the sport's brutal toll. "Can you point to another industry in America," Gladwell once wrote, "which, in the course of doing business, maims a third of its employees?"

Taxpayers (that's all of us who won't be attending Sunday's $6,000-a-seat game) aren't immune from the exploitation either, as owners look to the public trough for new stadiums that can extract maximum profits. If you don't vote for the stadium, you know what happens — your beloved [fill in team mascot here] will have no choice but to leave town. This shakedown targets the taxpayers' soft spot, where our sports obsession leads to poor financial decisions.

Down in Glendale, Arizona, citizens owe about $40 million a year in debt service for the University of Phoenix Stadium where the Super Bowl will be played. But of course they get a ton of economic impact from the game, right? "I totally believe we will lose money on [the Super Bowl]," Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers told ESPN. The NFL also demanded that 10,000 Arizonans volunteer to help stage their little nonprofit event.

It's gotten so bad, NFL teams are even cracking down on cheerleaders. Last fall, several squads filed suit against their teams for paying below-minimum wages. The Oakland Raiders settled; the Buffalo Bills, however, summarily fired their Jills. One of the Jills told the New York Times she was paid $420 for 800 hours of work during the 2013 season — after she was forced to buy her own $650 uniform. The Bills were recently purchased by Terry Pegula, a billionaire who made his money in fracking; rumor has it he'll be hitting up Buffalo taxpayers for a new stadium soon.

To be fair, the NFL is attempting to address these tough issues. There are new tackling techniques being taught to kids, public awareness campaigns about domestic violence and big settlements with injured former players. Some say it's nothing more than an image makeover, but these are positive steps. I'm willing to give the league some credit for trying. But as long as Roger Goodell keeps impersonating Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, it may be hard for the league to turn the page.

Still, I can't wait for kickoff.

You've got the two cities that bookend I-90 — the two best coaches, the two best (and most interesting) teams, two of the very best quarterbacks. It's a dream matchup.

These Seahawks are special — they do it their way. Richard Sherman calls out Roger Goodell by name. Pete Carroll relies on yoga and all that California hippie stuff to keep his players going. And during games, in contrast to Bill Belichick, who often seems to be undergoing a mid-game colonoscopy, Coach Carroll hugs anything that moves. Then there's owner Paul Allen, who did get public help on the stadium but has returned the favor by creating a unique populist fan phenomenon that sends Beastquakes out across the Pacific Northwest, easily felt all the way over here in Spokane.

The Seahawks are a blue-and-green antidote to a lot of what's wrong with the NFL. To them, football's still a game. They don't play for Roger Goodell; they play for each other. And they play for all of us, the mighty, mighty 12s.

As Russell Wilson would say: Go Hawks! ♦

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