Because football is the game that it is, there's always a great deal of change and churn in the NFL -- always various organizational philosophies and approaches ascending and descending, little aesthetic fads and human-scale memes and personnel types booming and busting. There's a pervasive fundamental steakheadedness in evidence, too, because It's A Man's Game In The National Football League and so on, and also because people paid well for their expertise in this area have ascertained that strident rum-dummy-dum Fake War pomp is the best way to sell the NFL product. But even that changes over time, to keep pace with the rest of the changing world. Things about the NFL change, but the NFL does not change.
If the game of football changes because it's a living, protean thing, the NFL does not change because it is not -- it is a business concern, vast and vastly profitable and subject to a set of imperatives that are not necessarily congruent with those of the game or the people playing and watching and caring about it. And so the NFL grows and bloats and synergizes and leverages and re-leverages, it expands metastatically and majestically, all of which looks like change but is really just the same profitable thing piling and towering atop itself.
The things that are ruinously wrong in the NFL -- the various denied and obfuscated violences that led to a combined lawsuit featuring more than 4,500 retired NFL players, seeking redress for neurological trauma suffered while playing the game -- reflect the inherent violence in the game. But the lawsuit is the NFL's problem. That suit's settlement -- $765 million and all attorney fees, no admission of NFL wrongdoing or even that the undenied and undeniable injuries were suffered while playing football; that and a full denial and avoidance of liability in both directions -- is very much the NFL's solution. Which is to say that it's no solution at all, really.
It's an ending, certainly: the NFL will not be sued again for this, and this amount of money -- objectively massive, but decidedly not-massive relative to the NFL's revenues (ESPN pays the NFL $1.9 billion for the rights to Monday Night Football each year) and class action settlements paid in the past by tobacco companies and petroleum companies. There are good things about the settlement; most notably, $75 million of the settlement will go towards evaluations, monitoring and treatment for all retired players, not just those in the suit.
There are many less-good things about it, too, of course. The $170,000 Per Plaintiff figure churning rage on Twitter is oversimplified, and injured players will be eligible for payments of up to $5 million. But also there is the great tragic crassness and inevitable inadequacy of a dollar value placed on suffering. There is the equally tragic and both concrete and unquantifiable cost of this type of suffering. The players bear this away, the Parkinson's and depression and the unnamed degenerations that first walk and then rush these athletes back into dark, wracked, multiply immobile second childhoods, all before middle age.
And this, too, exists in a space beyond change. What happens to a brain does not un-happen to it; there is more money in the NFL than even its king plutocrats can comprehend, but there is not enough money to fix a brain that has been pounded in football's direction. If this lawsuit was going to change anything, it would not be to save these lives -- or even to save the lives of the players playing in the NFL and dreaming of it, because the game is and does what it is and does, which all of them well know. The greatest possible change would have been to force the NFL to make this suffering its business, and to make its costs part of the cost of doing that business.
There is no admission of wrongdoing in the settlement, which is both an abstract thing -- Who wants an apology for Roger Goodell? What, to a wrecked man forgetting himself in a dark home, the whole world closing over and above, could that solve? -- and not. The NFL could mitigate, in any number of ways, the carnage the game makes, before and during and after its systematic infliction. It could try, all while continuing to make money at historic rates, to be better than it is. If the settlement is not a total failure, it also does not demand that. And the NFL will not change in any of the directions that science and morality alike suggest it should if it does not have to do so. The settlement means that the NFL does not have to change, and so it won't.
So, what? The players took these risks and take them, and the rest of us ignore them or don't -- we watch around them or through them or over them, despite them or in willful strained ignorance of them, but a great many million of us still watch. We watch the game, because the game is great, if also great in its uglinesses; we watch the game because of how it changes, because it is alive and strange.
The NFL, which sells all this to us so proudly and so readily and with such wrenching ease, will not change unless it must. This settlement won't change it, and there won't be another. We, however shamefully, are not ready to change it, either. If it is difficult to imagine what will, or what could, it's difficult to imagine this self-devouring, supremely uneasy present -- all this fun, frantic change over all that hard, corrosive permanence -- stretching on forever. It's just very difficult to imagine what, besides Sunday, might come next, or how.