Farewell From Brad Oremland

Goodbye, readers: this will be my final article at Sports Central, or at least my last one as a regular contributor. I'm returning to casual fandom.

This has been a long time coming. I'm primarily an NFL analyst, and I've written several times in recent years about falling out of love with the National Football League. The most recent was Week 15 of this past season, following the Jesse James play in the Patriots/Steelers game, but I shared similar feelings in 2015, and more briefly on many other occasions.

My transition from journalism back toward pure fandom is partly personal and professional, how writing about football changed my relationship with the sport. But it's also more general, about the way the NFL itself has changed, the problems the league faces today, and how I would approach those problems.

I have always loved sports, but when something becomes your job, it stops being a hobby. There were a lot of things I loved about being a sportswriter, and there are a lot of things I'm going to miss. But football is less fun for me than it used to be, and I think removing the obligation, so I'm only watching games I choose to — no more forcing myself to sit through Ravens/Browns instead of going to a friend's picnic, or spend Christmas Eve taking notes about a meaningless game that goes into overtime — will help me focus on what I love about sports.

As a sportswriter, I root for my predictions to come true and my analyses to play out, which means rooting against the underdog, cheering for Goliath to crush David, almost every week. Rooting for the underdog is one of the joys of sports, and I'm in a position where it makes more sense to root for the big bad wolf.

I'm not here to whine about how hard this job has been: often it's been great. But I'm also excited to approach the game simply as a fan again.

I also understand — more deeply than most people — that there are a lot of passionate people who would love to do what I do. Someone with a job in sports, who doesn't savor the opportunity to work in a field they're passionate about, is just taking up space the rest of us would be overjoyed to fill. And at this point, I'm starting to feel like I'm taking up space.

There are a lot of factors that make the NFL less fun than it used to be, and most of them have little to do with my position as a sportswriter.

Protests during the national anthem

The NFL is chasing a ghost it cannot possibly catch regarding player protests during the national anthem. It is almost literally unbelievable that the NFL can't figure out a better way to handle the issue, especially given a successful model from the NBA, which requires players to stand but goes out of its way to acknowledge and highlight their concerns. But Roger Goodell, and most team owners, have never acknowledged that players who kneel during the Star-Spangled Banner do so to raise awareness about the ongoing murder of African Americans, usually without legal consequences for the killers.

Goodell treats every problem as a P.R. problem, trying to work the media angles rather than resolving the underlying issue, and he has never shown any indication that he understands or cares about the protests and the concerns of the players. If they feel heard and supported, as NBA players do, they won't need to express their concerns through that medium. But the league continues to bungle this issue, and it's impossible to follow the game without hearing about it. That's not what I watch sports for.

Head injuries

In Week 10 of this past season, Colts QB Jacoby Brissett returned to the field following a concussion, and Seahawks QB Russell Wilson faked a concussion evaluation and immediately returned to the field. It's outrageous, in the most literal sense, that fans and announcers can identify these things, yet officials and league representatives can not.

I'm a pro football historian. I've written repeatedly about Hall of Famers, really beloved players, who developed Alzheimer's disease, dementia, or ALS. It's going to happen to a lot of players from this generation as well. Being a football fan carries a certain level of guilt for many of us now, and the league's insistence on treating this as a public relations problem, rather than a player health problem, is not only counter-productive, but deeply immoral.

This year's controversial new helmet rule is a great example of the league's approach, introducing a new policy that makes the game unplayable, without any meaningful input from players and coaches. Ownership and management are obscenely paternalistic towards the people who actually participate on the field.

Short passing

The biggest difference between pro football now and when I was growing up is the prevalence of short passing. There are several factors that contribute to this, including the illegal contact rule, new protection for quarterbacks, and the success of Bill Walsh's horizontal "West Coast" offense. But the biggest factor is the defenseless receiver rule.

I've written many times about head injuries and CTE, and I understand why the defenseless receiver rules are in place, but they fundamentally and radically altered the way football is played, most notably by making the middle of the field safe for underneath routes.

Today, coaches and quarterbacks rely on short passes, many of which end with the receiver running out of bounds or diving to avoid hard contact. Those plays simply aren't as interesting as deep passes, and I find them less entertaining than rushing plays, as well. The overwhelming increase in short passing has made the game a lot less fun as a spectator sport.

Officiating and replay

The NFL has completely misplaced its priorities with regard to guiding the game. Penalties have far too much influence on game results, replay reviews are made capriciously and without oversight, and some rules are nonsensical to begin with. For decades, everyone knew what a catch looked like. Then, in a wildly misguided attempt to shield referees from criticism, the league implemented an impossibly detailed definition, resulting in problems from the Bert Emanuel rule to the Calvin Johnson rule to this year's new policy reacting to the Jesse James play.

In a two-part interview with Rich Eisen, Troy Vincent inadvertently revealed that the league's motivation is fear. Even in the face of a pointless and widely loathed rule like the fumble-out-of-the-end-zone-is-a-turnover policy, the league would rather do nothing to address the problem than risk doing something that fails to resolve the issue. They stick their collective head in the sand and hope it will go away. It never does.

There's a better way

There are obvious solutions to these problems, or if not solutions, obvious improvements. With regard to social justice protests, the NFL should follow the NBA's model, which satisfies administrators, owners, coaches, players, and fans. Commissioners and owners don't need to have an adversarial relationship with players: they could be allies working together to make things better.

I've written a lot about head injuries and how to handle them better, but I have two concrete suggestions that I see no excuse not to implement immediately. One is to employ a doctor with access to the same television feed we all see, who can communicate with officials on the field to notify them of (1) players who need to be evaluated for concussions, and (2) players attempting to avoid such evaluations and return to play. Furthermore, this person should be directed to err on the side of excessive caution, and should have the authority to immediately pull players from the game. If Jim Nantz can tell that a woozy player has a concussion, let's hold him out of the rest of the game regardless of his performance in the sideline tent.

The other suggestion, admittedly more radical, is that a player found to have improperly returned to play following a concussion will immediately be placed on season-ending injured reserve. While this could create a perverse incentive for players to hide concussions, many do so already. What I believe would instead happen is that players and teams would now be incentivized to make sure concussions are properly monitored in the first place.

I've written previously about encouraging deep passes, the most exciting play in football. I'd like to see the illegal contact zone moved from five yards downfield to 10 (or even 15), and the prohibition of all picks, even "natural" picks. More radically, I'd be in favor of making it legal for offensive players to push off the defender when they're more than 15 yards downfield, and I suggest that any pass thrown to a point behind the line of scrimmage be considered a lateral unless it is spiked to stop the clock, or deflected by a defender. Most screens would count as run plays, rather than passes, and an incomplete pass behind the line of scrimmage would be a live ball. This would discourage short passing because (1) stat-conscious QBs and coaches can't pad their stats with easy completions, and (2) fumbles are a big deal.

Referees should be directed not to call penalties unless they're certain an offense has been committed, with a goal of reducing penalties by at least a third over the next five years. The league also needs to stop babying and protecting its refs: all penalties should be reviewable. Replay reviews should be made by a panel, not an individual, with a truly strict direction to overturn only based on indisputable evidence.

Most importantly, the league should implement a card system similar to the one used in soccer. A player who gets a yellow card is fined, and two yellow cards results in a red card. A player who draws a red card is ejected from the game and loses his game check. His team continues to field 11 players, however; the side does not play a man short as they do in soccer.

* Fighting is a red card.

* All personal fouls and unnecessary roughness are yellow cards.

* Pass interference is capped at 15 yards (rather than a spot foul), but flagrant pass interference beyond 15 yards is a yellow card.

* Any blocking penalty on a kickoff or punt return is a yellow card. Long kick returns are exciting, but it seems like every great return in the NFL is called back for holding or a block in the back or something. The yellow card system will give players strong incentive to play smart on special teams, and restore excitement to this part of the game.

Several of the league's problems relate to player safety, and one of the biggest issues is the speed at which today's game is played. I'd like to see artificial playing surfaces, which increase speed and facilitate more violent impact, phased out in favor of real grass. But most importantly, the league needs to shift its philosophy from reactive avoidance to proactive problem-solving. Professional football can still be a great game. It's lost its way recently, but the path is still nearby. All the major issues are solvable.

Football has changed, and so have I, but I'm not forsaking the sport or the league, I'm just setting aside my keyboard and hoping for some movement on the issues I've described above. To everyone who's enjoyed my work over the years, thanks very much for reading. You can access my previous columns here.

Comments and Conversation

August 21, 2018


Well said, Brad. I’ve been going through much the same thought process myself.

This is the first year in the last 15 that I haven’t played fantasy football, mostly because, as you said, I don’t want to create another reason to watch the games. I’ll still enjoy tuning in for big ones as a fan, but I’d rather go outside than watch Browns-Bills or the equivalent.

August 22, 2018

Kevin Beane:

I can’t really overstate how much I’ve admired your writing over the years, how proud I have been to share a platform with you, and how sorely you will be missed.

Your reasons for stepping away are well-articulated and I agree with you across the board. Speaking personally, I feel a weird shame in being an NFL fan these days; I boycotted it for a couple years, and now I’m back and making donations to the Domestic Violence Hotline monthly as a sort of penance; I feel a lot…cleaner watching the CFL and college football, and for this disparity I squarely blame Roger Goodell.

Don’t be a stranger, and much love.

August 22, 2018

Jeff Kallman:

Brad, you have always been the thinking person’s writer about a sport to which thinking is alien. Whether you laugh, scold, or ponder aloud, you have always brought civility to discussions about a sport that’s about as civil as a school of piranha at lunch time. Best of good luck!

August 30, 2018

Jeff Boswell:


I will certainly miss your analyses and insights. Your columns always gave me ideas and subjects for my own.

Good luck with all your future endeavors!

September 3, 2018


Great piece Brad. I’ve enjoyed your writing and how it has given more context and enjoyment to this game for me, I’ll definitely miss it. Hope you have the best of luck on your next stage of fandom!

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