A ThinkProgress Guide To Football Season

Football is upon us again. The college football season kicked off over Labor Day weekend (it wasn’t a good start for this Kentucky Wildcats fan), and the NFL season will start in New York tonight, when the reigning world champion New York Giants take on the Dallas Cowboys.

It has been seven months since we last saw football, but that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been a bevy of gridiron news over the offseason. Plenty of other media outlets have dissected roster moves, schedules, and stat projections in an attempt to predict how both the college and NFL seasons will play out. At ThinkProgress, we’ve compiled a different type of season preview, one that looks at the issues, on field and off, that will be a part of this football season:

The Penn State Scandal: Perhaps no story was more prominent in college football this summer than the Jerry Sandusky rape scandal that enveloped Penn State University and its former coaching staff. Legendary Penn State coach Joe Paterno died before the scandal played out, but that didn’t stop the story from dominating the summer news cycle. Sandusky was found guilty on 45 of 48 charges relating to child rape. The Penn State story was ultimately a story of empathy, of shame, and of misplaced priorities, and it was made worse when the NCAA punished the Nittany Lions’ football program in a rushed, hypocritical move that seemed more tuned to making it seem right rather than fixing the problems that led to the scandal. Penn State lost its first game of the season Saturday, but as the specter of the Sandusky scandal hangs over Happy Valley — he’s yet to be sentenced, the school is facing accreditation questions — we’re still learning about what happened and how it did.

Player Safety: Player safety is again a major issue in football, as thousands of former players are suing the NFL over the links between concussions and long-term brain injuries. The issue shot back to the forefront when Junior Seau, a former All-Pro linebacker, and O.J. Murdock, a wide receiver for the Tennessee Titans, committed suicides two months apart. Both were believed to be suffering from depression possibly caused by concussions and head trauma. The NFL last week asked a federal judge to dismiss the concussion lawsuit, and today, it announced that it was donating $30 million to help research concussions and brain trauma in football and the military. Alyssa wrote earlier this year that the NFL could learn from gymnastics on head and brain injuries, and given that the dangers of the game are becoming more and more evident, I’ve started to wonder if I can keep watching.

Labor Rights: Last year, the NFL jeopardized its opening weeks by locking out players in a contentious labor battle. This year, it’s the officials who are locked out, in a labor fight that looks a lot like those we’ve seen throughout corporate America. The league announced last week that it would use replacement refs for at least the first week of the season, a decision that “flies in the face” of efforts to make the game safer, NFL Players Association head DeMaurice Smith told ThinkProgress. An agreement doesn’t seem close, even though the two sides aren’t far apart, but there is one positive: Shannon Eastin will likely become the first woman to ever referee an NFL game this weekend. The NFL, it seems, is content to wait out the officials in hopes that they will accede to the league’s demands. The league is also facing a labor (and safety) issue when it comes to the Bounty Scandal that erupted last season and has left the New Orleans Saints without head coach Sean Payton and star linebacker Jonathan Vilma. Labor rights in college football are also gaining attention, as people like historian Taylor Branch fight to give players a voice in the system that exploits their “amateurism” to make millions of dollars.

LGBT Rights: The NFL added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy in 2011 and it kept making strides toward equality over the offseason. Former NFL player Wade Davis came out as gay in June, telling CNN that he wished he’d have come out while he was playing. “I now understand the impact that would have had,” Davis said. While there is still no openly gay NFL player, an array of players have made it clear that they wouldn’t mind playing with an openly gay teammate, creating a gradual but welcome shift in an atmosphere that made players like Davis scared to acknowledge their sexuality. In August, the San Francisco 49ers became the first NFL team to produce an “It Gets Better” video.

Taxpayer Exploitation: Right and left, football is turning to taxpayers to finance its biggest shows. The Bowl Championship Series, which runs college football’s postseason, announced plans for a playoff that will start after the 2013 college season. Unfortunately, the playoff only reinforces the worst aspect of the the bowl system: that it rips off local taxpayers and public universities in the name of charity. NFL teams have gotten in on the act too. Taxpayers will finance a new stadium for the Minnesota Vikings, Santa Clara is footing the bill for the San Francisco 49ers’ new palace, and the Atlanta Falcons are asking for either a new stadium or major upgrades to existing facilities. Overall, 30 of the NFL’s 31 stadiums received some form of taxpayer financing — MetLife Stadium, the site of tonight’s opener, is the only exception — a major giveaway to a league in which all 32 teams are among the world’s 50 most valuable franchises. Through a political donation, meanwhile, the Arizona Cardinals showed us how Citizens United will help teams get even more money out of taxpayers.