It would not be inaccurate to suggest that the National Football league has had finer weeks. The NFL should be in crisis mode and figuring out how to protect the league’s most valuable asset, the NFL brand.
Media is hyped with negativism about the NFL. Just read the headlines about the ugly stories coming out of Miami involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, the revelations that one of the league’s marquee names in the 1970s, Tony Dorsett and others going public with findings of symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disease.
One player was arrested on gun charges. On top of all of that, two head coaches were hospitalized, although that could happen in any business.
Following an Oct. 26 game against the New England Patriots in Foxboro, Mass., Miami Dolphins center Mike Pouncey was stopped by Massachusetts State Police and given a grand jury subpoena related to the investigation of Aaron Hernandez, the onetime New England Patriots player who is facing murder charges, and potential involvement in gun trafficking.
This is the NFL Today.
Things have gotten so bad for an organization that prided itself on image, perceived perception and that the NFL was above the fray that the league was lampooned on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. The cable television news network Al Jazeera did a piece on Chicago Bears player Matt Forte and included a bit on how Forte is squeaky clean and was never picked up drunk driving. This is how far the NFL has fallen but Americans cannot get enough of the league.
Something doesn’t equate.
Players are heroes for their football field play. “You Gotta Be a Football Hero,” a song composed by Al Sherman, Buddy Fields and Al Lewis in 1933 was written about college players who were immortalized by writers such as Grantland Rice. The song became a Popeye cartoon two years later. Football players became bigger than life on the college level but it wasn’t until 1958 that the NFL caught on.
The NFL was carefully built on a shiny image. Sure there was The Violent World of Sam Huff, the CBS TV documentary which officially told America that violence on the football field was socially acceptable. Walter Cronkite, who would become the most trusted man in America, was the narrator for the CBS TV piece in 1960. There was the George Plimpton book “Paper Lion” which glorified the Detroit Lions of the 1960s and then the movie “Paper Lion” with a young Alan Alda playing Plimpton. NFL Films showed the violence of the football field in slow motion with a movie score underneath and poked fun at the game with football follies.
The violence is catching up to the young men who played football in the 1960s when the league was buffing the image and moving from a mom-and-pop operation into a corporate setting thanks to federal laws that helped catapult the league to unimaginable success.
The NFL is a behemoth. The Super Bowl is a quasi-federal holiday that is celebrated in grand fashion and is the No. 1 party holiday of the year, surpassing New Year’s Eve. Advertising agencies start marketing campaigns by buying commercial time during “The Big Game” and food retailers adorn stores with NFL logos around the beer aisles and have “super sales” for the event.
But Americans have struck some sort of Faustian deal with football. What basically is fluff entertainment rules the lives of many who participate in various legal and illegal betting schemes, sit in front of televisions for pro and college games from Thursday night to Monday night drinking and eating. Those who can afford tickets to games sometimes tailgate in parking lots and hold pre-game and post-game parties.
But football is under siege; at least NFL CEO Steve Hatchell sees it that way. Some question the validity of the game when they see the physical wreckage of former players. Others are questioning college programs in the aftermath of the Jerry Sandusky case at Penn State and the various breeches of the public trust at other college programs.
Under siege because the critics are going after the game and the media can no longer ignore the constant stream of stories about crimes, head trauma and now hazing that is happening in the industry.
The game is being questioned and the game’s fans and customers should also be questioned.
Is the football culture broken, and are people who support the culture are enablers?
Who are the enablers? Politicians who have approved funding for stadiums on the public dime. Politicians who changed antitrust laws in 1961 and 1966 that helped grow football to unimaginable levels on both the pro and college levels.
Politicians who created anti-consumer legislation in the cable TV industry in 1984 and politicians that changed the tax code in 1986 that shifted the burden of stadium debt from owners to taxpayers. The politicians who acquiesce to an owner threatening to move a team because another city offers a better deal.
The other enablers? TV network executives who throw huge wads of cash at pro and college football in the hopes that people will watch football and that advertisers will pay good money to show their products before those viewers. The captains of industry who buy luxury boxes and club seats and the owners who go after their money and tell the blue collar fan to stay home and watch on TV and be happy with that. The college presidents, chancellors, provosts and trustees who have embraced the football culture like those at Penn State, Donna Shalala at the University of Miami and others and look the other way when something illegal is going on. The fans themselves for supporting the operations by rooting for dirty laundry and buying overprices shirts with team logos stamped on some part of the clothing.
Is there a demand for accountability? No. If the team wins, all is okay with the world. As John Madden once pointed out: Winning is a great deodorant.
Football is under siege for various reasons; the Incognito stuff has been going on for years under different names. We as a society have to look at football this way. These guys are modern day gladiators, and either anything goes or we apply the norms of society to them. But we accept it for what it is and never question it. If hitting a guy in the face does the trick in the football culture then slug the guy. It’s football not normal society. Yet here’s the other side of it, we end up paying for the aftercare of football for these guys who are on SSI and Medicare because the sport has left them useless health wise after their careers in many cases and we pay for the sport by publicly funding stadiums for owners. That side is unspoken.
In the past calendar year, the NFL has had about three dozen players and team executives arrested for various infraction including Hernandez on a murder charge. One Kansas City Chiefs player murdered a woman and then committed suicide before his coach and general manager. But all is well in Kansas City, the team under a new Head Coach Andy Reid (who last summer lost a son to a drug overdose) is undefeated. Jovan Belcher has been forgotten. The Dallas Cowboys Josh Brant was accused of intoxication manslaughter in a car crash that took the life of his teammate Jerry Brown.
But once the NFL and college preview shows start and the talk is about football, none of that seems to matter. Players with brain damage are forgotten and cast aside, bad actors in football are replaced and no one seems to care. The shield has been dented but life goes on. Americans love football even though football may be dangerous to the health and welfare of people.
This is the NFL Today.
Evan Weiner, the United States Sports Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award winner, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He has written several e-books on sports, including, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition,” which is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com.