It is said that baseball is our national pastime, but it is an indisputable fact that the NFL, the National Football League, has far and away the highest revenue stream of any American sport. That is due in part to the gambling that is centered around it. Hardcore gamblers gravitate to football, and also casual gamblers who don’t go in much for betting on other sports. Football pick ’ems at the office, fantasy leagues, and sports books at casinos are all big, huge business. Personally, I love football. I’ve become a dedicated fan over the last ten years, and, like a lot of Americans, I wait all summer for preseason to start, and then finally, at long last, the start of the regular season the first week of September. Football is part of what fall means to me, as much as cider, pumpkins, crisp, cool weather, and the leaves changing. But this week, there have been not one but a multitude of scandals in and around the league, seemingly each one worse and more reprehensible than the last. Adrian Peterson of the Vikings getting hit with child abuse charges for whipping his four year old son with a switch. Multiple other players getting hit with domestic violence charges. Wes Welker of the Broncos being suspended for drug use. And the crown jewel of disgusting behavior, Ray Rice of the Ravens being caught on tape knocking out his then-fiance in an Atlantic City elevator, which has caused an uproar that has gone far beyond football, and rightly so. Before the tape was seen, the league gave Rice a two-game suspension. Then, when the outcry started, they stated that they would revise the domestic violence policy. The first offense would now get a six game suspension. The second would result in an indefinite suspension from the league. But then the tape from the elevator went public, and the NFL and the Ravens realized that with that visual out there, they’d have to do even more damage control. The Ravens released Ray Rice, who had three more years on his contract. Commissioner Roger Goodell claimed that he’d never seen the tape till it showed up on Deadspin and TMZ, but then an anonymous source claimed he’d sent the tape to the NFL offices on Park Avenue months ago. Now there’s an even bigger backlash. Women’s groups are calling for Goodell to step down, or be fired.
There’s no doubt the NFL messed up on this thing, big time. Not just the Ray Rice incident, which was mishandled repeatedly, but also just in the way they discipline players across the board. Serious charges are handled with a slap on the wrist, whether it’s domestic violence, gun charges, sexual assault, or whatever else. Look at the way the sexual assault case was handled against Steeler’s quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a few years ago. Then you have NFL Countdown, on ESPN, and you’ve got a semicircle of commentators who are speaking out about the violence and misconduct endemic to the sport, all of them looking very grave, very judgmental. It’s hard to take them that seriously though, when one of them is former Baltimore Raven Ray Lewis, who in 2000 was implicated in the stabbing death of a man following an incident at a night club where Lewis got into an altercation with the deceased, along with several of Lewis’ friends who may or may not have started the whole thing to begin with. There was a lengthy trial, and eventually Lewis reached an undisclosed cash settlement with the family of the man who had been slain. Basically, he got away with murder, or, at the very least, manslaughter. Yet the people of Baltimore still love him, and ESPN had no problem hiring him when he retired two years ago. On the other side, you’ve got former Bears coach Mike Ditka, who over recent weeks has been applauding the defiance by Redskin’s team management to change the name of the team, despite increasing pressure from the court of public opinion that the name is offensive. A less serious issue than murder and domestic violence, but still, a man seemingly on the side of insensitivity, and on the wrong side of history.
Simply put, it’s kind of hard to be a football fan right now. Despicable conduct is rampant in the league, and the players keep finding themselves in situations which embarrass them, the NFL, and by extension, everyone who wants to enjoy the game without feeling guilty for endorsing a hugely flawed and immoral enterprise. The NFL isn’t going to shutter because of all of this mess. It is, to borrow a phrase, too big to fail. I just hope that either Roger Goodell, or whoever they bring in to replace him, finds a way to make the player conduct policy more palatable. For now, I can’t claim I’m going to stop watching the games, but I’m certainly going to have to hold my nose while doing so.
There will be no blog entry next weekend, as I will be in Washington, home of the NFL Native Americans, for my cousin Ben’s wedding. See you in two weeks, true believers.