In 20 years, we may look back and remember the 2013-2014 NFL season as the moment when everything went to pieces. The biggest and richest sporting association in America, riding high on ballooning cash flows, exorbitant TV deals, a cutthroat collective bargaining agreement that took significant money away from the players and a dubious and yet seemingly irrevocable status as a “not-for-profit organization,” somehow managed to tie itself into a series of increasingly intractable Gordian knots, managing to alienate a whole host of demographics with its bumbling insensitivity and utter lack of any moral, ethical or social graces.
Minority communities were aggrieved that the NFL chose not to take any action over the use of the “Redskins” nickname by that franchise near the Potomac. Despite outraged howls from both small grassroots campaigns and big powerful senators, all insisting that the use of the “Redskins” moniker is a racial slur, the NFL responded with a canned statement: “The intent of the team’s name has always been to present a strong, positive and respectful image.” Despite a violently low tolerance nationwide for any semblance of bigotry (see exhibit A: the dramatic removal of Donald Sterling as the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers), the NFL decided to do…nothing at all. Dan Snyder rejoiced.
Meanwhile, casual fans were aggrieved by the NFL’s continued transformation into the No Fun League. Stricter taunting and celebration penalties were enacted, and increased fines were given to players who flouted a draconian set of in game practices. Jimmy Graham’s favorite touchdown celebration, dunking the football over the goalposts, now incurred a $15,000 fine. Marshawn Lynch spent the entire season dodging reporters, facing hefty penalties each and every week for a “lack of media availability.” The oft-suspended Josh Gordon most likely did smoke some amount of weed, but his appeal of his season-long suspension brought forth significant ethical and efficacy-related questions regarding the NFL’s drug testing protocols. PED suspensions were up league-wide, and the lack of transparency throughout the entire process was galling to players and fans, many of whom had no idea what was going on.
The ineptitude reached new heights with the Ray Rice saga, wherein the initial penalty for abusing your wife and knocking her out stone cold was eight times less severe than smoking marijuana for the second time (Gordon) or two times less severe than using Adderall (Brandon Browner). When more information leaked out, including a chilling elevator video that seemed to force America’s social consciousness into action, the NFL retroactively banned Rice from the league, a move that Rice fought furiously because he claimed he had been utterly truthful in his testimony to the league about what had happened. The NFL claimed otherwise, Grantland.com editor Bill Simmons got suspended by ESPN for calling commissioner Roger Goodell a liar, and an eventual (and non-independent) investigation into the whole fiasco revealed that the NFL was either the most inept organization known to mankind (unlikely, given its ability to levy fines within minutes of an infraction), or more likely, it decided not to investigate as thoroughly as it could have.
It seems all we ever talk about these days is whether or not the NFL will levy fines in the future – Marshawn Lynch spent the entire of his media availability session before the Super Bowl insisting he was just there to not get fined, and Jimmy Graham is currently crossing his fingers hoping that the disciplinary committee didn’t watch the Pro Bowl and witness his now-illegal celebratory dunk.
Of course, DeflateGate happened, and while I am exceedingly curious to actually know how the New England Patriots’ footballs ended up under-inflated: Whether or not there was a conscious decision to cheat or some other as-of-yet-undetermined circumstances instead, I can’t help but think that the NFL isn’t doing a very good job keeping the chain of evidence secure. Just look at the number of leaks and loose ends and premature conclusions being drawn from all corners of the media. The vultures are circling, and everyone can’t wait to see how the NFL manages to botch this latest situation. The only guarantee is that the end result will result in some type of uproar and will feature immense unintentional comedy.
Meanwhile, player safety continues to rear its head with every passing game. I awoke this morning to the news that former Patriot Mosi Tatupu showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition that has been linked to head trauma. The Pittsburgh Steelers, in a critical playoff game, reinserted clearly disoriented players Ben Roethlisberger and Heath Miller before even completing a mandatory concussion evaluation, and yet received no penalty. The NFL talks a mean talk, but its player safety requirements seem misguided and toothless and its priorities seem totally out of whack.
In what universe did deflated footballs and marijuana use deserve potentially greater penalties than violently abusing one’s girlfriend and putting players at risk of serious injury or death? I never felt this way before, but watching increasingly large football players collide at increasingly faster speeds makes me wonder if I’m watching gladiators fight to a deferred death, one that comes calling many years after they retire.
Football, at all levels, is fast approaching a crossroads that will determine its future. The NCAA is not blameless in this – it too seems to be an anachronistic organization whose bumbling is farcical. But in the ratings-and-fanhood defined NFL in particular, there may come a time in the not too distant future when people say enough is enough and jump ship.
Want suggestions? I hear the NBA regular season is especially enticing to watch this year.
Vignesh Venkataraman thought that the day he jumped the NFL ship would be on Armageddon only. He is now having second thoughts… Let him know whether his ship jumping is premature or not at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.