Baseball might be America’s pastime, but football has long been America’s sport. The game is more valuable and popular than ever. However, when you start to look at the sport in a larger context, there is a disturbing trend.
Over the past week a troubling story broke out of Miami. Second year OT Jonathan Martin took an indefinite leave from the Dolphins after he had a breakdown over a lunch room hazing prank. As the news filtered out, it was discovered that Martin has been hazed and bullied repeatedly over the past year and a half, even being forced to pay for thousands of dollars worth of vacations for some teammates. The head instigator of this mistreatment seems to be Richie Incognito, a man who has a reputation around the league of being one of the dirtiest and most violent players. As of Sunday night, Incognito has been placed on indefinite suspension pending further review. The story is disturbing in and of itself, but what compounds the issue is it is just one in a series of troubling off the field issues for the NFL this year.
In perhaps the most high-profile criminal case involving an athlete since OJ, former Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez dominated headlines after being charged with murder. Riley Cooper, WR for the Eagles, was caught on videotape using racial slurs while threatening black people. Two high-ranking members of the Broncos front office were charged with DUIs in July. Bronco’s LB Von Miller broke the league’s already lenient substance abuse policy and was then caught trying to cover it up. There was a bad outbreak of MRSA at the Buccaneers training facility, with at least three players being infected. This year has set a record pace for ACL injuries. There has been an alleged coverup of concussion symptoms. There are rumors that the Buccaneers leaked former QB Josh Freeman’s medical files, which is a federal offense. As of September 20th, 43 NFL players have been arrested this calendar year. Those charges include everything from murder, to marijuana possession, to DUIs, to gun charges, to manslaughter even involvement in a prostitution ring.
Yep that is all this year, and it is only week nine of the season. That exhaustive list doesn’t even take into account the numerous off the field issues that have occurred in the past couple of years, like former Cowboy Josh Brent facing manslaughter charges for killing teammate Jimmy Brown while driving drunk.
Justin Blackmon, the Jaguars’ hugely talented young WR, was just suspended indefinitely for breaking the league’s substance abuse policy for the second time. He was suspended the first four games of this season for his first offense. The unnerving part is, almost no one batted an eye. This is a young man who has the talent to be amongst the best at his position in the league, and yet he seems to have a substance abuse problem. Where is the safety net for this young man? A suspension is fine, and warranted, but this is a human being that clearly needs help. He has checked into a rehab facility, but only after being just one of numerous players to be caught, and I emphasize caught, this year. What about the guys that don’t get caught?
The bigger question is, does the NFL care?
The answer is no. The National Football League is about as ruthless a business as exists in this country. A great example of that was the squabbling over money during the lockout with the refs last year, and the league wide lockout the year before. A more recent, and more disgusting, example was the revelation that the league was profiting heavily off of their pink promotion that they run in conjunction with the shady Susan G. Komen foundation each October for breast cancer awareness. The pink merchandise that is plastered all over teams and commercials during the month, is sold through the control of the league. Well it turns out only about 8% of the money goes to actual breast cancer research funding. Almost all of it goes to the League, the merchandising companies, or the Komen Foundation (look up their practices, just an awful “non-profit”). The League cares about money, and money has never been better. As long as they can get their superficial charity stunts to work, the grass is green and the sky is blue.
The other professional sports leagues in North America look saintly compared to the NFL, when closely inspected. Baseball gets a ton of flack, as it should, for the ongoing steroid debacle. However, much of the issue with that largely has to do with the perceived sanctity of the game, not dangerous crimes and TMZ like shenanigans (Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun aside). To MLB’s credit, they have made a concerted effort to crack down on steroids. There doesn’t seem to be the same sense of urgency from the NFL. For other leagues it has become the exception to behave like this. In the NFL it seems to becoming more and more the rule.
The fans and media deserve a share of the blame. Sure there is the automated wringing of hands that goes on for a designated period of time after each of these stories breaks, but the NFL sweeps it under their very large proverbial rug, and it is on to the next. Maybe our reality TV saturated, drama craving, ADD diagnosed society has just come to enjoy this added side of football. If that’s the case then there is no hope of this trend ever reversing. As someone who loves sports, I hope that’s not the case. There is already a lot of talking in football (by my estimation, too much). Each week, the games, match ups, and story lines are beaten over the heads of fans, who seem all too eager to keep being hit. Much of this media coverage glosses over these negative stories, never seeming to delve into why this has become a trend in the NFL. Some of that can be chalked up to the NFL’s power. No one wants to get on the League’s bad side, but as media there is an obligation to investigate, even if you cover sports.
This cycle is bad for the game, and bad for the fans. It may not seem like it yet, what with the record media deals, and revenues. But after a certain point lives need to come first. Players have seemingly no support system, and it has become tiresome watching twenty something, rich, bored men ruining their lives, and lives around them. The NFL has become a bad circus, and that needs to change. It doesn’t look likely, but as fans of the sport we must do everything in our power to see that it does.