This is a free-flowing blog post that may occasionally touch upon controversial subjects. Reader discretion is advised.
Bill Simmons had his rant and was taken off the air, figuratively. I am the chief executive of You Make the Calls and cannot be banned (YMTC – is that as good an acronym as ESPN? Do you even know what ESPN stands for? How about Entertainment Sports Programming Network? Not so sexy, eh? The major issue with YMTC is a litany of youth musical theater, youth muslim teen, and other groups that already use #YMTC). This diatribe will depart from the mostly analytical nature of most of my posts. If you do not want a highly opinionated column based on subjective information, please move on. I’ll cover a broad range of on- and off-field subjects.
Let’s start with the easy one. Roger Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and basically every other controversy that has marred his time as commissioner. I’m not going to pretend to believe that the NFL had not seen the Ray Rice video, or that it necessarily mattered. Don’t get me wrong – when I saw it, I was shocked at his nonchalant reaction to Janay nee Palmer unconscious on the floor of the elevator. That nonchalance can mean a lot of things, but to me, it meant that this was not an unfamiliar scene to Rice. He had seen stuff like this before, and wasn’t too concerned about his fiancée. Of course, you could easily spin it as shock at seeing someone you love on the ground, but either way, it was a highly polarizing tape.
Apparently the tape was enough for the NFL to suspend Rice indefinitely. My problem with that is this: Ray Rice was the same person before and after the release of the tape by TMZ. What he did was the same. There was no cover-up on his end. So what changed after the airing of that tape made him so despicable? The fact that he punched his fiancée senseless? We already knew that. Goodell already knew. I think Ray Rice has a great case for reinstatement in front of an independent arbitrator.
That brings me to the point about arbitration. Many of you have read how the lawyer conducting the investigation into the NFL’s handling of the Rice situation is highly tied to the league. Robert Mueller was a FBI director, but he now works for a law firm that not only has ties to the NFL (helped negotiate the last TV package) but to the Ravens (president Dick Cass worked there for 30 years). And independent arbitrators may not be all that independent either. First, because arbitration is usually binding, it gives tremendous advantage to the side with less to lose. The NFL will survive a bad ruling. Ray Rice may not be able to. For all we know, he’s broke. Because Rice’s options end at arbitration, he may be forced to cave because he needs to get something out of it. Also, an arbitrator’s role isn’t necessarily to ensure fairness; if that were so, arbitration hearings and arbitrators’ decisions wouldn’t be cloaked under the shadow of secrecy. Their role is to try to find middle ground that appeases both sides and ensures the ongoing business survival of key stakeholders. Ray Rice is not playing this season.
I’ll end with this: Roger Stokoe Goodell is a football guy. He has been working for the league all of his adult life. He knows these owners. He literally grew up with them. He’s a guy that embarked on an ambitious letter-writing campaign to secure his first job as an intern in Pete Rozelle’s league office. To those that think he’s tone deaf: the NFL has the world’s best marketing, branding, messaging, and legal resources at its command. Any public response by Goodell would have taken days, if not weeks to craft, and likely would have been shown to test audiences with significant statistical rigor. Why do you think Goodell went into hiding shortly after the Rice video blew up? My point is this (no thanks to Mike and Mike for spoiling it on the air): which of the following is more likely:
- The Commissioner of the world’s most powerful sports league with an army of PR experts at his side, fumbles a highly-public situation so badly and is so paralyzed under intense public scrutiny that the sports world is calling on him to resign.
- The Commissioner of the world’s most powerful sports league has decades-long relationships with the owners of the league’s franchises. He has a vision that the NFL can almost triple revenues from $9bn to $25bn by 2027. He know that for him to stay in office long enough to see that through, he needs to keep the trust of the owners, but even more importantly, make himself dispensable. He knows there are bad apples all around the NFL. The sport itself may be intractably associated with violence. He know the owners can’t afford to have more cases like Rice’s and Peterson’s brought up on TMZ, that they desperately need to get to the playoffs so this conversation will die. He knows that the owners require local support to maintain luxury box revenue and stadium funding. So he’s willing to fall on the sword and make himself an ass in front of America. He’s willing to do it because the owners have told him “do this for us, Roger, cover for us. We’ll do you a solid.” Moreover, he’s doing it because by being the undertaker that buries the bodies in the eye of the public, he becomes the guy that knows what was buried and where. You think the owners are going to fire that guy?
Almost a 1,000 words strong and still going, let’s move on to another story related to violence inherent in football. The NFL has been embroiled in a multi-year controversy regarding player safety. They’ve been sued, slammed by current and former players, exposed in a documentary, and dragged through the mud over their years of denial (at best) and covering the risks up (at worst). Since then, we’ve seen almost the exact opposite – heavy handed punishments of the Saints for Bountygate, rules regarding concussion tests for players, and rules regarding what hits are and are not legal.
I am an advocate of safety. I believe that NFL players should be taught the correct way to hit – head up, leading with the shoulder, wrapping with the arms. This reduces injury risk for the target and the defender(s), and is more likely to result in a sure tackle. As a 49ers fan, I am glad that “big hitters” Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson are no longer with the team. For every wideout they mercilessly creamed, others would bound away unscathed because they sold out for a hit and failed to wrap, and in rare cases, blind hurtling hits ended up hurting the hitters and other defenders trying to make tackles.
But the concussion thing has gone too far. These flags that we’re seeing slow the game down and neuter defenders. They should be tackling properly not only because it’s safer for them, but because it’s a better defensive play. Seattle focuses on proper tackling former, including wrapping up, and I don’t hear anybody complaining on that defense. It seems their biggest problem (besides Adderall) is who really is the best defender on that team. And cut the crap about the NFL setting an example for kids in Pop Warner or high school. Yeah, these guys are role models, I get it. But kids are smart enough to separate what happens on TV and what they do in real life (and coaches should be teaching correct concepts at those levels). Every week, we see murders, rapists, drug dealers, terrorists, and the like, and there’s no national uproar over the bad examples those guys are setting. I know of a movie franchise revolving around reckless-driving car thieves keeps pumping out films with 9-digit earnings.
The hypocrisy is plainly evident in the way the league distinguishes between injuries. Tackle someone low and tear his ACL? That’s a football play. Hit high? Suspension and fine. Never mind that tearing an ACL not only removes the victim’s livelihood for up to a year, but can have even more debilitating long-term consequences than concussions. Yet there’s no uproar over the knee injury epidemic (or for that matter, the Tommy John epidemic in baseball) that’s been close to the scale of the outcry over concussions.
Things have also gone too far with the guys that get hit. Not letting the players back in the game after a big hit is ridiculous and hypocritical. Football is violent. These guys are going to get their bell rung, and we know more and more of the downstream effects that those hits can have. And there’s an increasing amount of evidence that it’s not even the big hits that lead to long-term injuries like CTE – it’s the countless thousands of small hits that jar the brain, hits that can be suffered in summer workouts, unmonitored and informal training sessions, routine practices, or yes, NFL games. The NFL is trying to take away all the risk, but in a sport this violent, that can never happen.
Then there’s the problem that Alex Smith faced a couple years ago and LeSean McCoy faced a couple weeks ago. Get your bell rung, your helmet taken away, and watch a backup supplant you as the starter. Yeah, that happens. Works great for the team – they get to cut an expensive veteran, or possibly trade him. Sucks for the player who has no one in his corner and can only watch helplessly.
Taking away all injury risk is clearly impossible and should never have been the goal. Instead, the league should be researching the risks, informing their players and coaching, and ultimately, compensating the athletes for the risks that they take. That’s what life is about. Everything is dangerous, from driving on the highway to skydiving to playing in the NFL. Coal mining is inherently dangerous and yet there’s no nationwide campaign to end coal production (for safety reasons). You still turn on the lights, and I guarantee you your power comes predominately from coal. Those miners take a risk every time they step into a mine (believe me, I’ve been in one) and are compensated for it. Same thing with policemen, firemen, etc. Sure, give them better equipment, but don’t stop them from doing their jobs.
NFL players are getting paid 6 figures and above to understand those risks, shoulder them, and play on. As a fan, I don’t pay to watch second stringers botch things up while the starters sit with injuries. Unless there’s an inability to perform or an injury that could lead to diminishing returns (such as a hamstring injury), I want my team’s best players out there. Again – they are getting paid to take this on. If you really want to take their helmets away? Guarantee their contracts. Guarantee that a starter will never lose starter-level money because of this stupid, asinine rule. Guarantee health benefits for the player that last through the rest of his life (like the armed forces). Don’t hide behind the hits. Take them head on.
The last part of the rant takes on another heavily funded, well connected business. The NCAA has been fighting for years to make the case for their existence. If you don’t remember, the NCAA received its broad-reaching power over college football in the early 20th century when Teddy Roosevelt decided the violent game of football needed policing. As it the case with most sports organizations, the choice of the NCAA to do so was almost entirely arbitrary – basically, they were in the right place at the right time. Since then, the NCAA has been ruthless in expanding their jurisdiction to encompass all of college athletics, determining standards and awarding championships.
One of the many arbitrary decisions it made along the way was that the “student athletes” must be amateurs. They claim ostensibly that maintaining amateurism is “crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority.” If that were the case, why does Alabama’s title-winning coach Nick Saban boast on his Rolltide.com website that his graduation rate is 75% (as of 2012)? That’s a catastrophe! One fourth of football players on Saban’s teams don’t get a degree. Charlie Strong may have problems in Texas, but none are more pressing that his team’s 58% graduation rate (latest data from 10/2013). Oklahoma may be playing well but their graduation rate of 47% was 3rd worst in the country. Think about that next time you watch the Sooners. Seriously, draw a line at the 50 yard line through their team sideline – everyone on one side of that line is not going to graduate from college.
The academic standards the NCAA espouses are, in Bill Simmons’ words, are beeping beep. They’re beeping beep (this is a family-friendly blog). This whole mess over unionization, O’Bannon, Shabazz Napier going hungry, Johnny Manziel, Reggie Bush, and the like, was started over this absurd concept of amateurism. Well, not absurd in one way – by extracting all rents from student athlete labor, the NCAA, its teams, administrators, and coaches, have been billions of dollars. Yeah, I forgot about that. When in doubt, follow the money.
What the NCAA doesn’t see is that it can make all this back – and more – even if the athletes are paid. This is how. If I’m a computer science major, I can get a computer science scholarship from a school. Along the way, I can work for companies and earn real dollars – these are called internships. I can also create my own code and sell it online, such as through an app store. These actually enrich my Of course, any research I do in class and the contributions I make to the program enrich the university in monetary and reputational ways.
Every other major is like this. So make football a major. Let kids get drafted by NFL teams when they graduate from high school. Let the teams and players choose which school to attend. Want the kid learn from a former NFL coordinator on a winning team? Send him to Alabama. Want to know what he can do running an up-tempo spread? Oregon. Pay him while he’s there while kicking some additional money to the university. The NFL team gets control over their player’s training, the player gets paid a standard salary, and the team and player can collectively decide when to call him up. Jadeveon Clowney is ready after his sophomore year? Send that guy to the big leagues.
This would, in-effect, make college a minor league for certain NFL prospects. And why not? Colleges literally would not have to change anything about how they operate! They don’t have to pay the players, just offer scholarships to the other 50 members of the team that aren’t drafted. They can keep their convoluted geographic structure and ludicrous bowl system. They can keep the rivalries and the pageantry. If anything, it’s a boon because you can ask the league to kick more money into your system. The league gets what it wants (more control). The players and schools get what they want (more money). Everybody wins.
I know these viewpoints are controversial and potentially alienating. But I feel like they’re also well-reasoned if you really think about them. Of course, I don’t believe I’m right, even remotely, about any of this. But I feel strongly that certain arguments that are generally accepted, such as “keep players safe” and “college kids shouldn’t get paid” sound ridiculous when you really think about what they represent. That’s the point of this article. Next time the league, the NCAA, or anybody in authority tells you how to think, think differently.