The changing face of NFL evil

The changing face of NFL evil
July 25, 2014, 2:45 pm
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This past Sunday, the Buffalo Bills held their first day of training camp and became the first NFL team to break ground on this new NFL season. On Tuesday, the New York Giants became the second team, and yesterday, 11 more — including the New England Patriots — joined the party. Over the next two days, another 18 squads will start their engines and then finally, next Monday, the Detroit Lions will raise the curtain on whatever wackiness Jim Caldwell has planned and it’s all systems go for the NFL — 30 teams on a crazy journey to an even crazier journey; taking the first of a few hundred thousand steps towards what they hope will be the Promised Land.

On the other hand, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell doesn’t need training camp. There’s no road to the Promised Land for the Commish because he already lives there, in a beautiful white house, lined by a sturdy white picket fence with pointy posts he loves to sit on when he’s bored. All-knowing, omnipresent and always on his game — that’s Roger Goodell. Hell, it’s not even August yet and he’s in postseason form. Doing what he does best. That is, forgoing common sense and human decency in the name of money and archaic values.

But before I tell you how I really feel, let’s take a step back — almost seven years back — to a much simpler, more peaceful and innocent time in NFL history.

Specifically, Week 9 of the 2007 season.

It was early November, barely halfway through Goodell’s second season in the big chair; more than two years before he (and the league) finally admitted the truth about concussions and their long-term effects. This was also during the infantile stages of Twitter (the site hosted less than 100,000 tweets a day in 2007, compared to more than 450,000,000 in 2014) so social media was a different beast. Like one of Khaleesi’s newborn dragons, Twitter could barely walk (never mind fly) and was completely unaware of the power it would one day have.

Meanwhile, at this point the NFL was VERY aware of its own power. The league was a freight train, already clocked at ludicrous speed, and only growing stronger and faster as HD became more prevalent and the country’s fantasy obsession continued to grow. And for marketing and popularity’s sake, it didn’t hurt that two of the greatest players in league history, at the game’s premiere position, were at the height of their powers, on a collision course for one of the most highly-touted regular season games ever:

November 4, 2007, at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis: It was Peyton Manning and the undefeated Colts vs. Tom Brady and the undefeated Patriots.

It was heavenly Tony Dungy (whose bowel movements smelled like fine potpourri) vs. grizzled and grumpy Bill Belichick (only a few months removed from SpyGate).

It was Good vs. Evil. That’s right. Good vs. Evil. That’s how it was portrayed in the media.

ESPN’s Gregg Easterbrook led the charge, dedicating nearly 2000 words of his weekly column to the issue. In Easterbook’s romantic eyes, the Colts were everything that was right with the NFL, if not the entire world. They stood for “sportsmanship, honesty, modesty, devotion to community, embrace of traditional small-town life, belief in higher power, even love of laughter.” They were led by “squeaky-clean Tony Dungy, author of a No. 1 best-selling book and seemingly everyone's favorite coach.”

Dungy, Easterbrook glowed, “smiles in public and answers honestly whatever he is asked.” Although religious, “Dungy said on the night he won the Super Bowl that God doesn't care about football games, which shows perspective.” The Colts star was Peyton Manning, who stood for “love of family, constantly appearing in public with his brothers, father and mother.”

On the flip side, the Patriots stood for “dishonesty, cheating, arrogance, hubris, endless complaining even in success.” The team's star, Tom Brady, was “a smirking celebrity-chaser who dates actresses and supermodels but whose public charity appearances are infrequent.” Meanwhile, Belichick was “a grim reaper who illegally used video equipment to steal signals, runs up the score without a conscience.” He was “Dick Nixon in a hoodie.”

I’m picking on Easterbrook because he deserves it, but he wasn’t alone. Around the same time, the AP ran a column asking fans to choose between the “Bully Pats and Good-Guy Colts”.  Before long, as it usually goes, columnists, radio hosts and talking heads, nationwide, jumped on the pile.

“One head coach is admired,” Jay Mariotti wrote in the Chicago Tribune, “and one is loathed. And when their identities are extended to the teams, you have an antithetical collision that makes America tremble.”

Anyway, there are two reasons I’m rehashing this old narrative almost seven years after the fact.

1) Because time has taught us, once again, just how silly these narratives are. While it’s not quite as comical as some of the lap jobs Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods received over the years, it’s still pretty funny to go back and read all the praise and sainthood bestowed on those Colts, knowing now that — for one, Marvin Harrison, one of the faces of that team, a man who prided himself on grace, humility and hard work, turned out to be a pretty bad dude (and that’s putting it nicely). That just this past March, Jim Irsay, the owner of that team, was arrested for driving while intoxicated with a briefcase full of pills and two laundry bags filled with $29,000 in cash. That just this past week, Tony Dungy, the squeaky clean head coach, the personification of morality, a man who, although religious, always kept a proper “perspective”, was finally revealed (on a larger scale) to be the man he’s always been — a man whose morality has very specific bounds and who, at the end of the day, isn’t so different from the “flawed” souls he’s always so quick to lecture.

But whatever, I’m not trying to flip the script here. I’m not saying that the Colts were REALLY evil or the Patriots were ACTUALLY the good guys or anything in between. Hell, up until last season, Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft employed an alleged murderer. They’ve both made mistakes — in their public and personal lives. Brady has too. We all have. We’re all good. We’re all evil. And I’m not upset, I’m just laughing.

Tony Dungy is everyone’s favorite coach, who doesn’t believe that gay people should be allowed to get married.

Bill Belichick is a grim reaper with his own charitable foundation and a laundry list of other incredibly gracious gestures that he simply chooses to keep private.

Again, this isn’t black and white. It’s not about right or wrong.

It’s just reality, which is usually a shade of gray.

2. The second reason for this trip back to 2007 is to reflect on what evil has truly come to mean in the NFL. The fact that, back then, folks could sit with a straight face, a clear conscious and use a word like “evil” to describe a coach 1) who didn’t like talking with and wasn’t particularly friendly to reporters 2) who “ran up the score” against professional, NFL opponents 3) who was careless and arrogant enough to get caught doing something that’s always been done, if not illegally, in the NFL.

(That last part might sound like blatant homerism but it’s the truth. Jimmy Johnson admitted to videotaping opponent’s signals while winning Super Bowls in Dallas. According to a report, around the time of SpyGate, Mike Shanahan and Broncos were taping Chargers practices. Last winter, Bill Cowher was asked for his opinion on SpyGate, and dismissed the impact entirely.

“We didn't lose the game because of any Spygate, because of them having any additional things,” he said. “If they're guilty of anything, they're guilty of arrogance because they were told not to do something. But it was something that everybody does.”)

Don’t get me wrong, Belichick was wrong. He deserved to be punished for everything that happened. But does that make him evil?

Back then it did. That was “evil” in the eyes of the NFL in 2007. But today, that version of evil is like a kindergartner throwing Styrofoam blocks at a classmate compared to what’s taken over the NFL freight train. I’m talking about evil that, unlike in 2007, no longer hides in the weeds behind lies and manipulated research — but is now right out in the open for everyone to see.

It’s a commissioner who pretends to care about player safety while simultaneously pushing for an 18 games season and a Thursday night schedule that wreaks havoc on players bodies. A commissioner who recently pledged to take a stand against domestic violence and, only yesterday, hit the Ravens Ray Rice with a mere two-game suspension for punching his fiancée out cold in an Atlantic City elevator and dragging her body across the floor.

Naturally, that suspension has led to more outrage over the hypocrisy of the NFL’s war on drugs. That the Browns’ Josh Gordon, one of the most-exciting and talented young players in the game, has been suspended for an entire year for testing positive (a second time) for marijuana.

A season for hitting a joint, and two-games for hitting your fiancée?

That’s the question everyone is asking, but in terms of marijuana, Gordon’s suspension isn’t the issue. Weed is illegal in the NFL. Players know they’re getting tested. It’s their fault for failing to comply, regardless of how ridiculous the rules might be.

Instead, the real evil is Goodell’s stance on medical marijuana.

It’s a commissioner who stood before the media at last year’s Super Bowl, was asked about the potential benefits of medical marijuana and simply played dumb — “I'm not a medical expert,” he said. “We will obviously follow signs. We will follow medicine and if they determine this could be a proper usage in any context, we will consider that,” Goodell said. “Our medical experts are not saying that right now.” — as opposed to acknowledging that the medicine is already there. That it’s already evolved. That 23 states, plus Washington DC, have legalized medical marijuana based on the same research Goodell’s medical experts claim doesn’t exist. The same “medical experts” who provided these answers in a concussion FAQ that the league released in 2007:

Question: “Am I at risk for further injury if I have had a concussion?

Answer: Current research with professional athletes has shown that you should not be at greater risk of further injury once you receive proper medical care for a concussion and are free of symptoms.

Question: If I have had more than one concussion, am I at increased risk for another injury?

Answer: Current research with professional athletes has not shown that having more than one or two concussions leads to permanent problems if each injury is managed properly. It is important to understand that there is no magic number for how many concussions is too many.”

It’s that Goodell made those comments despite a recent report on Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel estimating that between 50-60 percent of NFL players regularly use marijuana — and mostly for pain management.

Also, that marijuana is safer than the addictive pain killers that have ruined so many players lives and much less harmful than the beer and alcohol that Goodell and the league profit on a million times over.

That’s the hypocrisy. That’s the evil. And for what? For a stale old stigma that Goodell and his big wig buddies from the Promised Land grew having cemented into their psyche, and won’t let up on, regardless of all the people — his players — that stand to benefit.

Now, what was that about videotaping defensive signals?

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine