Friday, February 21, 2014

It's time to change the conversation we're having about football

The notion that all press is good press is flatly absurd — there is such a thing as bad press.

The Obama administration was torn to shreds for weeks following the rollout of its healthcare marketplace website, which was already inexplicably unpopular because people are lunatics. There’s no way to spin the exposure of Lance Armstrong as a total fraud into good attention; it’s bad for everyone involved.

But for football, the old truism holds up. It doesn’t matter if the NFL is crowning a new champion or seeing one of its star players led out of his home in handcuffs and charged with murder. Everything from Peyton Manning’s sustained greatness to the league’s blatant disregard for the well-being of its players fits neatly into the sport’s ongoing melodrama, even if not in ways the league would like it to.

In Monday’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, columnist Ron Cook took something of an opposing view.
Under the headline “NFL has to get tougher against its ‘criminal element,’” Cook wrote: 

The NFL has had worse weeks, to be sure. The final week of June 2013 comes to mind. … They never like their players to be involved in sordid activities even if it happens so often that they have to be getting used to it. Look at last week.

In a bulleted list, Cook breaks down what a terrible news cycle the NFL is going through and reveals himself to be both hopelessly out of touch and critically under-thinking.

On Feb. 9, Missouri linebacker Michael Sam announced he is gay,” Cook wrote. “NFL officials, coaches and players generally reacted well to Sam’s plans to become the first openly gay, active player in the league, but multiple general managers and player personnel people said anonymously that they wouldn’t draft him because they don’t want to deal with the distraction. That’s just swell.

The notion that a player at the dawn of his career deciding to exhibit the socially conscious bravery Sam did would be the first thing to come to mind under the headline of “criminal element” or pretext of “sordid behavior” is embarrassing. Even though Cook is only referring to anonymous reaction to Sam’s coming out, to give such credence to people who don’t have the courage to attach their names to their bigoted opinions does a disservice to both Sam and the readership, and the item is framed in such a way that it makes Sam look like the bad guy for daring to be who he is. Shame on Cook for burying the lede and attempting to disguise his lack of a coherent opinion on the matter under the phrase “that’s just swell.”

Also on Friday, former star safety Darren Sharper was charged in Los Angeles with two counts of rape by using drugs. He also is a suspect in other rape cases. Sharper was a five-time Pro Bowler and a member of the NFL’s 2000s All-Decade team.

Darren Sharper hasn’t played in the NFL since 2010. For Cook to pick on this in a sport so morally bankrupt and rife with bona fide criminals and real ethical quandaries seems like cherry picking. Darren Sharper is a terrible human being who is almost definitely going to jail for a long time, but he’s not, as Cook asserts, football’s problem the way his next example is.

On Saturday, Baltimore Ravens All-Pro running back Ray Rice was arrested in Atlantic City, N.J., after an incident with his fiancée,” Cook wrote. “His attorney described it as a ‘very minor physical altercation.’

Rice appears to have knocked the woman unconscious and then tried to drag her out of an elevator. There’s video of the latter part! Here’s the thing: This is bad for Ray Rice, but the NFL will not lose a single dollar or second of sleep over it.

Cook goes on to chide Steelers’ safety Ryan Clark for insinuating that some of his teammates occasionally smoke pot, completely glossing over the fact that the team has, over the last five years, retained the services of someone alleged to have committed multiple sexual assaults, someone who drunkenly tried to drive over police officers on the South Side, someone who beat the crap out of his girlfriend just prior to taking his son to be baptized, and someone who went completely berserk on a woman in an area Red Lobster. But no, the gradual decriminalization of marijuana in the United States is surely the bigger issue here.

Selectively picking out incidents as he does, Cook adds further fuel to the wrong discussion — the one that keeps the NFL relevant while ignoring its glaring disingenuousness, exploitation, and total lack of ethics. This is a game that takes children at their most malleable and over the course of junior high school, high school, college, and onto the professional ranks, encourages them to behave like vicious psychopaths, then punishes them when they act as such. That’s the conversation we should be having.

The league thrives on anything that feeds its narrative arc. Everything, from sideline disagreements and the faux player-safety debate to suspendable off-the-field trespasses and the games themselves, goes into quenching America’s year-round thirst for all things football. It’s time to change the conversation.

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