To say the last couple of weeks haven’t been good to the NFL would be a gross understatement. It would be accurate to suggest the NFL is in the midst of one of the worst crisis in the league’s history. That includes the players strike in 1982 in which seven weeks of games were lost and the 1987 players strike which saw replacement players take the field.
Most have seen the now infamous video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his then fiancée, now wife Janay Palmer inside an elevator of an Atlantic City casino. Rice was first suspended a mere 2 games by the NFL until the second video was made public by TMZ in which the NFL, under considerable public pressure suspended Rice indefinitely and the Ravens terminating his contract. Rice is currently appealing his suspension.
Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy has been convicted of assaulting his ex-girlfriend yet played in Carolina’s first game of the season. He was deactivated in Week 2 and has now been placed on the commissioner’s exempt list.
Then there is the case of Adrian Peterson. The superstar running back of the Minnesota Vikings was indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a his 4-year-old son. Peterson reportedly used a “switch” which is a thin tree branch to whip his son causing lacerations and bruises. Peterson was deactivated by the Vikings for their Week 2 matchup against New England. The Vikings then lifted the suspension but after more public pressure plus another child abuse charge against Peterson, the Vikings placed their superstar on the commissioner’s exempt list.
We can’t forget about Ray McDonald. The San Francisco 49ers defensive end was arrested on suspicion of felony domestic-abuse on his fiancée. Unlike Rice, Hardy and Peterson, McDonald has yet to miss any game action as the 49ers because he has yet to be charged.
Finally there is the most recent incident as of this writing. Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested on charges of aggravated assault involving a 27-year-old woman and an 18-month-old child.
Now let’s get back to the Ray Rice case. Because this involves how badly NFL commissioner Roger Goodell screwed up. And believe me, he screwed up real bad! Firstly, as he admitted himself, his punishment on Rice was too light when the charges came to light. Granted, the second videotape hadn’t been released but Goodell damn well knew what was on that tape. He had to know. He’s the commissioner of the most powerful sports league in North America, possibly the world. How could he not know?
Goodell claimed he never saw the second video until TMZ released it to a horrified nationwide audience. I call bullshit. Again, YOU’RE THE COMMISSIONER OF THE NFL! HOW CAN YOU NOT HAVE SEEN THE VIDEO BEFOREHAND????
The criticism Goodell faced was unlike anything he or any previous NFL commissioner had heard before. Many were calling for his resignation. Goodell had to cancel his trip to San Francisco just before the 49ers were to play their first game at brand new Levis Stadium because of the heat that was on him.
Then there was that news conference. That oh-so-awful news conference. First off, Goodell was 17 minutes late for his meeting with the media. Then there was the usual corporate schtick of the NFL is still a great brand, it is a leader, we will do better, blah, blah, blah. And then there was his ducking of the hard questions with his double talk and stuttering. He sounded worse than a drunken Scotsman after the Scottish independence vote. (At least the Scots had a right to sound inebriated after that.) Should also add kudos to Rachel Nichols of ESPN for asking the tough questions that needed to be asked.
Oh and I haven’t mentioned concussions yet. Well now, there’s another crisis the NFL needs to get a grip on as well. And if anyone doesn’t think concussions are an issue, I strongly suggest to read League Of Denial, a stirring and somewhat tragic book of the battle ex-players have had to deal with head injuries and how football caused them. Some such as Mike Webster, Junior Seau and Dave Duerson lost their lives while dealing with the after effects of concussions caused by playing the sport we love.
Now before I go any further, let me stress this: The NFL won’t die. Football is still the most popular sport in the United States by a landslide. TV ratings are still large. In fact, Sunday Night Football on NBC is the most watched television program in America. To those who want the NFL to go away, you won’t get your wish.
However, if it isn’t careful, football may lose its hold as the number one sport in the land. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a trip back in time to a few decades ago.
In the 1950s, the three most popular sports in America were baseball, boxing and horse racing. No sport was bigger than baseball. In fact, it was (and arguably still is) The National Pastime. There was no bigger sporting event in America than the World Series. The country came to a virtual standstill when the best of the American League squared off against the best of the National League. The superstars of the sport were beloved. Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Warren Spahn. The list goes on and on.
But the warning signs were there for the downfall. It began in 1972 when the players went on strike over salary arbitration and pension funds. What began was a 22-year period of labour unrest that hurt the sport. A 50-day strike in 1981 saw 713 games cancelled which amounted to 38% of the season. The sport fell apart in 1994 when the players went on strike on August 12 of that year. Commissioner Bud Selig cancelled the rest of the season and the World Series due to the strike.
Since then, baseball has languished behind football and basketball in terms of popularity. The sport has also been hurt by drug scandals which many questioned the validity of the home run chases of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. All three have yet to be elected into the Hall of Fame because of the question of steroid use and whether they cheated or not.
Boxing has had its share of issues as well. At one time, the world heavyweight title was the biggest prize in all of sport. It didn’t matter if you followed the sweet science with a passion or didn’t care for the pugilists, you knew who the champion was. Joe Louis, ‘Jersey’ Joe Walcott, Rocky Marciano, Floyd Patterson and of course Muhammad Ali were household names in America and around the world.
Then Don King entered the picture. King began to promote fights featuring Ali with great fanfare. It was King who came up with “The Rumble In The Jungle” that saw Ali win back the world heavyweight title from George Foreman. It was King who promoted “The Thrilla In Manila” that saw Ali fend off Joe Frazier in a brutal contest.
But the roof was falling in. The World Boxing Council stripped Leon Spinks of their World Heavyweight Title because Spinks signed a rematch against Ali, instead of taking on Ken Norton, who was being promoted by King. The WBC gave the title to Norton who defended it against Larry Holmes who was also part of King’s empire of boxers. Thus the world title was split.
Mike Tyson briefly unified the World Heavyweight Title in 1987, (which included the IBF as well) and he held that distinction for three years. When Tyson lost the title to Buster Douglas, the three boxing organizations, (WBA, WBC, IBF) were again at odds on who should be champion. Once again, the title was split. Lennox Lewis reunified the World Heavyweight championship in 1999 and the title stayed unified until Lewis retired in 2004.
As of this writing, and I had to look it up, Wladimir Klitschko is the WBA, IBF, WBO, Transnational Boxing Rankings Board and Ring Magazine’s World Heavyweight Champion. Bermane Stiverne is the current WBC World Heavyweight Champion. I’m Canadian. Bermane Stiverne is Canadian. That should be a big deal to me that a Canadian is a World Heavyweight Champion. I’ve never heard of him until I researched it for this piece.
Boxing has far too many organizations and promoters that only want what’s best for their fighters. Look at Floyd Mayweather. Arguably the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, Mayweather was accused (and rightly so) of ducking Manny Pacquiao in a potential fight to see who was the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. Once again, lawyers and promoters bickered about the contract and possible drug testing that was to be included. The fight never happened and fans were left out in the cold.
Horse racing is a bit different. The main reason the sport of kings has fallen off in popularity is that there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. That doesn’t mean there have been issues. Some horses have been destroyed thanks to injuries. Steroids and drugs have also been prevalent. Don’t forget fixing and the presence of gambling has also brought the sport down.
So as you can see, it is possible for football to fall off its perch as the number one sport in the land. It won’t happen immediately, but the effects of the off-field behaviour of its players, as well as the gross mishandling of the commissioner of such acts, is extremely detrimental to the league and the sport. With basketball and even soccer on the rise, football may have to look over its shoulder very soon. A change could be coming.
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