The Washington Nationals clinched the NL East title Tuesday night in Atlanta, while the Baltimore Orioles claimed the AL East crown Tuesday night at Camden Yards. The odds aren’t great, but a BW Parkway Series is officially in play.
That’s great news for our section of the sports universe, where the NFL team is sorting through quarterbacks and the NBA team is gearing for a promising season and the NHL team is set to host the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day.
But all of those stories pale in comparison to the coast-to-coast outrage aimed at the National Football League and commissioner Roger Goodell.
Our inability to look away from football is nothing new. The league’s ironclad grip on our attention covers Sunday afternoon and night, Monday and Thursday nights, fantasy teams, office pools, suicide picks and point spreads. It barely eases up in the offseason, plying us with combines, mini-camps, free-agent signings and wall-to-wall draft coverage.
But the last few months have been different. We might have thought the NFL was maxed out, but it has attracted a slew of new eyeballs as women, non-fans, politicians, news producers and corporate executives turn toward the league.
What they see isn’t pretty.
Carolina’s Greg Hardy is convicted of assault for allegedly choking a girlfriend, throwing her around, dragging her by the hair and threatening to kill her. Baltimore’s Ray Rice drags his unconscious fiancée off an elevator, reaches a plea deal to avoid trail and is seen cold-cocking her on video.
San Francisco’s Ray McDonald is arrested on suspicion of felony domestic abuse against his pregnant fiancée, who according to police had visible injuries. Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson is indicted on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child after whipping his 4-year-old son with a switch.
The NFL thought its biggest threat was the concussion issue, and the league attempted to squash it with a class-action settlement of at least $675 million. The fear was parents would steer their kids toward other sports and football would slowly lose cultural relevance, much like horse racing and boxing before it.
That peril hasn’t disappeared. Data released last week suggests that nearly 30 percent of former NFL players will end up developing Alzheimer’s disease or dementia across their lifetime, putting them at a significantly higher risk than the general population.
Goodell responded to the latest abuse cases in a ham-handed, thick-skulled and tone-deaf manner, demonstrating remarkable cluelessness. Calls for his job are increasing as his credibility evaporates. He might have to take one for the league and step aside voluntarily in an effort to lower the heat.
A women’s group flying “Goodell must go” banners over NFL stadiums, as happened last week, made owners take notice. And they can’t ignore a governor and a senator (Minnesota’s Mark Dayton and Al Franken, respectively) weighing in on the league’s disciplinary actions.
But to really grab owners and shake them, you have to jeopardize their bank accounts. Anheuser-Busch, Visa, McDonald’s, Campbell Soup, PepsiCo, GM and FedEx did just that, expressing concern about the state of affairs. The Radisson hotel chain suspended its sponsorship deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
“We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season,” Anheuser-Busch said in a statement. “We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league.”
Money talks. Money draws a response. “We understand,” the NFL said in a statement. “We are taking action and there will be much more to come.”
League officials do themselves no favor by flip-flopping in the wind of public sentiment.Goodell suspended Rice for two games, announced a new policy of six games for future first-time offenders and then suspended Rice indefinitely after the punch was shown. The Vikings deactivated Peterson for Week 2, re-activated him for Week 3 and then, one minute later, barred him from all team activities in response to the uproar.
The Panthers are undecided about playing Hardy this week after sitting him last week, while the 49ers have played McDonald in both games with no indication of changing their stance. These cases have led to much debate about due process, which only highlights the rampant hypocrisy Goodell has established as his own judge and juror, regardless of legal outcomes.
He has suspended players who ultimately were not charged with a crime, notably Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger. Teams have followed suit. In the last two years, the Vikings cut three players who were arrested, not waiting for verdicts. But tMinnesota was ready to let A.P. suit up.
All of this has put the league on a slippery slope. Yes, the games are great, but we can’t turn away from the drama, either, as we watch for a fall.
The NFL has become its own biggest rival.