By DERON SNYDER
“Football is Family.”
“Together We Make Football.”
Roger Goodell & Co. launched those marketing campaigns to stem the tide of negativity and rising concerns about the sport’s debilitating effects on some players. Spin is imperative as the NFL moves slowly from outright denial to general minimization of the danger posed by concussions and football’s link to chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
In his pre-Super Bowl news conference, the commissioner went as far as comparing youth tackle football to playing video games at home. “There’s risk in life,” Goodell told reporters. “There’s risk in sitting on the couch.”
That’s true. You might be sitting there, watching TV, when Goodell appears and says something so stupid it makes your head hurt.
But we’re family and we’re all in this together, right? That’s what the NFL promotes to the public. That parents and hometowns are passengers on the journey as our little boys go from pee-wees to the pro. That the path from Friday night lights, to Saturday afternoon showdowns to Sunday battles in primetime galvanize us as a country. That football is noble and pure and admirable.
All of that is true to an extent.
But the NFL is a cold, cruel business, not a warm, loving family.
Exhibit No. 528 arrived last week, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, when an arbitrator ordered the league to return more than $100 million that improperly was withheld from the players. The owners were found to have mischaracterized an exemption that the Journal reports kept about $50 million in salary out of the players’ pocket.
By DERON SNYDER
There’s a thin line between honoring a legend and making a mockery of the game.
Retirement tours are susceptible to falling on the wrong side.
Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers are just the latest example. The ultimate case occurred two years ago when Derek Jeter capped his 20-year career with a farewell tour that felt nearly as long.
Chipper Jones, Mariano Rivera, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Julius Erving also enjoyed notable goodbye treks.
To be honest, I see the appeal. Loads of cool gifts are received. And it’s one last chance to bask in admiration from opposing fans and players. In Bryant’s case, experiencing so much love on the road is brand-new. His final visit to Chicago was more of the same, from the video tribute, to the special starting-lineup announcement (delivered by former teammate Pau Gasol), to the hand-written signs, the “Ko-be!” chants and the extended ovations.
“I’m at peace, extremely at peace,” he told reporters Sunday prior to the 126-115 loss, the Lakers’ 46th defeat in 57 games this season. “I keep waiting for the hammer to drop. At some point it really has to hit, but it hasn’t hit me yet. I feel it’s the right thing and I’m ready to move on.”
All of us should be ready to move on. But there are eight weeks left, including final visits to Memphis, Denver, Phoenix, Utah, New Orleans, Houston and, his last road game, Oklahoma City.
By DERON SNYDER
Catching lightning in a bottle is rare.
Keeping it contained is hopeless.
The Washington Nationals became just the second team in MLB history to snare the No. 1 pick in back-to-back years. Amazingly, the top players available in those drafts – Stephen Strasburg in 2009 and Bryce Harper in 2010 – were the all-time most-hyped pitcher and hitter ever.
Visions of Cy Young and MVP trophies flashed through the heads of Nats’ fans, too numb from back-to-back 100-loss seasons to think about pennants and World Series titles. But the belief was Strasburg and Harper eventually would lead Washington from the abyss into the glorious light of contention.
The duo did just that, helping the team capture two NL East titles in a three-year span. They’ll give it another go this year.
After that, Strasburg is gone.
By DERON SNYDER
Leadership architect Sam Chand has a simple definition for an organization’s culture. From an insider’s point of view, it’s: “This is how we do things here.”
Every place has a culture, formed by what’s valued and what’s celebrated, what’s rewarded and what’s punished. That’s true in homes, workplaces, churches and schools.
According to six women who filed a federal lawsuit last week, the University of Tennessee athletic department does things in a despicable way regarding sexual assaults and student-athletes, particularly football players. The school’s alleged handling of cases is not only loathsome but illegal, too, a violation of Title IX laws meant to protect students from gender discrimination in federally funded education programs.
The story sounds familiar because we’ve heard similar charges way too often in the last few years.
There’s the former Florida State official who claims football players accused of sexual assault receive special treatment and most victims decline to press student conduct charges. There’s the University of Minnesota administrator who last summer emailed concerns about reports of sexual assault involving “individual players” and “groups of football players.” Interestingly, the Golden Gophers’ then-athletic director, Norwood Teague, resigned in August for sexually harassing two female colleagues at a leadership retreat.
There’s former Baylor University defensive end Sam Ukwuachu – convicted in August of sexually assaulting a women’s soccer player after he was cleared in a “school investigation” – and former Baylor defensive end Tevin Elliott – accused of sexually assaulting five women from October 2009 to April 2012 before an incident led to his conviction in January 2014.
There have been high-profile cases at Vanderbilt, Missouri, Colorado and Montana, presumably with cases elsewhere that we can’t remember or never heard about.
From the outside looking in, a number of athletic departments use cover-ups and pseudo probes to handle claims of sexual misconduct.
By DERON SNYDER
As a lover of basketball, Gregg Popovich abhors “Hack-a-Shaq,” intentionally fouling opposing players who are hideous free throw shooters.
As coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Popovich readily embraces the strategy.
“I hate it,” he told reporters Tuesday. “It’s ugly. But I’m going to do it. You don’t want me to do it anymore, learn how to shoot a free throw.”
That’s seemingly impossible for Detroit Pistons center Andre Drummond (.381 career free throw percentage), Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan (.418) and Houston Rockets center Dwight Howard (.571). Those players combined have drawn roughly 69 percent of Hack-a-Player fouls this season.
But there’s another way to stop Pop and fellow coaches from continuing the custom: Change the rules.
The debate on intentional fouls dates to the Wilt Chamberlain era. The NBA instituted the current rule for off-the-ball fouls after watching Chamberlain, a notoriously poor free throw shooter, run away from opponents trying to foul him late in games. Now, whenever away-from-the-play fouls are committed in the final two minutes of regulation and overtime periods, any teammate already in the game shoots a free throw and his team retains possession.
Teams still can hack away for the first 46 minutes and it wasn’t much of an issue. But an increasing number of coaches are utilizing the practice. ESPN reports that the number of intentional fouls entering last weekend was 266.
The total all of last season was 164.
By DERON SNYDER
Quarterbacks dominated the story line entering Super Bowl 50, which is only natural considering they play sports most prominent and predominant position. Most of the talk centered on Cam Newton’s emergence as the NFL MVP and Peyton Manning’s presumed last go-around.
We mentioned that Denver possessed the league’s No. 1 defense and Carolina wasn’t too shabby at No. 6. But the main questions were how the Broncos could stop the Panthers, who led the NFL in scoring, and how Manning could generate much offense at all, after failing to do so for much of the season.
As it turned out, Manning got to pound Budweiser enjoy a second Super Bowl win but he was merely along for the ride. Denver’s defense and MVP Von Miller were the real story Sunday, reminding everyone that some old adages still ring true, even in today’s pass-happy, big-hit-averse, fantasy-friendly NFL.
Elders told us what wins titles. Broncos linebacker Brandon Marshall blamed the media for letting younger generations forget.
“You guys influence peoples’ minds to think, ‘it’s all offense, it’s all passing, it’s all this, it’s all that,’” he told reporters after Denver’s 24-10 victory. “Defense wins championships. Two years ago, the Seahawks thrashed us. Best defense in the league. This year, we soundly beat the Carolina Panthers. Best defense in the league. It happens all the time.”
The Panthers went three-and-out on their first possession and Denver punched them in the mouth on their second. Miller wrested the football from Newton on a strip-sack that was recovered for a touchdown. Newton’s size and strength was no match for Miller, who took the ball like a bully picking on a nerd.
Newton was never the same after that. His confidence was shot and his enthusiasm was sapped. His facial expressions throughout the game conveyed a sense of deep stress. He seemed to labor in his breathing, trying to figure out where Miller or DeMarcus Ware would appear next. The Broncos finished with seven sacks, including another forced-fumble by Miller that led to Denver’s only offensive TD with three minutes left in the game.
Somewhere, Tom Brady was empathizing. The New England QB was hit 17 times and sacked four times by Denver in the AFC Championship. Newton was thought to be too mobile to suffer a similar beating, but he couldn’t overcome his offensive line’s open-door policy.
By DERON SNYDER
Doug Flutie was a short quarterback. Colin Kaepernick is a skinny quarterback. Dan McGwire was a tall quarterback. Jared Lorenzen is a fat quarterback.
It’s beyond me how anyone blessed with the gift of vision doesn’t notice those physical distinctions, claiming to be height-blind or weight-blind. Are they hair-blind, too, oblivious to the long-flowing locks of Richard Sherman and Clay Matthews?
Of course not.
Yet, some folks insist we should ignore the obvious when it comes to, say, Cam Newton, or racial minorities in general. We’re supposed to be colorblind, acting as if black and brown skin isn’t discernible from lighter hues.
If you think that viewpoint is ideal, or even realistic, you’re deluding yourself.
The problem isn’t recognizing that Newton – gasp! – is a black quarterback. It’s the assumptions, preconceptions, biases and stereotypes that can follow the acknowledgment.
People don’t face nearly as many subliminal judgments based on height or weight compared to skin. Instantaneous assessments based on the latter have been seared into our nation’s consciousness since before we became a nation. Most of us are unaware of the implicit pre-judging that occurs in our minds and subtly shapes our thought process.
Newton’s color is irrelevant from the moment the ball is snapped until the whistle blows. Sure, we can ascribe racial traits to his style of play but that’s intellectually lazy, as if John Elway wasn’t a precursor to Newton like Steve Young preceded Michael Vick.
It’s everything else about Newton that fans the flames of melanin-based animosity: the exuberance, the dancing, the clothes, the out-sized personality. That what gets outright racists riled up and can stir subconscious negativity in good-hearted, well-intentioned folks as well.
By DERON SNYDER
ESPN reported over the weekend that Detroit Lions star wideout Calvin Johnson decided to retire.
Other weekend reports suggest that Cleveland Browns star bust Johnny Manziel also decided to retire.
The only difference is Manziel doesn’t realize it.
Johnson will go down as an all-time great, the Lions’ franchise leader in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns. No NFL player has accumulated more receiving yards and receiving touchdowns since Johnson was drafted in 2007.
The five-time Pro Bowler is only 30 years old, but his body is battered and his desire has waned. Detroit fans are experiencing an unwanted case of déjà vu, harkening to the early retirement of Hall of Fame halfback Barry Sanders. The two best things the Lions enjoyed over the last four decades ended abruptly and prematurely.
But at least they left good memories and major accomplishments behind.
Manziel will leave Cleveland fans with nothing but questions, regrets and viral videos over two wasted seasons.
The latest in a slew of unfortunate incidents occurred Saturday morning in suburban Dallas. We’ve reached the point where no one is surprised when Manziel appears in the news for drunken behavior, domestic disputes or run-ins with fans. We’re subconsciously braced for the worst – Manziel harming himself or others – with little hope he’ll reverse course.
For the second time in four months, Manziel is under investigation for an altercation with a girlfriend. No charges were filed in October and no arrests were made Saturday. But according to a police report, the woman in Dallas was so worried about Manziel’s mental and physical well-being, authorities used a helicopter to search for him.
The department “will deploy all useful personnel or tools available to fully investigate any call,” Fort Worth police spokesman Cpl. Tracey Knight told reporters. “Especially when there is a concern for health or safety of a person.”
Who knows where it will end for Manziel? The next time a helicopter is deployed, he might be in a white Bronco.