“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.
“They created an exemption out of a fiction, and they got caught,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith told the newspaper. The union filed a grievance in January when an audit revealed the discrepancy.
Of course the NFL could never admit to deliberately shortchanging its beloved family members. League spokesman Brian McCarthy said it was an error, a “technical accounting issue under the CBA involving the funding of stadium construction and renovation projects.”
Believing this was an honest mistake would be much easier if the NFL hadn’t contested the union’s claim, sending the case to arbitration. A simple miscalculation should have resulted in “Whoops, sorry about that; we’ll gladly make the correction.”
That’s the response you expect if there’s a genuine, familial sense of unity.
But the league continues to demonstrate an “us versus them and them” mindset, viewing players and fans as chumps for the taking.
Remember the “uncapped year” in 2010, when NFL teams were free to spend as much as they could stomach? Except the league had unwritten, behind-the-scenes guidelines to keep salaries in check. Washington and Dallas were docked $36 million and $10 million in cap space, respectively, for not playing along.
Then there’s the time-honored practice of cutting high-salaried players early in their contracts, or getting them to restructure their deals for less money. Antonio Cromartie signed a four-year, 32 million contract to return to the Jets last season; they cut the cornerback Monday after paying him $7 million.
Baltimore is talking with quarterback Joe Flacco about restructuring his deal while Super Bowl champion Denver has several players who need to re-do their contracts. But, hey, it’s all for the good of the team, making it easier to sign more players … who eventually can face cuts or restructures … to sign more players … who eventually can face …
At least many players fall in the category of millionaires, which isn’t true for the majority of saps bilked by the billionaire owners. Overpriced merchandise, exorbitant ticket prices, personal seat licenses and publicly-financed stadiums are popular tools to separate fans from their money. PSLs for the Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium are selling nicely for an average of $5,778 a pop. ($41,398 per club seat and $2,696 per non-club seat).
And like in any family, divorce looms as a possibility. Just ask the poor folks in St. Louis and San Diego.
But we don’t see any money-grubbing underhandedness, cold-blooded contract manipulation, shameful taxpayer extortion or overt anti-consumerism when we visit nfl.com’s collection of “Football is Family” and “Together We Make Football” videos.
The latter group has uplifting sub-titles such as “Teamwork,” “Community,” “Gratitude,” “Courage” and “Inspiration.” The other group features current and former stars such as Brandon Marshall, Marcus Allen, Marcus Mariota and Eric Dickerson, offering us a serving of warm-and-fuzzies from the gridiron.
Meant to be heartwarming, they’re stomach-turning instead.
“Yeah, that’s right,” NBC’s Bob Costas told the New York Daily News last month. “The first thing I think of when I hear about 25 percent to 30 percent, by the NFL’s own admission, of its players will have cognitive difficulties is ‘Football is Family.’
“ … Bring out the hearts and tinkling piano music because it really is a touching tableau.”
A racket is what it is.
And we’re all suckers for it.