Passing yardage and points are going up, up, up in the NFL, as are TV ratings and, of course, revenues. So all must be well with America’s most popular sport, right? Not so fast.
About halfway between the start of exhibition games and the Super Bowl, there have been plenty of unwanted story lines. Bullying in the locker room, coaches collapsing, serious injuries to marquee players, the D.C. Council’s call on Washington’s pro football team to change its name – examples from the past week alone.
There’s been much more in 2013: Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez’s murder charge; Broncos linebacker Von Miller’s attempt to manipulate the NFL drug-testing system; the lack of tests for human growth hormone 2 1/2 seasons after owners and players paved the way for it; the suicide of a 29-year-old former player for the Chargers; the MRSA infection diagnoses of three Buccaneers, one of whom needed surgery; the continuing problem of concussions and their effects.
Makes one wonder what the next three months might have in store for a league that said Thursday its games account for the 18 most-watched TV shows since the regular season began in September.
“You have star quarterbacks down. You’ve got coaches with health issues. You’ve got the Richie Incognito situation in Miami,” said Joe Theismann, who led Washington to the 1983 Super Bowl title. “When you really think about it, so much of what’s gotten attention through the first half of this season has to do with what’s gone on off the field.”
Some of what’s happened on the field has not been pleasant, either.
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the 2011 MVP, was the latest big-name player to go out, sidelined for who knows how long by a broken collarbone after being sacked during his team’s first possession Monday night. The Packers’ opponent in that game, the Chicago Bears, already were without their preferred starting quarterback, Jay Cutler, whose groin was injured when he was sacked a couple of weeks earlier.
Teams such as the Browns, Bills and Eagles have trotted out three starting QBs apiece. Reggie Wayne, Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo, Julio Jones, Brian Cushing, Sam Bradford and Geno Atkins are among the key players done for the season. Ryan Clady, Aqib Talib, Russell Okung, DeMarcus Ware and Michael Vick have missed time, too.
Yes, injuries are an inevitable part of the game. So are, increasingly, other goings-on, and in this day and age, the world finds out more and more about the less-pleasant stuff.
“I think of it as ‘normal society’ and ‘the society of professional sports.’ And all issues that happen in the world of society happen in the family of roughly 2,000 people who play pro football,” Theismann said.
“The fraternity of professional football has this ‘omerta’ where nobody says anything,” he added. “It’s a team game, but everybody closes their eyes about what’s happening with other people.”
Theismann recalled having his home-packed lunch stolen, back in the days before team-provided meals, as part of what he called “rookie initiation”; he said he later hid a laxative in his sandwich to try to figure out the culprit.
“That was the easiest way to find out because one guy was going to run off the field at some point,” Theismann said. “You didn’t ask around because no one was going to say anything.”
The first indication that the NFL is taking seriously what went on with the Dolphins – Incognito was suspended by the team; fellow offensive lineman Jonathan Martin is undergoing counseling – came Wednesday, when the league announced it appointed a lawyer to investigate and prepare a public report.
Perhaps more facts will emerge. Or perhaps the inquiry will be slowed because players or coaches are unwilling to reveal exactly what went on, a la with the New Orleans Saints bounty case of last year.
“When you look at past issues, like targeting the helmet, concussions, whatever it may be, whenever something has been brought to the forefront like this, history would show that the league takes a look at it, sees what it can do better, raises awareness for the issue, communicates about the issue,” Washington backup quarterback Kirk Cousins said.
“I fully expect … the (players’ union), the league, to start to bring it up as an issue that previously we wouldn’t even be talking about,” Cousins said. “Most rookies are going to face (hazing), and it would be something that would be smart to know how to handle and how to win the respect of your teammates without going too far. That’s something I’m sure they’ll address now, going forward.”
Only one of several serious matters the NFL needs to address.