There is no questioning the fact that the National Football League is an omnipotent monolith. When the NFL tells the TV networks to jump, they say: how high? When the NFL tells the players union it can’t and won’t give players guaranteed contracts in the most brutal sport there is, the union says thank you.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a tipping point out there—not anytime soon—but somewhere down the line when the NFL finally jumps the shark and people begin to say, ‘I’m done.’
Chances are it won’t be in my lifetime.
And yet, let’s consider the last few years.
This is what the league has done—and walked away from—seemingly unscathed.
- The Ray Rice fiasco. Apparently Roger Goodell didn’t think hitting a woman was that big a deal until the public saw actual video of it happening. Then Goodell held a press conference in which he promised transparency and then stonewalled every question.
- Deflategate. The league spent $5 million to try to prove Tom Brady was a cheat and got him suspended for four games only because a court ruled in their favor—on a legal technicality that had nothing to do with the merits of the case. The Patriots paid a serious price: Jimmy Garrapolo became a huge trading chip during Brady’s suspension and it took them overtime to win the Super Bowl. Goodell looked like Barney Fife throughout the whole debacle.
- Teams abandoning cities because they can’t get sweetheart stadium deals to go someplace where they can. St. Louis, San Diego and, most recently, Oakland lost their teams because they wouldn’t be blackmailed by the league and their respective owners in to building billion-dollar-plus playpens for billionaire owners to play in.
Loyalty—what’s that? Investing some of the astronomical TV money the owners receive into new stadiums—why do that when someone else will do it for you?
How many NFL owners does it take to dive on a dollar bill? Thirty-two, because they’d all be in the pile in an instant.
And last, but not least: concussions and head injuries. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard Goodell or an owner claim that, “football is safer now than it’s ever been,” trust me I wouldn’t be sitting here writing right now. I’d buy an NFL team, finance my own stadium and buy Aruba.
Football’s not safe. It’s flat out dangerous and we are still learning just how dangerous. Unless the rules are changed to play flag-football, it will continue to be dangerous. THIS may be what finally jumps the shark because parents of future generations aren’t going to want to risk their children’s futures on football.
Head injuries, even more than gambling and match-fixing, killed boxing. They could do the same to football.
NFL owners lead a blessed existence. They can’t possibly lose money because the TV dollars are so massive. During the 2011 lockout—which the owners were always going to win because the players simply couldn’t afford to actually miss games—one owner said this: “We’re not pleading poverty like the other leagues do in negotiations. We make money, everyone knows that. We just think we should make MORE money.”
Of course they do.
There is no better example of owner arrogance than Washington’s Dan Snyder. He has run his team about as badly as a sports franchise can be run for 18 years now. He’s made awful hires and, even when he’s made the occasional good hire—by accident, no doubt—he’s been unable to keep from meddling and ruining the relationship.
Being a bad owner is the least of Snyder’s crimes. There are plenty of bad owners in sports. Snyder takes it to another level and this has been evident in the last couple months in the Scot McLoughan debacle.
McLoughan was hired two years ago to be the professional in the draft room and during free agency. He had been a respected scout in both Seattle and San Francisco but had damaged himself because of a drinking problem. The team hired him anyway—which was justifiable. He was a talented guy dealing with a problem that many people deal with.
For perhaps a year, maybe a bit more, McLoughan actually made the team better. He drafted well the first year and he didn’t run amok throwing money at every big name free agent who was looking for work, ala Snyder and his predecessors. He made—for the most part—smart decisions. Washington won the NFC East and reached the playoffs in 2015.
And then things began to come apart. McLoughan wanted to sign Kirk Cousins to a long term contract based on his play in quarterbacking the team to postseason. Apparently Snyder—still nursing his Robert Griffin III man-crush–and his henchman/mouthpiece Bruce Allen, weren’t ready to make that commitment. The cost—then—probably would have been about $40 million guaranteed for a five or six-year commitment. Instead, Snyder and Allen had Cousins franchise-tagged at a cost of $19.8 million—for one season.
Cousins played well again this past fall, but faltered in some crucial moments—notably the season-ending loss to the New York Giants that cost Washington a playoff berth. Still, he was—and is—a lot better quarterback than anyone Washington’s going to get right now to take his place.
Even so, Snyder and Allen didn’t want a long-term commitment. So, they tagged him AGAIN—this time for $23.9 million. Do the math: they will pay Cousins $43.7 million for two seasons, instead of $40 million—even make it $50 million—for five.
What’s more, they’ve managed to do the impossible: make Cousins, who is about as likeable as they come, angry. Chances he’ll be in D.C. in 2018? Close to zero.
And so, when the town exploded, Snyder and Allen decided it was time to make McLoughan the fall guy. For all intents and purposes, they fired him in February. He wasn’t at the combine—arguably a scout’s most important week—and the team claimed he was, ‘tending to a personal matter.’
That was a flat out lie. A week later, Allen said McLoughan would be back at work soon. Another lie. Then, on March 9th, McLoughan was fired and someone from the team planted a story in my newspaper—The Washington Post—that McLoughan was drinking again, had shown up in the locker room drunk and that the situation had been untenable for 18 months.
Eighteen months? Really? So why the hell didn’t the team either get him help or get him gone? That story is about as believable as the one about the 100-year-old grandmother’s death in early February that allegedly kept McLoughan away from the combine. And the fact that the team anonymously planted the story right after firing McLoughan was downright cruel—whether he was drinking or not.
This week, Allen has been on a ‘Brucie over America tour,’ turning up on every TV, radio, online and print outlet he can find (weeks after the dead silence that followed McLoughan’s firing) to claim McLoughan was fired to, ‘bring clarity,’ to the situation. What in the world does that mean? Nothing.
One radio apologist gingerly asked Allen if the anonymous story didn’t run a bus right over McLoughan. Allen never answered, going on about how hard everyone was working to prepare for the draft. He even claimed the organization wasn’t about rumors and anonymity. That’s ALL the organization is about. That and all the lying.
There was no follow-up.
Meanwhile, Snyder’s invisible, unless you can see him pulling the strings behind Allen’s back whenever he speaks. It’s a disgusting situation.
Maybe a few fans won’t renew their season tickets, convinced the team will break their heart again. Most won’t. Most will pant for stories out of training camp about the new signees and how wonderful the atmosphere is in the locker room. They’ll pay the outrageous prices at Snyder’s god-awful stadium and cheer like crazy whenever the team scores. Half the media members in town will still say, ‘we,’ when talking about the team and Snyder—like his 31 cronies—will continue to rake in money.
If there was ever a franchise in sports that deserved to have the owner run out of town on a rail, it’s this one. If there was ever a league that deserved to have people say, ‘no mas,’ it is the NFL.
Maybe it will happen years from now when more and more players die young because of head injuries. But, probably not. The rich almost never pay a price for anything.
And monoliths never die.
John Feinstein’s most recent book, ‘The Legends Club—Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry,’ is now available in paperback after six months on The New York Times bestseller list in hardcover. His Young Adult Mystery, “Last Shot,” won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for mystery writing in the YA category.