As we stand on the doorstep of a new NFL season, I have no doubt that many — perhaps even most — football fans would just like to focus on the games.
If only life were that simple.
The fact is that those of us who do what I do can’t ignore off-field issues; we can’t ignore politics; we can’t ignore Roger Goodell’s many missteps. The league has a massive PR department and each of the 32 teams have massive PR departments whose sole job is to deliver every piece of good news they possibly can about the league’s players and the teams.
That’s one reason why every NFL stadium is filled with banners promoting the various foundations that players sponsor. Fans need to be reminded that these are good guys.
Let’s be clear, there are plenty of good guys in the NFL and in all of sports. I am much happier writing good-news stories – and many of my colleagues ONLY want to write good-news stories.
Last weekend, college football produced two wonderful stories: one was Howard, a longtime FCS doormat, a team that had lost the last five games it played against FBS opponents by a combined score of 270-27, stunning UNLV at UNLV in what was supposed to be a walkover win for the Rebels. The Bison were paid $600,000 to play the game. Every year, the school plays two “guarantee” games because that’s about the only way to keep the athletic department funded.
Some people — because there are always people who like to poke holes in just about anything — have said, “UNLV isn’t any good, so what’s the big deal?” The big deal is UNLV has an athletic budget that is probably 10 times what Howard’s budget is; it is allowed 22 more scholarships and it was playing at home against a team that was 3-19 the last two seasons.
The other great story of the weekend was Jake Olson, the USC long-snapper who lost both his eyes to cancer by the time he was 12, was more or less adopted as part of the team by then-USC Coach Pete Carroll and became part of the team when he enrolled there three years ago.
Last Saturday, after making a deal with Western Michigan Coach Tim Lester to not rush the kicker on the Broncos first PAT, USC Coach Clay Helton sent Olson into the game to snap on the PAT after the Trojans had scored to make the score 48-21 with 3:13 left. Clearly, Helton had to protect Olson because you can’t have a 300-pound lineman slamming into a snapper who can’t see him coming. Thus, the pregame agreement between the two coaches. Olson snapped the ball perfectly and was pummeled by his teammates.
I had the chance to talk to Olson on Monday for a Washington Post column and he bowled me over with his intelligence, his humor and his courage.
I LOVE stories like that.
But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t comment on what happened to the Seattle Seahawks Michael Bennett in Las Vegas on the night of the Mayweather-McGregor fight.
According to Bennett, he was at a club when he heard what sounded like gunshots. He — and many others — began running. Bennett was stopped by police officers and ordered to the ground. He didn’t argue but once on the ground kept saying he hadn’t done anything. He was also un-armed.
According to Bennett’s account, one cop put a gun to his head and said, “If you say one more word, I’ll blow your f—- head off.” He was then kneed in the back, handcuffed and put in the back of a police car without being told by anyone WHY this was happening.
Only after he was recognized, was he released, apparently without an apology or an explanation.
He was guilty, as it turned out, of running from what sounded like gun shots while being large and black.
Now, will come the invevitable explanations about how hard it is to be a cop; how they often fear for their lives and that maybe they thought Bennett was somehow a threat when he was running.
Look, I’m pro-cop, just like I’m pro-military. I covered cops early in my reporting career and found most of them to be good, honest men and women who were doing the very best they could at a very difficult job.
But let me quote fictional NYPD Police Commissioner Frank Reagan (as played by Tom Selleck) from the show, Blue Bloods. There is no TV show on the planet that is more pro-cop than Blue Bloods. In one show, while defending a cop accused of using excessive force, Reagan says: “We are held to a higher standard . . . as we should be.”
Exactly. I make a mistake, my reputation takes a hit. A cop makes a hit, people can die because they carry guns.
The police response to all this isn’t going to make things any better. Somone identified as an “under-sherriff” finally appeared Wednesday afternoon to claim that Bennett had been arrested because he had run from the scene when the police came into the club. According to most reports, everyone was running from the scene. Bennett was the one chased down, ordered to the ground and had a gun put to his head.
The under-sherriff referred to “Bennett” repeatedly as if talking about a perp, not a victim. Michael Bennett was a victim. Only at the very end when saying that “Mr. Bennett” said he had no problem with his treatment other than his “claim” that the cop who handcuffed him had put his knee in his back — he didn’t mention the gun or the threat — did the under-sherriff act as if perhaps Bennett was due some respect.
There was no apology. Perhaps the police will claim that apologizing – even though there is NO DOUBT they humiliated an innocent man in what turned out to be a non-shooting – might make them legally vulnerable.
Here’s what an apology would do: calm the waters. Watching the cop spokesman made ME angry. I can only imagine how it made Bennett feel or how it made other African-Americans who have been put through moments like this because of their color.
Here’s the thing about cops: they have a very hard and sometimes dangerous job. But many of them seem to think that means it’s okay to screw-up; that it is always the other guy’s fault — especially, it seems, when the other guy is back.
Sometimes in life you just say, “I’m sorry, an honest mistake was made.”
I’m willing to accept that it was an honest mistake, that it wasn’t a conscious attempt to profile, just a mistake that far too many cops make. In this case — thankfully — no one died. But trying to defend what happened is indefensible.
The Vegas police say they will conduct “an internal investigation.” Anyone out there think the cop who drew his weapon and threatened to “blow your f—- head off” is going to come clean? So, it will be he said/he said. The cops will, of course, believe their own. I won’t. And many others won’t.
And the racial tension we all feel right now in this country will just ratchet up even more. THAT is tragic.
John Feinstein’s new Young Adult book, “Backfield Boys—A Football Mystery in Black-and-White,” focuses on racial tensions at a prestigious school. His new non-fiction book—“The First Major, The Inside Story of the 2016 Ryder Cup,” will be published next month. Both books can be ordered online now.