As a 34-year-old with a borderline unhealthy obsession over football — seriously, as a tortured Detroit Lions fan in my younger days, I was only a few notches below Randy Quaid’s nut-job character in “Major League II” — I can unequivocally say the NFL doesn’t feel as fun as it used to be.
On the surface, things hardly seem dire. Studies show that professional football remains America’s most popular sport by a wide margin, and the checkbooks of teams seem to support that, too, as every club reportedly received a $255 million check for national revenue sharing last week.
However, the declining participation of youth and high school football is a symptom of the way football is being perceived. The ongoing discussion about concussions — immortalized by an Oscar-gunning Will Smith’s comical “Tell di TRUF” riff in the 2015 movie “Concussion — hasn’t helped, but a series of tactical missteps made by a money-hungry, out-of-touch league guided by a far-from-diverse group of owners over the past several years has also led to an erosion of the goodwill and excitement that allowed it to overtake baseball as America’s pastime.
Nowhere is this better reflected than the ongoing national anthem furor, which ramped up again Thursday, when news of the Miami Dolphins’ new team policy at the outset of training camp leaked to the Associated Press.
The optics of the Dolphins’ policy — which classifies anthem protests under the long list of actions considered to be “conduct detrimental to the club,” allowing for a fine and/or a suspension of up to four games — are horrible. Even though the way it is written means the club had plenty of wiggle room in regards to how it chooses to enforce the policy, the threat of a four-game suspension allowed people to point out that the Dolphins were essentially equating a failure to stand for the anthem with a significant drug violation or domestic violence, infractions that can carry penalties of roughly the same length.
By the end of the day, the NFL had seemingly been bludgeoned by every sports talk-radio host and writer worth their salt in the country, all of whom couldn’t wait to point out that by putting the decision in the hands of its teams — as the league did with the surprising institution of its new anthem policy in May — the league was opening individual franchises to scorn, both among players and some of its fanbases. The backlash was so bad that the NFL, perhaps fearing the furor that would surround the other 31 franchises when their anthem policies are revealed when training camps start next week, ended up releasing a joint statement with the NFL Players Association Thursday night, stating that a freeze would be placed on the recently enacted anthem policy while the league and the union attempt to confidentially hammer out a resolution over the next several weeks.
To the optimistic, it’s a promising development, an indication the NFL is finally willing to work with a union it has thumbed its noses at for too long. To the cynical, it’s a dodge or a hustle designed to take pressure off teams while the NFL gets the dual benefit of letting the current controversy die down and allow its clubs more time to figure out how to make the essential tenets of its ham-fisted anthem policy more palatable to the players and public.
The sad thing is the NFL’s initial motivations in engaging with the union don’t really matter. The professional league involving the sport I love got ripped to shreds Thursday, an occurrence that has happened too often over the past several years. Tactical mistakes keep getting made that allow everyone, from Joe Fan in Nashville to President Donald Trump (who revels in the chance to rip the NFL more than fictitious sportswriter Jack Rose did Al Pacino’s character in “Any Given Sunday”) to take a whack at the NFL piñata.
The anthem furor isn’t the only thing that has eroded the league’s goodwill, of course. The stifling of players’ on-field personalities, from the crackdown of celebrations to its stringent uniform code and questionable new on-field initiatives, has affected perception of the league, both among fans — who don’t get to know players and seem to increasingly see them as well-paid chattel — and its players, many of whom harbor resentment.
So without further ado, here are the first two points of my harebrained, multi-part plan to help the NFL return to its past, non-controversial glory. It’s time to get people arguing about unprovable things like whether Barry Sanders or Emmitt Smith was better or if Eli Manning is a Hall of Famer (here’s a hint: yes), with part two of this column coming next week.
1. Copy the NBA’s anthem policy and allow players to loosen up
Over 20 years ago, the NBA went through an anthem flap of its own with Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a devout Muslim who was protesting the U.S.’s action overseas by refusing to stand for the anthem. It turned into a huge deal, with the two sides agreeing on the compromise that Abdul-Rauf would stand for the anthem with his head bowed in prayer. The NBA eventually reached an agreement with its players union to add language in the collective-bargaining agreement requiring players to stand.
If the NFL refuses to simply bar players from standing on the field at all during the anthem — which is the way things used to be and is arguably the easiest solution of all — out of fear of reprisal from President Trump, then perhaps it would benefit from working with the NFL Players Association to outline a similar agreement to the one the NBA has, at least until it can be collectively bargained upon in the looming 2021 labor war.
I wrote a few months ago that the NBA’s anthem policy isn’t perfect. I still feel that way because the NBA is getting what it needs out of the players, which is a zero-tolerance policy toward protests during the anthem that provide awareness to the causes of social injustice and police brutality, but are so unsightly to the majority of the paying fanbase.
However, my thinking on this has evolved. As I’ve spoken to people throughout the league, it’s become crystal clear that one of the biggest problems with the NFL’s broken new policy is the disrespectful manner in which team owners have dealt with their players, who are supposed to be their partners but often feel dictated to.
Contrast that with NBA players, who collectively bargained their current anthem policy and are allowed, even encouraged, to speak up on social justice issues. While NFL players get fined for things like writing messages on their shoes and eye black, NBA players have worn “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirts during pregame shootarounds to bring attention to police brutality.
Respect goes a long way, and when players feel stifled by the league they work for, it breeds the feelings of animosity that have fueled this entire anthem flap for the past two-plus years. While it’s good that the NFL is meeting with the NFLPA to discuss a resolution, I hope (insert Mark Jackson voice) that they are doing so with the desire to actually work with the union and get something done. Owners want players to stand for the flag, but something that has turned into a political football that stirs up emotions in liberals and conservatives alike demands collaboration.
The owners put together an $89 million package for social justice causes over the next seven years, but you can’t just throw money at this — no matter how much it is — and expect it to go away. Sure, the financial contributions are a good start, but in return for standing for the anthem, the owners should also pledge to give players way more freedom to express themselves too, just like NBA players have.
The loosening of the NFL’s celebration rule in 2017 was a nice start. We saw so many epic celebrations last year you just know Joe Horn and Terrell Owens were sitting at home seething about being born 15 years too early.
It’s also time to do away with the “My Cause, My Cleats” campaign that allows players to promote a charitable cause of their choice once a year (so thoughtful of them!). Look, “My Cause, My Cleats” should be every week. LeBron James has gained lots of attention for the messages he writes on his shoes every game. Let NFL players do the same, and let them write non-vulgar messages on their eye black.
That’s not all. In an effort to promote the embrace of individuality, these strict uniform rules have to go. Football is about swag and style; it’s about scoring touchdowns, laying big hits and looking good while doing it. Did you know players have to — have to — wear long socks in the NFL? Did you know they can’t just wear long white socks, they have to wear the colored pullovers on their calves, too?
If it were up to me, I’d bring back headbands, do-rags, bandannas, tinted visors, rolled-up jerseys, face paint and ankle socks. Let the players have some on-field style. They’ll look cooler, have way more fun and, in concert with the relaxed celebration rules, bring back a sense of individuality that is still lacking in the game.
2. Re-think the new lowering-of-the-helmet rule
It’s going to take a miracle for this rule, which is the NFL’s version of college football’s targeting penalty, to not be an abject disaster. Many NFL writers, myself included, watched with surprise and concern as Al Riveron, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, gamely did his best to explain these new rules at May’s owners meetings in Atlanta.
To his credit, Riveron patiently fielded my questions afterward as he did his best to convey that it won’t become a nightmare. But it was hard to see how this new rule won’t cause some serious problems. Every player — even quarterbacks, running backs and offensive linemen — is subject to the rule, which allows for ejections if an official decides a player lowered his head upon contact when he didn’t have to.
Well, what about fourth-and-1, when every running back in NFL history has lowered his head and attempted to power through the line? And what about every running play, where offensive linemen have been taught for years to “fire out low”?
Football is a violent, nasty game. Fans like it that way. Concussions are a massive problem, and everything the league does from a rules standpoint is likely being done to show it is doing all it can to reduce them. However, in the rush of prevention, the league is also legislating defense and physical play – two reasons people fell in love with football in the first place — out of the game. Go too far, and it turns into a glorified version of flag football and the league dies anyway. Why not just play soccer at that point?
The NFL should enforce these new regulations during the preseason, and then de-emphasize it somewhat when the season begins so it accomplishes the dual goals of promoting player safety, but not consistently putting refs in the position of constantly making Jeff Triplette-ish mistakes.
The league, however, should know that even having this rule on the books is a terrifying proposition to fans of perpetually tortured fanbases, many of which are anticipating a gut-punch “lowering-the-helmet” call against their team in whatever big game they end up watching because their team has suckered them into believing this year is different.
And yes, I’m sure that by the construction of that last sentence, you can tell that I grew up watching the Lions.
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