The NFL season appears to be finishing pretty much the way it started – awash in scandal. The season effectively began with a decision by the Commissioner’s office to turn a blind eye to evidence that one of the world’s best running backs knocked out his fiancée in an elevator. Then, after only one week of action, the eye that wasn’t blind was blackened, as the world’s very best running back was caught taking a tree branch to his 4-year-old son and pounding the child in the back, on the legs, and in the testicles. That, on top of everything else that was going on in the NFL, was enough to cause me to boycott the sport for most of the season. When I finally returned, I was treated to a comeback for the ages in the week’s penultimate season. But nobody is talking about that comeback. It has been overshadowed by yet another scandal. For that is life in today’s NFL – no matter how good the action is or how trivial the scandal, the latter will trump the former.
The latest scandal, which is commonly known as “Deflategate,” has resulted from the first half of the Patriots-Colts game. When the Patriots were on offense, they were playing with balls that had been deflated, thus making the balls easier to catch. My understanding is that this has been proven. We also know that the Patriots themselves had the ability to deflate the balls that their offense were using – and could do so relatively easily and quickly. What we don’t know is who on the Patriots was responsible. You would hardly have to be a cynic to suspect that the league does not truly want to get to the bottom of things until after the Patriots’ next game, which is the Super Bowl. In other words, the league may have decided to turn yet another blind eye until the season is over so as to ensure that any punishment will not affect the competitiveness of its showcase event.
Everyone agrees that with or without the deflated balls, New England would have beaten the Colts, who were sleep-walking through the whole game. Yet somehow, this scandal has captivated the attention of the media and the fans to the point where this is the only football story anyone is talking about. How is that possible?
For starters, New England has been caught cheating before – most notably, for using video cameras to spy on an opponent’s practices. Also, New England has been the most successful franchise in the 21st century, and people expect slimy acts of cheating from upstarts, not from the blue bloods of the league. Let’s face it, this isn’t the kind of conduct that the old Boston Brahmans would approve of. But then again, this also doesn’t appear to be worth all the attention it’s getting. Surely, something else is going on.
Let me offer two explanations. First, everyone who loves football should have realized by now that there is a stench surrounding this league. It has consistently taken a strong stance regarding the color of the socks or sneakers that players wear and the dances that they do in the end zone, but when it comes to off-the-field violence, on-the-field injuries, and in-the-locker-room bullying, it could care less. We fans enjoy watching the sport of football, but the barons of the game drive us crazy. So whenever someone in a position of power gets caught looking like a jerk, we want to lash out at him – not only because we want the sport cleaned up, but also because it’s come to the point where we feel kind of guilty for watching it.
Secondly, Deflategate isn’t just another NFL scandal; it’s an NFL CHEATING scandal. At least subconsciously, that has to remind us of an even larger cheating scandal that has gone virtually unreported for decades: the apparent prevalence around the league of performance-enhancing drugs. We all realize that there have been tremendous advances in nutrition during the past several decades, and that those advances are somewhat responsible for the fact that the biggest and strongest players of the 60s and early-70s physically resemble the smallest and weakest players today. But we also realize that the NFL has done little or nothing over the years to prevent the use of PEDs in its sport. And that, presumably, those drugs are abused at epidemic proportions. They give an extra edge to the players who take them and provide pressure to those who want to live clean, healthy lives but also want to compete on a level playing field.
For me, no spectator sport is anywhere near as fun to watch as football. An incredible combination of speed, power and finesse is on display at virtually every moment of the game. And yet, when it comes to the NFL, what the league does to de-legitimize itself never ceases to amaze me. As was once said about Yassar Arafat, it “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” So now, when fans should be looking back at the amazing Packers-Seahawks game and looking ahead at an intriguing Super Bowl, all everyone is talking about is some petty cheating scandal.
Here’s my advice: don’t worry about the Patriots. Win or lose, we all know what that organization has come to stand for – brains, talent, and a bit of sleaze. Let’s concentrate instead on the real cheating scandal. Let’s encourage the league to go drug free. Test the players and kick out the cheats. We might find that the players will get smaller, slower, and perhaps even a bit less lethal. Then again, the action on the field will be every bit as competitive as before, and the hospitals and morgues might get a little less crowded.