1. HGH has become the elephant in the living room.
Ah, for the “good old days”, when all the stories about sports and performance-enhancing drugs centered primarily around Bud Selig’s ongoing PR nightmare in Major League Baseball, or a few selected track athletes. The NFL has received a relatively free pass in this regard for a number of years from the public and the media – either people just weren’t aware of a problem, didn’t care as much as they did about these kinds of drugs in baseball because no hallowed records were being broken by suspected users, or loved their teams too much to ever want to know that the sack machine or blocking behemoth who helped get said team to the postseason was on the juice.
It would seem, however, that the world isn’t playing along anymore. In every one of the serious interviews and press conferences Goodell has undergone since his start date, Human Growth Hormone – the drug most in the current NFL news because there currently isn’t a 100% accurate test for it – has been brought up each time. This can be seen as an extension of the principle that when one dog in a neighborhood barks, the rest will follow, but there is a scent here. Goodell has said all the right things, and NFLPA head Gene Upshaw might be softening his position on further testing. In the month of September alone, two incidents have brought into sharp focus just how prevalent the issue is on the minds of those in the NFL, and those who follow the game.
Two weeks ago, Redskins offensive tackle Jon Jansen appeared on HBO’s “Costas Now” program and stated that “15 to 20 percent” of NFL players use some sort of performance-enhancing drug. Jansen later recanted to a point, saying that he “wasn’t good at math” and that the percentages he cited were based on his presumption that it was “a small percentage of guys” Last Friday, league representatives spoke to Jansen, who was not able to provide any specific information regarding users or usage.
And in a more insidious and dangerous allegation, San Diego prosecutors have requested that Chargers linebacker Steve Foley, who was shot three times by police on September 3 after a traffic stop on suspicion of drunk driving went horribly awry, be tested for performance-enhancing drugs. Foley had a blood-alcohol level of 0.233 percent at the time, almost three times the legal limit, but authorities either seem to believe that aggressive drunks don’t exist, or that professional football players have an additional contributing factor when they travel on the wrong side of the law. "His history of aggressive and even violent contact with law enforcement indicates the possibility of more than mere alcohol involvement," wrote criminal investigator Dan Nordell. “This has been given names like ‘'roid rage’ for the uncontrollable outbursts and violence experienced by some users."
It’s important to note that Foley’s been no angel since he entered the league as a Cincinnati Bengal in 1998 – he’s been arrested at least five previous times and said that he participated in the NFL’s alcohol rehabilitation program in 2000 after another DUI – an effort that didn’t seem to take. But the danger here is that Foley, or any other athlete, can be tarred with this brush without the slightest hint of proof. It sets a very precarious precedent, and further enhances the proposition that more comprehensive testing really is in the best interest of the players.
2. Officiating is still very inconsistent, and accountability is an issue.
What is and is not called correctly has been rehashed constantly since the uneven officiating performances of the 2005 postseason, and the league has nobody to blame but its own for the first Super Bowl with an asterisk in the minds of many. That’s been done. So, let’s take a trip down a side street and discuss who calls what…and when.
According to data collected by Football Outsiders, officials call penalties on a wildly divergent scale. As FO’s Aaron Schatz recently disclosed in a New York Times article, Larry Nemmers threw the most flags in 2005, with an average of 20.6 penalties per game. On the other end of the bar, Bill Vinovich called 12.6 penalties per game.
Defensive pass interference is potentially the most costly penalty – if you’re flagged for DPI forty yards downfield, the ball gets spotted where the foul occurred, and you’ve just given your opponent half the field and an automatic first down for Christmas. And if you’re a cornerback in a game officiated by Jeff Triplette, you’ll want to watch your Ps and Qs – the Wake Forest grad called it 20 times last season. Conversely, if Gerry Austin’s your man, you might as well drape yourself all over the guy you’re covering - Austin only saw DPI six times.
Offensive pass interference is Larry Nemmers’ specialty – the league leader in penalties flagged nine potential receivers last year. Of course, ten yards from the previous spot is a slightly smaller ding. And if Bill Carollo’s the zebra in charge, you’ve got a better chance of winning the lottery than having the finger pointed at you – Carollo’s crew called one OPI all season.
Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect is the illegal contact list – Scott Green called twice as many IC penalties as DPI (18 to 9), while Mike Carey called almost four times as many DPI (19) as IC (5). Why is that disconcerting? Consider that illegal contact is but a five-yard hit. Consider also the notion that the league may be putting officials on the field each week that may have radically different ideas of what constitutes certain penalties. Either that, or teams have remarkably opposing ways of playing the game, a trend you’d think someone would have noticed by now. How would baseball look if one umpire had a strike zone the approximate size of a belt buckle, and another was calling punchouts if the pitcher threw a two-strike fastball three feet over the batter’s head?
These issues need to be addressed by the league, publicly, and with more than five minutes with Mike Pereira every Wednesday on the NFL Network. Each year, the Competition Committee decides that certain points of emphasis will be implemented (illegal contact in 2004, the horse-collar tackle in 2005, seeing all ingredients of a hold before calling it in 2006), and every year, officials are calling penalties with a seeming randomness that would make a chaos theorist weep.
Goodell’s only comments about officiating so far have been to announce the league’s new five-year deal with the current crews (“Ensuring six more years of labor peace”, as he told the assembled media at Giants Stadium earlier this month) and the fact that “games have actually reduced in length close to 11 minutes and penalties have actually been down, I believe, it's close to seven penalties a game.” If accuracy will be sacrificed to efficiency in this matter, the current controversy will continue.
3. New CBA or no, the chasm between the “haves” and he “have-nots” still exists.
By the 2008 season, the NFL’s salary cap could shoot through the roof – as high as $120 million per team, according to some speculation. This year, teams seemed almost unable to comprehend the additional personnel dollars in their coffers, holding millions under the limit when the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified on March 8, and the cap was raised $7.5 million to $102 million. It will accelerate again next year to $109 million.
More money for the players? Great, one would think. The question becomes, at what point does a high salary cap become no cap at all? Over the next six years, the owners of the 15 richest teams will contribute up to $900 million into the Pool of the Greater Good – the revenue-sharing fund established ostensibly to help the less financially successful teams remain competitive. However, certain markets lead to more profitability, and that won’t stop. There are more football fans in Dallas than there are in Jacksonville, and that’s just the way it is. Fair enough.
But what happens when the new spending limits allow teams to pay for players at levels previously thought to be insane? What happens when players of equivalent value subsequently become underpaid as the wheels of financial progress roil merrily along? How many deals can each team restructure to appease unhappy players, and how many will they want to? How many holdouts might result, and what happens if the “have-not” teams begin to revolt as the “haves” start pocketing all the best players? Or if the upper class grows tired of funding the Bottom Seventeen? Ask the Lords of Baseball how easy it is to get the genie back in the bottle when you’ve let the fundamental principles of competitive balance fall by the wayside. Eliminate the penalties for fiscal mismanagement and you practically dare the “filthy rich” to tilt the scales to an irrevocable degree.
Goodell believes that the current CBA’s competitive balance provisos “allow the game to be exciting and gives every team an opportunity to succeed. The strengthening of 32 teams, obviously we want our teams operating at the highest possible level. The more successful they are locally, the more successful the NFL can be on a national basis.” Sounds good in the abstract – hopefully, the Real World will agree. The Real World also points to the CBA’s “out clause” in 2008 and agrees that Goodell has two years to help make this palatable to everyone.
4. “Taunting, Maximus Decimus Meridius, Fifteen yards, First down!”
Sorry…I was trying to form a mental image of the original Gladiators of Rome sponsored by a league which restricted their ability to “taunt” their opponents in the arena, or to celebrate their own great feats with the odd in-game celebration. And I can’t picture it. You know why? In the history of athletics, one of the prime directives has been that when an opponent is getting under your skin, you have two options – either let his noise affect your game, or shut the guy up in the best, healthiest and most honest way humanly possible – by simply outperforming him on the field.
No such directive if you’re a cog in the current NFL machine, though – there are new penalties for taunting, and the league is cracking down once again on end zone celebrations. Granted, there should be boundaries – I don’t want receivers stashing cellular phones in goalpost padding anymore than you do. But there does seem to be, in recent years, an unreasonable desire to turn the NFL into a “button-down league”, which goes against every root principle of the game the league supports. Setting the stats and the formulas and the geniuses and the enormous playbooks and the business aside, this is still a carnivorous, emotional enterprise in which any number of 11-man squads are trying to beat the entire bejeezus out each other. Asking the men who play the game to turn off their competitive instincts on command is a bit much.
Beyond that? Generally speaking, end zone celebrations are just plain fun. The league wants to hold the casual fan enraptured enough to become hooked and start shelling out major dollars for product? You may not believe this, Mr. Goodell, but there are those who find Chad Johnson’s chicken dance just as interesting as the West Coast Offense. More so, in some cases. When your sport is the most popular in the country, it takes all kinds. The ’85 Bears are remembered just as much for the Super Bowl Shuffle and The Fridge as for Sweetness and that incredible '46' defense. Who added more enjoyment to the 2005 season than Clinton Portis and his alter egos?
I believe in the dignity of the game, and I revere its history – I want there to always be room for the stoic Johnny Unitas and his kind. But I also want there to be enough room for Art Donovan, the hilariously verbose defensive tackle who helped Unitas’ Colts approach dynasty status in the late 1950’s, and has his own bust in the Hall of Fame. The world needs the karmic descendants of strong, silent Bart Starr, but you may be surprised to know that two of Vince Lombardi’s favorite players were the irrepressible Paul Hornung and Max McGee, two guys who wouldn’t have known what a curfew was if it bit them in the posterior. Football is like life – there are both honor rolls and rouges’ galleries everywhere.