Sep 30, 2014
Too Big To Fail?
There are two instances where Americans will no longer deal silently with corruption. The first is when it starts to affect our life - especially our wallet. As long as it is someone else's problem, it isn't a problem. But when it becomes my problem, then we have a problem. We had an animal living in the pond behind our house. Well, we have a lot of animals living out there: turtles, fish, ducks, Canadian geese. But we had this weird animal out there. I would see it swimming along from time to time. It looked like a beaver. I would see it slithering through and diving under the lily pads. I found out from some of my outdoorsy friends that it was a nutria - basically a giant river rat. I liked watching it. Well, one of my neighbors didn't think it was such a cute animal. Apparently its activities were infringing on my neighbor's happiness. The rat would come up into the lady's yard and eat her plants. It would gnaw on the wooden wall constructed to keep water out of the yard. And the leftovers from its snacks was clogging up our spillway, causing flooding in that yard. To me, it wasn't an issue. My yard has a very steep incline, so flooding is not a problem. I have a fence around my yard, so the rat wasn't going to come up on my property. But this lady starting making a stink. She had a few other homeowners on her side due to garden and flooding damage. She brought it before the HOA Board (which we both are on) and wanted us to pay to have the eradication done. On top of it all, she was all weird about the animal being killed - which we all knew would be the outcome. It was going to cost $800 to clear the pond. I asked how much it cost for a box of bullets. She didn't appreciate that suggestion. Now it became my problem. I didn't want the HOA to spend hundreds of dollars to pull this animal out. It wasn't bothering me, personally. I didn't even realize it was a problem at all. (Things have a funny way of working themselves out. The rat got run over by a car a couple of weeks later ... before we paid to clear the pond. I had nothing to do with it. Promise.)
This is kind of how we approach corruption in the US. It isn't my problem. It isn't hurting me. Don't rock the boat. But if it encroaches on my comfort, all heck breaks loose. Look at the investment banking scandal of a few years ago. Or the Enron/big business scandal. Or the subprime mortgage collapse. Or the automaker fiasco. Those issues had been bubbling for years. Was anyone surprised that financial advisors were cheating? I doubt that. What year did Wall Street come out? We had been through all of this before, just with different financial elements. Instead of junk bonds it was Ponzi schemes. Was the subprime mortgage problem a shock? How could it be? How long could banks hand out mortgages to people who couldn't afford to pay for them before the process collapsed? We know in the back of our minds that things are not always above board with companies, governments, industries, celebrities. But we turn a blind eye and convince ourselves things may be different this time. Until it interferes with our life.
The other instance were corruption gets us riled up is when it become blatant. This is kind of a corollary of the first instance. Instead of it interfering with our wallets or our lives, it interferes with our comfort. It makes us feel embarrassed and awkward. How could we have let this go on? It makes us look bad. We frequently see this with celebrities. We cut actors, musicians, "reality" stars a lot of slack in our country. It is like we know that they are going to make questionable choices and we are fine with that, as long as it is kept quiet. If they want to smoke weed, that's fine. Just don't do it in a park. If they want to do lines of coke in the bathroom at the Chateau Marmont, that's fine. Just don't film it and post it on Twitter. If they want to run a dog fighting ring, so be it. Just don't advertise the fights. When those private foibles become public scandals, we throw our hands up in mock indignation. "How could they do this?!?" What we are really asking is "how could they be so blatant in their stupidity?"
If you don't think this is accurate, I want you to think back a few years to the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal. Vick was going along as a maddeningly erratic and fragile quarterback when we all started to hear about his involvement in a dog-fighting ring. There were the usual denials, followed by proof of the existence of the ring. Vick got arrested, tried, and imprisoned for his role in the whole thing. During the whole process, we heard about how this is a cultural issue. In the culture that Vick grew up, dog fighting was an acceptable practice. Vick didn't know that it was a problem. But it went public and we all went crazy. Now, think about this. In the years since Vick's dog fighting ring went public, how many dog fighting rings have you heard about being broken up by the cops? With the amount of public outrage over Vick's crimes, you would think dog fighting is completely detestable in our country. And in the dialogue, we kept hearing about how this was cultural - meaning that there are more of these rings going on right now. Thinking back to how people wanted Vick banned for life from the NFL and imprisoned for a hundred years, shouldn't we have formed some kind of task force to uncover and shut down these dog fighting rings? We know they are out there, right? Why aren't there federal agents played by a young Kevin Costner busting into warehouses and backyards across the country, leading dozens of people into paddy wagons? It isn't happening because it isn't blatantly in our face any more. It slinked back into the shadows and we left it alone. As long as Amanda Bynes isn't hurling phones and bongs out of hotel windows, Charlie Sheen isn't showing up drunk for interviews, Justin Bieber isn't racing his silver rocket car through rush hour traffic, these people can be crazy all they want. Just don't embarrass us with your crazy. Don't get your crazy on me. As long as your favorite NCAA team keeps its player payments, arrests, and false test scores quiet, it is fine. But if it becomes blatant, the team gets blistered.
All of this has come to mind as I observe the NFL. The National Football League is a mammoth industry that generates gobs of money. Its influence is not just felt in cities with teams, although those cities certainly do benefit a great deal. Its presence on television brings huge ratings and advertising dollars to those channels. Hundreds of companies are intertwined with the NFL: restaurants (McDonald's), soda companies (Pepsi), shoe companies (Nike), computer companies (Lenovo, Microsoft), pizza companies (Papa John's). It goes on and on. The NFL took in $1.07 billion from sponsorships last year. The last television contract was for $8 billion. That included CBS paying $275 million for the rights to simulcast Thursday night NFL games along with the NFL Network. They don't have any exclusive rights. Think about this - CBS is the number one network on television. On Thursday night they already had the number one comedy show on television. But they were willing to juggle their entire schedule for the right to run games that were already being shown on another network. The NFL is enormous.
The spillover effect of the NFL leaves its mark on college and high school athletics. As technological, medical, and pharmaceutical breakthroughs find success in the NFL, they work their way down the chain. The same goes for game planning. And for coaching techniques. And for desired athlete qualities. Yes, some things work their way back up the chain like the Nike and Under Armor uniforms from Oregon and Maryland or the wildcat formation. But for every one innovation that swims upstream, a hundred flow back down. As the offensive linemen in the NFL got larger and faster, that desirability moved down through the ranks. As quarterbacks needed to become more mobile, that quality was harvested from below. In addition to qualities trickling down, so did behavior. The NFL players make a lot of high risk, high reward plays. Defensive backs would launch themselves at wide receivers. Kick coverage teams fly around with reckless abandon. Running backs put their heads down and bull forward. Soon college and then high school players began to play the same way.
Through all of this, doctors were concerned about the overall health of younger football players. Only 6 percent of high school senior players will play in college. Only 1.7 percent of college seniors will get drafted by the NFL. That means 0.08% of high school players will ever make it to the NFL. Out of every 1,000 high school players, not even one will make it to the NFL. But that allure keeps players striving and aiming to be that one in a thousand. So, even though there are numerous health risks, players keep going. Offensive lineman pack on weight to reach the right size, even though they don't do it the right way and are really just massively obese. Young teens start weight training before doctors would advise that practice. These students tear up their knees, ankles, backs and doom themselves to a lifetime of pain. They sow the seeds of drug addictions by using painkillers at a disturbing rate - in addition to other pills like amphetamines and steroids.
Then there is the risk of concussions. Actually, it shouldn't even be called a risk anymore. It has basically crossed the line to an occupational hazard. The numbers are horrifying. I've talked about concussions before on this blog and there is a ton of research out there telling the truth about concussion dangers. Players get into dozens of collisions every game that are equivalent to a car crash. Some players estimate that they get into two to three plays per game that ring their bells and possibly give them a minor concussion. More and more players are talking about how they already have memory loss. Bret Favre, who has only been out of the game for a couple years, said he routinely forgets where he is or why he went there. Former players are committing suicide at an alarming rate. There are massive health repercussions from ALS to depression to Alzheimer's.
Now we are facing the specter of domestic violence as well. Ray Rice punches his fiancee out in an elevator and gets suspended for two games. The NFL reconsidered its punishment after the country lost its collective mind once the video footage hit the airwaves. Rice's lawyer has complained this is the NFL equivalent of double jeopardy, being tried for the same crime twice. They actually have some valid arguments there. There is just too much evidence that the Baltimore Ravens and the NFL knew the extent of Rice's actions and covered it up. So because they got busted and went into damage control mode, Rice got his contract terminated and his ability to play in the NFL revoked. Adrian Peterson, one of the biggest stars in the league, beat his four year old son so savagely that he had a dozen open lacerations on his body. I won't say he disciplined his son because this goes far beyond discipline. I have kids and understand the concept of punishment. I also have seen discipline that crossed the line when I was a child. Peterson was not just punishing his son; he was taking out his anger and frustration on him. He obviously was not in control in that moment. And it makes me wonder how many other times that had happened.
At the same moment all of this was happening, several other players were being charged with domestic violence crimes. The owner of the Dallas Cowboys was being investigated for sexual impropriety - which was largely brushed off because the statute of limitations had expired. As I watched the reactions of America, it was like it couldn't decide what to do. This level of corruption and horrific behavior usually would have triggered our offense mechanisms. But something stopped that. It was like the fact that it was football and we all love football halted us from going further. We got angry about Ray Rice and he was punished. But it stopped there. Some people were angry about Peterson, but others defended him because it fell under "corporal punishment" and no one wants to step on that issue. He was deactivated for one game while the investigation started. But the Vikings actually reinstated him for the next week before a bunch of people lost their minds and the team reconsidered. In the midst of all of this, the commissioner understandably came under fire for his gross ineptitude. He scrambled and danced in his press conference and managed to deflect the anger.
To be completely honest, I am fed up with all of it. I am angry. I have loved football as long as I have known about sports. I have great memories watching football: Sunday afternoons with my dad, Super Bowl parties, UCF games, Jaguar games. But I have reached a breaking point. This year, I have watched very little football. I have opportunities. Last night I was sitting on the couch watching TV and flipping over to the game never entered my mind. I shuttered my fantasy football league this year that I had run for over a decade. This isn't just a busy dad finding other things to do. This year should be the year I want to see the NFL the most. My favorite team (the Jaguars) drafted a UCF player (Blake Bortles) who is now their starting quarterback. I know his mom. She taught both of my sons in preschool. I remember him as a middle schooler. I should be glued to the tv during the season. But I just can't.
I'm not the only one that feels this way. My favorite sportswriter is Bill Simmons. I have read his stuff since he first got signed by ESPN. I love his writing style and his passion for sports. But I also love the fact that he is a fan first. He is irate over all of this. He has been attacking commissioner Goodell for his role in these scandals. Finally Simmons snapped on a podcast and went off on the commissioner. He called him a liar - something that the media almost universally has agreed upon. The end result? ESPN suspended Simmons for three full weeks without pay. What!?! A media member has been questioning the NFL for weeks and finally says what many fans are thinking. And he gets suspended? For three weeks!!! To recap, Ray Rice was originally suspended for two weeks for punching his fiancee so hard she fell backwards and got knocked unconscious. Then he dragged her out of the elevator like a sack of flour. Two weeks. Stephen A Smith, another ESPN personality who is a complete idiot, got suspended for one week for basically saying not to judge Ray Rice too quickly and that the fiancee "may have had it coming." One week. Adrian Peterson was originally suspended for one week for savagely beating his four year old. The other domestic cases originally had no suspensions. Mike Tirico, another ESPN turd, has been accused of several instances sexual impropriety with no suspensions. Jerry Jones, owner of the Cowboys, was accused of sexual impropriety with no suspension. Bill Simmons, tired of all of this bull, went off and was suspended for three weeks. Why? Because ESPN is the biggest partner of the NFL and pays $1.7 billion a year to show Monday Night Football. The NFL told ESPN to get Simmons under control. You don't believe that happened? There is precedent. Years ago, ESPN ran an original series entitled Playmakers that was supposedly based on the NFL. There was drug use, rape, racism, homophobia. The NFL threatened to pull out of their relationship with ESPN if the show wasn't cancelled. Boom. The show is gone.
I don't get it. The NFL makes a giant deal about women's issues in October for breast cancer awareness month. It is the only time players can wear non-uniform elements, as long as they are pink. But there are players beating up their girlfriends, fiancees, and wives and the NFL does nothing. And we, as viewers, seem shocked. Why? These guys are hopped up on so many supplements and chemicals. They are in a culture where rage and lack of control is encouraged on the playing field. How long did we think it would take before that spilled over into their homes? Didn't professional wrestling teach us anything? Look at the number of former wrestlers who have died early, committed suicide, attacked their significant others. One of the saddest stories was Chris Benoit. He was considered a good guy. Then he killed his wife, his son, and himself. Why? Depression, concussion damage, steroid damage. "Well that's an extreme case!" Really?
December 2012. Kansas City, Missouri. Twenty-two year old Kansas City Chief player, Javon Belcher, drives to the Chief's facilities. He shoots himself in front of the head coach and general manager. It turns out he had murdered his girlfriend earlier. His body was exhumed last year and last week we found out that his brain showed evidence of CTE - the damage caused by concussions that causes people to lose their memories and control of themselves. He was 22. Look at the erratic behavior exhibited by NFL players. Donte Stallworth is speeding and strikes and kills a man in Miami. Ray Lewis (doesn't) stab a man to death in a parking lot. Plaxico Burress shoots himself in the leg. Josh Gordon keeps failing drug tests. Jonathan Martin and Richie Icognito have the most unhealthy and bizarre friendship ever, complete with accusations of bullying and racism. Jadaveon Clowney gets busted for driving over 100 mph down Interstate 77 twice in a week. There is a laundry list of this stuff. How long until this boils over? How long until the corruption is actually bad enough to make us do something? It is already blatant. It is already out of control. But I guess it hasn't affected us personally enough yet.
In 1991 there was a movie that came out called The Last Boy Scout. It starred Damon Wayans, Bruce Willis, and Halle Berry. It wasn't a very good movie. It took place in the world of professional football with Wayans as a pro player and Willis as a detective or something. There were tons of scenes that hinted at the excesses in the NFL: drugs, sex, money, ignoring injuries. But one scene has always stuck with me. It was one of the opening scenes. A player was taking back a kickoff and pulled out a gun and started shooting the would-be tacklers until he scored and then shot himself. It came out that this player was in deep with gambling debts and he felt he had to score to keep his family safe. I thought that was ridiculous. What player would shoot other players on the field like that? Less than 25 years later, would you honestly be that shocked if something like that actually happened? Chances are, it would be stunning. But not shocking. That should show you there is a problem. If a sport actually has fostered an environment where a murder on the field would not be spin-your-head crazy, that sport is out of control. My question is if that possible tragedy would even be enough to take down the NFL.