NFL is creeping dangerously close to becoming a dictatorship
With each threat, fine and suspension, the NFL further shows they are OK with hurting their own product
The National Football League has a lot of problems. They are controlling, harsh, and honestly, boring. Instead of focusing on important issues, the NFL has slowly began to suck the fun out of the game. With how the league deals with certain things — major and minor — how close is the NFL to being considered a dictator over its players?
Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins caught an 11-yard touchdown pass in Week 5 against the New England Patriots. Instead of celebrating his score, Hawkins went to the back corner of the endzone, placed the ball on the ground, stood up, and walked away, robot-like. No flip, no spike of the ball, no mid-air chest bump with a teammate. He placed the ball on the ground, and walked away.
This is how the NFL has trained its players. You are not bigger than us, and you will obey. You will not stand out, you will not make headlines for reasons that may “hurt the integrity of the game,” as they say. The NFL is killing itself, as it slowly creeps from “simply structured government” to “dictatorship.”
Dictatorship may seem harsh considering this is simply sport, but football is no sport to the NFL. It is a product, it is a business. The NFL’s leaders — namely Roger Goodell — are blind to the fact that the players’ actions are not hurting the NFL, it is they that are doing the damage.
How is the NFL killing itself? It’s ratings are declining, which is a sign something should change. Instead of changing, though, they remain the same. They continue to rule with an iron fist, fining players left and right for “hurting the integrity of the game.” Funny thing is, the players’ actions that are considered finable by the league are the actions that may save the NFL, or at least help it recover.
Every single thing a player wears — from cleats to face paint — must be approved by the league. If it is not approved and the player wears it during pre-game warmups, they are warned to remove the banished article. Some have even been threatened with removal from the game, because their cleats are too cool for the NFL.
Fining players for certain things just goes too far, though. On multiple occasions, players have been fined for supporting a cause, one that may have personally impacted their life in a devastating manner. The two most recent examples come from a pair of Pittsburgh Steelers — running back DeAngelo Williams and defensive end Cameron Heyward.
Williams had been wearing eye black that had “We will find a cure” written across it for five years in support of breast cancer, a disease his mom suffered from and died of in 2014. The NFL fined Williams $5,757 for this in October of 2015. Not only is the fine insensitive, it came during Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Not only that, but Williams also seeked to wear pink all season long to raise awareness of the disease, and he was denied. Why? There is a trend with all of those things that Williams wanted to wear: the NFL could not sell them. Does the NFL actually care about the causes they seasonally raise awareness for, or do they care only about the profits they bring?
Heyward was also fined in October of 2015 for writing the words “IRON” and “HEAD” across his eye black. Heyward did that to honor his father, who was nicknamed “Iron Head,” and passed away from brain cancer in 2006. Despite the fine, Heyward wore the eye black again, and was fined again by the NFL.
With these fines, the NFL is trying to show they must stick to their rules no matter the circumstance. They do not want certain players “getting away with” breaking rules — as if the rules they are breaking is ruining the game — which could encourage other players to break that rule or others. Even if it is for a good cause, the NFL does not care.
A league the NFL should look at is the NBA. The NBA also has rules holding the players to wearing certain things and not whatever they please, but they have adapted to certain situations. They have let things slide if the players were wearing something that was in support of a good cause.
Eric Garner was killed by police in New York City in July of 2014. Garner became upset when the police accused him of illegally selling cigarettes — a crime he was arrested for prior — As one officer tried to put Garner’s hands behind his back, he refused, and multiple other officers rushed in. They wrestled him to the ground and even put him in a choke hold, and the effects of that caused him to die later on. So in December of that year, in pre-game before a Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Brooklyn Nets game, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Deron Williams, Kevin Garnett, Jarrett Jack and Alan Anderson all donned shirts with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” written across the front. Garner notoriously screamed that phrase as he was wrestled to the ground.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who took that title in February of 2014, did not fine the players — including then Chicago Bulls guard Derrick Rose, who also wore the shirt in a pre-game warm-up. Silver stated that he supports players voicing their opinions and thoughts on social issues, but would prefer that they wear only adidas — the league’s apparel provider — clothing when they are on the court. A very political response.
The NFL still does dominate the NBA in ratings, however, especially on the largest stage. February’s Super Bowl — between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers — raked in 111.9 million viewers. There is a large gap between that and the viewership that Game 7 of June’s NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers brought in, which was 30.8 million. That was the most watched Finals game since 1998, when Michael Jordan and his Bulls defeated the Utah Jazz.
The top seven most-viewed television programs of all-time in the United States are all courtesy of the NFL in the form of Super Bowls. All seven had at least 106.5 million viewers. February’s Broncos-Panthers affair ranked third on the list, 300,000 viewers behind the 2014 Super Bowl and 2.5 million viewers behind 2015’s game. This could just be attributed to interest in the game and nothing more, as 2013’s Ravens-49ers Super Bowl ranked sixth on the list at 108.7 million viewers. Then, in 2014, the viewership rose back up to 112.2 million, which was then the most-watched television program in U.S. history.
Comparing ratings of other leagues is pointless, though, because no other U.S. sport — even at its peak — can come close to the NFL. They do not have the stature and audience that the NFL has built up for decades. But that does not mean the NFL can do whatever it wants, because they are starting to lose fans. Through the first seven weeks of the 2016 season, Sunday Night Football (-19%), Monday Night Football (-24%) and Thursday Night Football (-18%) were down in ratings compared to the same time frame of last season.
Perhaps the largest part of a dictatorship is the tyrannical leader. Roger Goodell, league commissioner, is a large part of why the NFL is the way it is. That means Goodell is a large part of why people do not like the NFL either as much as they used to, or at all.
The NFL seems to produce a good, juicy scandal every year or so, and they always seem to try and cover it up. Why? Oh, probably to, you know, “protect the integrity of the game,” or something like that. Goodell’s worst cover up involved former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
Rice was a top tier running back for years with the Ravens, and a big reason they were Super Bowl contenders for as long as they were. He was one of the more popular names in the league, and his name became a lot more popular when video surfaced of Rice striking his then fiancee (now wife) and knocking her unconscious in a hotel elevator after seemingly getting in an argument.
Domestic abuse is a big problem in the United States — and surely the world as a whole — and anyone that commits a crime that heinous should be dealt severe consequences. The NFL had an opportunity to lay the hammer down on Rice and indefinitely suspended him from the league right away. But, instead, Goodell — and the Ravens organization, for that matter — fumbled the whole damn thing.
The NFL was made aware of Rice’s incident — which occurred in April of 2014 — and suspended him for two games. Once the notorious video leaked online in September 2014, the league suspended Rice indefinitely. But Ravens’ director of security Darren Sanders had been made aware of the video within hours of the incident and immediately relayed the information to the Ravens.
Rice was considered the face of the franchise inside the Ravens organization, with both his contributions on the field and off the field as a servant to his community. So once owner Steve Bisciotti, president Dick Cass and general manager Ozzie Newsome were made aware of Rice’s incident, they did not cut ties with him — they agreed to take it easy on him.
Baltimore consulted with Rice’s legal team — as he obviously faced charges — in hopes they could urge Rice into a pretrial intervention program that would keep the horrid video from becoming public. Michael J. Diamondstein — Rice’s defense attorney — was in contact with Cass and obtained a copy of the abusive video in April. Cass did not request a copy for himself, probably to keep his hands clean.
The NFL had to look into this situation to hold the Ravens accountable and make sure they gave Rice a fair punishment. They did not really deep dive into the case and did not gather much information. So, on July 24, Goodell handed Rice a two-game suspension — which, coincidentally, happened to be the punishment good friend Bisciotti and other Ravens executives suggested. Once the video was publically released — which the NFL and Ravens claim was the first time they saw the video — both reacted. The NFL suspended Rice indefinitely, and the Ravens released Rice.
The end result was positive, and it helped bring in new policy where any domestic abuse would be punished by a six-game suspension at first offense, and at least a one-year ban from the league the second time around. But neither side looks good here, and the NFL clearly looks worse. An organization should not have to debate whether a player — no matter the stature — should be released after an incident like that. For Goodell to basically allow the organization — which clearly sided with Rice — to suggest a punishment, and then to actually go with it, it looks really bad. And it looks like Goodell cares more about preserving the league’s image than doing the right thing.
It is funny, because addressing scandals head-on is exactly the way one gains credibility. The NBA did it with the Donald Sterling scandal. Sterling, who was the long-time owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, was forced to sell his team after phone conversations were leaked of him using racial slurs and showing some prejudice against his black players, colleagues and employees. The NBA gained a lot of attention — and not good attention, as one of its team owners was publicly exposed as a racist — but it took on the controversy because it was the right thing to do. And that was Silver’s first real test as NBA commissioner — Goodell was in his seat for the eighth year during the Rice scandal.
The reason that whole thing is considered tyrannical is because Goodell seemed to be trying to cover his ass and his league’s ass, even if it let a guilty party — Rice — off relatively scot-free. Dictators do not want what is making them money to look bad. And they do not want their people to look bad. The league thought they could deal with this controversy behind the scenes in a quiet manner — and they got caught.
One common theme of a dictatorship is control. Another is suppression. Both of those goals are achieved by limiting touchdown celebrations. Going back to Andrew Hawkins, his robot walk-off celebration sends a deeper message than some may realize — “we are your soldiers, we will succeed, we must obey.” Hawkins exaggerates his celebration in order to show that, but really, would the NFL be mad if every player “celebrated” their score in a similar fashion? They would be ecstatic. They control the players in any way they can, suppressing their personalities by flagging for what the league sees as “going too far.”
And they do not just flag for celebrations, they fine (surprise, surprise). In October of this year, another Pittsburgh Steeler — wide receiver Antonio Brown — was fined a whopping $24,309 for twerking in the end zone, stating that it was sexually suggestive. Along with another dancing fine and a fine for wearing baby blue cleats, Brown owed the NFL $45,578 after just four weeks of the regular season. All of those offenses did not affect the actual gameplay in any way whatsoever.
The most damning thing about Brown’s twerking fine specifically: it cost the same amount as a fine received for impermissible use of the helmet and a hit on a defenseless receiver would. Those plays not only affect the game, they are a huge reason why football’s future is somewhat in question.
CTE — Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — is a degenerative brain disease that affects retired players of all kinds and ages. Most notably, Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau took his own life in 2012 and was found to have this chronic damage to his brain that may have triggered his suicide. The NFL has taken a lot of shit over the years for not taking concussions more seriously. While they have made improvements regarding spotting and treating concussions, fining players that intend to hurt others in their head area the same as someone that twerked in the end zone makes absolutely zero sense.
Hawkins wrote-out his own opinions for Sports Illustrated’s The Monday Morning Quarterback, talking about his touchdown “celebration,” why the NFL controls its players and why that is an issue. He had a couple of paragraphs that stood out, and really shows how the NFL limiting celebration could turn away younger fans.
“After my brother Artrell was drafted by the Bengals, in 1998, I watched Chad Johnson energize the entire city from an entertainment standpoint with his personality and self-expression. He made it fun to go to Bengals games; he made it fun to be a Bengals fan; he filled stadiums with anticipation for his antics. I felt like he was the most entertaining football player I’d ever seen, and I became a wide receiver because of Chad Johnson and his persona, flair and, of course, his celebrations. I tuned in every Sunday hoping Chad Johnson (or my other idol, Steve Smith) would score, just so I could see what celebration he did.”
“…if the only means of making a smooth transition from one generation of NFL players to the next is to take fun out of the game, then you risk losing the next generation of fans, fans like my younger self who wanted nothing more than to see the Chad Johnsons of the football world celebrating their time in the sun. Take that away, and you’re probably attracting what you fear most: disinterest.”
Each paragraph is important for a different reason. In the first, Hawkins said he became of wide receiver solely because of Johnson’s celebrations, flair and persona. He mentioned nothing about his accomplishments or talent. He remained interested in the game solely because of his favorite player’s celebrations. “I tuned in every Sunday hoping Chad Johnson (or my other idol, Steve Smith) would score, just so I could see what celebration he did.”
In the second, Hawkins talks about how risky taking the fun out of the game could be. The older fans — the ones that will stick around no matter what — will not be here forever, so the NFL needs to appeal to younger fans as soon as possible. Some kids probably watch the games just because they like it, sure. But what about the kids — like Hawkins — that tune in for the sideshows? What about the kids that tune in to see Antonio Brown twerk? Or, for that sake, tune in to see what crazy cleats Antonio Brown is sporting this week?
And if you aren’t quite convinced yet, here’s a recent example. After the passing of legendary NBA sideline reporter Craig Sager, New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. sported a pair of cleats to honor Sager in their Week 15 win over the Detroit Lions. He was fined $18,000 for the offense, and apparently with no prior warning.
And of course Beckham is commenting on a photo of DeSean Jackson’s where he is also complaining about an uncalled-for fine.
Combine all these issues and it is understandable why the NFL’s ratings are dipping. Whether the NFL wants to admit it or not, football is a game. When you take the fun out of the game, what’s the point? Touchdown celebrations and cleats don’t make the game, but they make the game better. Over time, the NFL should be looking at every way to improve the game for fans.
Instead, they are finding “issues” that aren’t really issues. They are removing the only ways their product — excuse me — players can express themselves. That seems to be their goal, which is where part of problem lies. If the NFL continues down this path, they will not only be criticized for being tyrannical — they will be criticized for being a downright dictatorship, if they aren’t there already.