View Full Version : NFL: the Teflon league

02-10-2007, 03:02 AM
Decent read about the league and the direction with what some players are headed.

MIAMI - When an ESPN show called 'Playmakers' hit the airwaves a few years back, depicting a fictional pro football team rife with drug use, gunplay and outlandish behavior, the NFL quickly flexed its muscle.League executives, worried that images of off-the-field havoc might turn fans away, got the cable network to cancel the much-discussed series.
Yet at Super Bowl XLI last weekend, two days after Commissioner Roger Goodell vowed to hold players accountable for their actions, the Chicago Bears (http://www.topix.net/nfl/chicago-bears) started a defensive tackle who had been under house arrest on gun charges and needed a judge's permission to leave the state of Illinois (http://www.topix.net/state/il). On Saturday, the Pro Bowl will feature a linebacker who recently failed a drug test.
This caps a year in which at least 35 players were arrested, nine of them on the Cincinnati Bengals.
Amid the negative publicity - headlines that might have sent pro baseball or basketball scrambling for cover - football has continued to thrive at the box office and in television ratings.
NFL fans, it seems, don't mind if their favorite playmakers act like 'Playmakers' - so long as they continue to make plays.
'It's a gladiator sport,' said Todd Boyd, a USC professor who has written extensively about the sociology of big-time athletics. 'People may give a certain amount of slack to football players because there's this unspoken sense that, in order to play the game well, you need an edge.
'That's what people want in a football player,' Boyd said. 'Someone who's crazy and mean.'
This fall, the NFL set a regular-season attendance record by averaging more than 67,000 fans a game. The Indianapolis Colts' victory over Chicago in the Super Bowl drew 93 million viewers nationwide, making it the third most-watched telecast in history.
The lack of outcry from the public or media stands in contrast to what other major sports (http://www.topix.net/sports) have experienced.
Baseball has struggled with reports of alleged steroid use among some of its biggest stars. The response was such that Congress held hearings.
'I think baseball probably has been held to a higher standard,' Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said. 'It's examined more closely.'
Basketball has endured a similar crisis after two brawls.
When the Indiana Pacers and Detroit Pistons fought two years ago, Commissioner David Stern imposed lengthy suspensions. After a fight between the Denver Nuggets and New York Knicks in December, he added more long suspensions and $500,000 fines for both teams.
Pacers fans on Wednesday booed one of their own players accused of getting into a bar fight and there has been negative reaction to the league's perceived hip-hop (http://www.topix.net/music/hip-hop) culture. Players suspect they are more closely scrutinized than their football brethren.
'When something happens off the court with us, it's like 'Oh, another basketball player got into trouble,' ' Clippers center Chris Kaman said. 'I just think it's not the same thing in the public eye.'
Pro football has escaped significant controversy in part because none of its troubles - save for failed drug tests - are directly connected with what happens on the field.
Still, observers of the game note how little criticism the NFL has received.
'The league obviously benefits from some sort of Teflon coating,' said Paul Swangard, managing director of the Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the University of Oregon.
Experts point to several reasons for the discrepancy between football and other sports.
Baseball and basketball players, expected to act more civilized, must perform in full view of the public. Fans can see their every gesture and facial tick.
'If a player gets in trouble, it's usually one of a starting five, viewed by a camera that replicates the best seat in the house, and unadorned by hats or helmets,' said the NBA's Stern. 'That's the good news and the bad news - it's what comes from having players who set the standard for their visibility.'
Apart from the NFL's superstars, most football players are afforded the relative anonymity of pads and face masks.
'We don't get to know them as well because they're in body armor,' said Jim Kahler (http://www.topix.net/de/kahl), a former NBA marketing executive who now heads the Center for Sports Administration at Ohio University.
Fans aren't as likely to take offense at the conduct of an athlete they recognize only by name or number, whose face they might never have seen, experts say.
This dynamic extends to the manner in which the sports have been marketed.
During the 1980s, Stern revitalized the NBA by putting a spotlight on Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan. Baseball has operated to large extent by a star system too.
The NFL, meanwhile, has focused more on promoting the sport, a notion bolstered by the success of the team-oriented Colts and New England Patriots (http://www.topix.net/nfl/new-england-patriots).
'More than any other sport, you have fans of the game itself,' said Shawn Bradley, chief operating officer of the Bonham Group, a Denver marketing consultant to teams in numerous leagues. 'Because of that, it's a larger image less susceptible to damage.'
Lakers guard Maurice Evans wonders if NBA players get treated differently because their average salary is approximately $5 million.
Baseball players earn an average of $2.7 million and football players $1.4 million.
'All of my football friends that I know that play professional football, they think that we have it better, so we should be scrutinized more than they should,' Evans said.
Consider a partial list of football's recent player problems: Bears defensive lineman Tank Johnson, granted permission to play in the Super Bowl by a Cook County judge, has been arrested three times in 18 months. Johnson violated probation in December when police found six guns - including two assault weapons - and more than 500 rounds of ammunition in his home. Two days later, Johnson was at a nightclub when his friend and bodyguard, Willie B. Posey, was gunned down.
San Diego Chargers (http://www.topix.net/nfl/san-diego-chargers) linebacker Shawne Merriman tested positive for steroids and was suspended four games this season. He still wound up making the AFC team for the Pro Bowl.
On a team where so many players ran afoul of the law, Bengals receiver Chris Henry was arrested four times in 14 months. His charges included marijuana possession, drunk driving and providing alcohol to a minor.
Bears cornerback Ricky Manning Jr. was involved in the beating of a UCLA student at a Westwood (http://www.topix.net/who/westwood) restaurant last summer. Manning, who is alleged to have uttered homophobic and anti-Semitic slurs during the attack, pleaded no contest to felony assault charges.
Chargers linebacker Steve Foley was shot by a policeman during an incident in which he was subsequently arrested on suspicion of drunk driving. Safety Terrence Kiel pleaded guilty to shipping a codeine-based cough syrup often used to enhance other drugs. In December, Kiel was cited for urinating in public.
Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Jared Allen was arrested for drunk driving twice in five months.
Even when Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was arrested in connection with a double murder in 2000, the outcry was relatively short-lived.
Lewis pleaded guilty to misdemeanor obstruction of justice and testified against two co-defendants. Within a few years, he was a finalist for the NFL's humanitarian award, presented each year to the player who best exemplifies dedication to 'team, community and country.' He now has lucrative endorsement deals with Gatorade and Nike, and is the only defensive player to be featured on the cover of EA Sports' Madden video game.
For all the forgiveness - or indifference - shown by fans and sponsors, Swangard says an accumulation of incidents can ultimately sink a team if not a sport.
The marketing expert cites the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that went from the NBA's best small-market franchise to a financially struggling punch line - they were known as the 'Jail Blazers' - after a string of player arrests.
'There's a good portion of the fan base out there that's going to get sick and tired of millionaire players playing by a different set of social and moral rules,' Swangard said.
The NFL seems to be getting the message. The league is considering a ban on postseason awards and Pro Bowl appearances for players who fail drug tests - a change that would require approval by the players' union. Goodell called for a reevaluation of programs already in place to advise players, including a mandatory weeklong rookie symposium.
Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Assn., supports assembling a focus group of his members during the off-season to address behavior problems.
'We've seen what has happened in other sports when you get to a level where the fans turn you off,' Upshaw said. 'We don't want to read like a police blotter. We want to talk about the yards, the passes.'
Even players are beginning to speak out. Miami Dolphins defensive lineman Jason Taylor voiced his displeasure that a documented steroid user - Merriman - was allowed to participate in the Pro Bowl. Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer felt compelled to publicly reprimand his arrested teammates.
'Enough is enough,' Palmer said at a recent awards presentation. 'It's something we're definitely not proud of . From here on out, guys just need to make better decisions.'
Still, experts suspect that in the immediate future, the NFL will continue to enjoy a latitude not afforded other leagues. Boyd talks about NBA star Ron Artest, whose image suffered when he climbed into the stands during the Pacers-Pistons brawl.
'You could see the facial expression on Artest,' said Boyd, the critical studies professor at USC's school of cinematic arts. 'It was frightening. You could see it in his eyes.
'Hidden behind a helmet, it's not as threatening. If Ron Artest were a defensive back instead of a basketball player, his career might be different.'
Times staff writers Michael Hiltzik, Bill Shaikin, Jason Reid and Mike Bresnahan contributed to this story.