Professional football has finally reached a point that might reasonably be compared to the point where professional baseball was in 1920, when baseball named Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis to serve as the first Commissioner of Baseball because the team owners, embarrassed by the “Black Sox” scandal and other instances of players throwing games, recognized the need to hire a disinterested, incorruptible federal judge to clean up the game – and its image. Judge Landis (with a huge boost from the success of Babe Ruth in the 1920s) was quite successful in steering the sport beyond the corruption and scandals and leading it toward broader popularity, even though he was an abject failure in the area of eliminating racial discrimination in major league baseball.
There has never been another sports commissioner like Judge Landis. Of course, no group of owners of professional sports teams has ever been thrilled with the idea of hiring anyone to tell them what they can or cannot do. Baseball was the first major sport in the US to recognize that it needed a truly independent commissioner, someone with the authority and personal character and integrity to force the owners to comply with the directions of its commissioner. It did so grudgingly, and after Judge Landis died, baseball named a series of successors who proved to be less and less independent and more and more interested in placating the team owners and figuratively selling the soul of the sport in advancing its commercial success – witness baseball’s indulgence of steroid abuse through the 1990s until the mass obliteration of long-standing home-run records made the game a near laughingstock. Basketball had its David Stern, whom many consider to have been a great success but others thought to be more of a marketing genius than an ideal leader. Hockey has struggled mightily with flawed leadership in its commissioner’s office.
Football is a curious case. It was a minor sport, way less popular than college football, until its standing was revolutionized by the telecasting of NFL games in the 1950s. Once the league installed a public-relations genius, Pete Rozelle, as its commissioner, pro football zoomed in popularity. Rozelle was no Judge Landis; like his two successors (and their counterparts in the other major sports), he was notable less for his independence from the owners than for his success in negotiating commercial contracts and union agreements.
And now, we have football’s entire world in turmoil and apparently in dire need of wise direction and leadership. The public, with considerable justification, considers NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to be a good lawyer/negotiator/marketer, but essentially the owners’ $44 million per-year boy toy and cover-up artist. Consider the following areas of current controversy:
- Head injuries. The litigation over former players with present or post-mortem diagnoses of severe brain damage, dementia, or other problems and symptoms indicative of too many blows to the head, and the allegations that teams continue to fail or refuse to properly diagnose and deal with concussions and other injuries, continue. This problem has the earmarks of a scandal that will not go away and that may steer more and more younger-athletes away from the sport.
- College football. As TV packages drive more and more of the game, a “merger mania” is leading the better conferences to get bigger and better and is threatening to drive the smaller conferences – and eventually the smaller teams – out of college football altogether. There is a whiff of monopoly in the air. The movement toward open payment of college athletes is gathering momentum – just a few days ago I heard a sports radio commentator recommend that the star running back for an SEC team, having initiated his career with a terrific performance in his first college game, should simply sit out the rest of his collegiate eligibility rather than risk an injury that could prevent him from becoming a top draft choice and thereby making himself, his family, and his posse rich. And then there is the Northwestern players’ drive to form a union. This is real, it is upon us, and the NFL’s patchwork fixes are almost useless. If college football dies, the pro game suffers – along with the rest of us. Football, at all levels, needs leadership if it is to survive.
- Behavioral issues. This is the one no one wants to touch, because it is – yes – a cultural issue, if not a racial issue. No, I am not talking about the first openly-gay linebacker. I am talking about Ray Rice apparently cold-cocking his wife, about Adrian Peterson abusing his little boy, about the fact that the NFL felt the need to establish penalties for certain kinds of behavior that have nothing to do with blocking or tackling or other kinds of physical contact – penalties for excessive trash-talking, for taunting an opponent, for taunting the crowd, for slam-dunking over the crossbar, for doing back-flips into the endzone, for not wearing the uniform properly, for excessively celebrating one’s personal role in a good play by one’s team, etc. In other words, the NFL has determined that it has a duty to teach good manners and good sportsmanship to the players. Behavioral norms are no longer observed and now must be taught through mandate. The league has decided that it does not want to be taken over by a low culture, a culture with deficient values. What we are talking about, here, is morals, standards of behavior. The league has figured out not just that people do not want to root for men who criminally abuse their wives and children; they have decided that fans might not want to root for athletes whose general conduct is offensive to the fans’ own standards.
- The ‘progressives’ are on the offensive. Do not underestimate the power of the American Left to take down American football. You know it is on their agenda. You know they love it when football has concussions, suicides, assaults upon wives or children, inability to recognize Michael Sam as a 1st round talent, etc. Anything that serves the agenda of bringing football down. You know they hate marching bands and cheerleaders and that they consider football primitive, decadent, militaristic, right-wing, and vastly inferior to soccer. You know that every NFL team will soon be required to meet racial, gender, sexual-orientation, religious (and irreligious), and other quotas at every position – including ownership, coaching staff, and quarterback. Just like in real life. Do not misunderestimate these people. You know that, in the immortal words of Clint Eastwood (in Gran Torino), these people are like badgers.
Can football save itself?