Even before this seismic week of shame for the NFL, the hypocritical oath that anyone who finds any joy in following this sport must take was no secret. We knew deep down that we must put constant faith in one chronically false pretense.
We must believe that these massive, amplified men who play professional football can, without fail, channel and limit their violence to a three-hour window on a Sunday, or a Monday, or better yet, for that shiny new Thursday package.
Believing such a thing is not that far from another recently debunked NFL myth: that the poor pass catcher currently sprawled unconscious on the 37-yard line after taking the crown of Riddell to the chin will have a fulfilling life after age 50.
The collective hypocrisy required to enjoy the NFL was left exposed and raw this week, and there’s no looking away. It’s right there in the hotel elevator footage of then-Ravens running back Ray Rice punching out his then-fiancee, now-wife. It’s right there in the photographs of the welts and wounds on the legs of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s 4-year-old son.
It’s right there in the mirror.
This week we were forced to confront what being a fan of this league really entails. Amazingly, we weren’t the only ones. Those with a deep financial interest also saw what we saw, reacted the way we reacted, and it might just lead to some small form of redemption for the sport.
ESPN has at least 15.2 billion reasons to root for NFL to continue its unprecedented run of massive ratings and financial success. That’s the amount of dollars the network paid the league in September 2011 to extend its “Monday Night Football” broadcast rights deal for eight seasons through 2021.
Yet as we settled in to begin the familiar Sunday ritual, settled in to learn whether the Patriots would pick up their first win of the season against a team suddenly short its indicted All-Pro running back, we were greeted by something not often seen on ESPN in its age of embracing phony debate: authentic outrage.
It began on “SportsCenter,” when Hannah Storm signed off with a brief monologue as pointed and poignant as the one delivered by CBS’s James Brown Thursday night. This had been a season of much anticipation in her household, said Storm, a mother of three daughters. Now it has become one of relentless, perhaps even unanswerable, questions.
“So here’s some more questions,’’ said Storm. “What exactly does zero tolerance mean to the NFL? What does it mean to the GMs, the coaches, the owners. What about the NFLPA? Will the NFL, in all its power, take the lead on the issue of domestic violence? In the NFL, apparently seeing is believing. If the NFL and the Ravens had to see that video to take significant action, then shouldn’t those who support the league demand the same? To see action? To see change? Before believing? What exactly does the NFL stand for?”
I’ll admit to skepticism that ESPN would deal with such bluntness. This is the network that aired “Jacked Up” — a segment before “Monday Night Football” in which particularly vicious hits were celebrated — through 2008. It’s a network that gives a pulpit to the vague proselytizer Ray Lewis. I suspected that after a cursory, faux-solemn acknowledgement of the seminally awful week, ESPN would transition to the usual chatter with the trite “there are football games to be played” approach.
Instead, panelist Cris Carter, the Hall of Fame former Vikings receiver, shared his poignant personal story on “Sunday NFL Countdown,” which followed Storm’s frank “SportsCenter” sign off.
“My mom was wrong,’’ said Carter, revealing he had been punished physically as a child. “She did the best she could, but she was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me. And I promised my kids I won’t teach that mess to them. You can’t beat a kid to make them do what they won’t do.
“The only thing that I’m proud about is that the team that I played for did the right thing. Take [Peterson] off the field. Take him off the dang-gone field. Because you know as a man, that’s the only thing we really respect. We don’t respect no women. We don’t respect no kids. The only thing Roger [Goodell] and them [can] do is take them off the field.”
Not long after Carter’s impassioned plea, news broke that Panthers linebacker Greg Hardy had been deactivated for Sunday’s game. Hardy, who is appealing a July conviction of assaulting and threatening an ex-girlfriend, was expected to play despite the revelation this past week of more sordid details about the incident.
His fans and teammates will argue that he deserves due process. But the process that led to his deactivation is longer overdue. Even ESPN, a business partner of the NFL and arguably a long-time enabler, has confronted the truth: The intrinsic hypocrisy has become too much to bear.