Roger Goodell would have you believe he wants to clean up this town, rid the NFL of the felons and the scalawags, the gratuitous violence and the Culture of Cheating. And maybe, beneath that bureaucratic exterior, the heart of a reformer does beat. But it’s clear, with every misstep he takes, that the commissioner doesn’t have the faintest notion how to pull it off. In times of crisis he can seem overmatched, as if running on a treadmill that’s set too fast. Kind of like George Jetson when he tried to take his dog Astro for a walk:
(Think of Astro as the NFL and the cat as Any Problem That Lands on Roger’s Desk.)
Don’t get me wrong. Running a sports league, especially one as gargantuan as the NFL, is a difficult and largely thankless task — except on payday. But it doesn’t have to be quite as difficult as Goodell is making it. When, after careful consideration, you initially suspend Ray Rice for two games for punching out his future wife and then, a year later, suspend Tom Brady for twice as long because you suspect he masterminded a football-deflation scheme, you’ve basically told the world your moral compass is about as reliable as the air-pressure gauges used in the AFC title game.
And when the league announces that you’ll be the one who hears Brady’s appeal — rather than an independent arbitrator — you’re basically admitting, “No other vertebrate with a sixth-grade education would ever agree with me.”
The commissioner makes a big deal about “protecting The Shield” — as if the NFL’s Park Avenue offices are Camelot, and he sits at the head of the Round Table:
But if that’s truly his aim, the league shouldn’t have handled Deflategate the way it did. Indeed, its behavior — and the three-month media circus that followed — was the exact opposite of “protecting The Shield.”
Allow me to explain. According to the Wells Report, it wasn’t until the day before the AFC championship game that the Colts raised the issue of the Patriots using underinflated footballs. This didn’t give the NFL a ton of time to decide what to do, but it certainly gave it enough time. That the league, operating out of a hurry-up offense, Totally Screwed the Pooch showed how rudderless a ship it often is.
There were, in my mind, two ways the NFL could have gone.
1. It could have notified the Patriots about the Colts’ concerns and told them, “We plan to monitor this closely.” Then it could have dispatched additional personnel to Foxborough to see to it that no funny business occurred. The footballs for both teams could been kept under the control of a league representative — or a battalion of them — for the entire game. At the end of every quarter, if need be, the air pressure could have been rechecked.
2. The NFL could have taken all of the above precautions but not notified the Patriots beforehand. (Of course, on game day, it wouldn’t have taken the Pats long to figure out what was going on.)
Unfortunately, the league ended up choosing Door No. 3: It (a.) kept the Patriots in the dark while (b.) taking virtually none of my suggested precautions. (And it worked out just splendidly for them, didn’t it?)
What it comes down to, ultimately, is: What’s your main objective? If it’s to catch the Patriots red-handed, then obviously you don’t notify them — and let things play out however they will. But if your main goal is to make sure the game is above suspicion, that the outcome doesn’t have anything to do with the Pats having a “competitive advantage,” then you do notify them — and wait until the offseason to look into the Ball-Pressure Issue (if one exists).
By not notifying the Patriots, then failing to make certain their footballs were properly inflated in the first half, the NFL, it could be argued, acted negligently. That’s because, well, look at what happened. Despite a heads-up from the league, referee Walt Anderson lost track of the balls . . . and a nightmare scenario unfolded. You even had one of the air-pressure gauges used by the officials getting significantly higher readings than the other — which would make anyone wonder about their accuracy.
At any rate, this is the best Goodell and his Knights Templar could do on short notice, this sorry example of executive decision making?
Luckily for them, the Patriots blew out the Colts, 45-7. If the game had been close, as so many of the Pats’ postseason games have been, you would have had fans saying, rightly or wrongly, that the deflated balls might have been the difference. That’s the risk the NFL ran by not being more hands-on.
Here’s the problem, though: By approving the penalties he did, including a $1 million fine for the Patriots and the stripping of their first- and fourth-round picks in 2016, Goodell is obviously trying to send the message that this is a major offense, that ball pressure matters. But the league’s half-baked response to the Colts’ accusation — and the referee’s bungled carrying out of that response — send an entirely different message: that ball pressure doesn’t matter much at all.
And it really doesn’t. If it did, the NFL would never allow these shenanigans to go on, never leave it up to the honor system. It would be just as vigilant about the balls quarterbacks use as the ones kickers do.
You ask yourself: Are there any circumstances under which Goodell would have invalidated the outcome of the game? If the margin of victory had been a field goal instead of 38 points, and if the Patriots’ balls had measured well below specs at halftime, would the commissioner have said, when it was over, “I’m disqualifying New England from the Super Bowl and sending the Colts to represent the AFC”?
If so, then the league’s actions after being tipped off by the Colts — actions that were straight out of the Three Stooges playbook — border on malpractice.
And if not — I’m leaning in this direction — then what in the name of George Halas is all the fuss about?
(By the way, I’d be surprised if Jeffrey Kessler, Brady’s legal muscle, hasn’t also thought of this — and a bunch of other stuff. Strap yourselves in, folks. This ain’t over yet.)
NFL commissioners have acted like dictators — sometimes of the Chaplin variety — pretty much from the beginning. Roger Goodell is merely following established precedent: The Despot’s Playbook. Nobody much remembers today, but the Packers had their franchise taken away after the 1921 season for using three college players in a game. As Chuck Johnson wrote in The Green Bay Packers:
Every team in the league was employing college or high school players under assumed names. Many of the top college stars of the day would play on Saturday under their own names, then play again with the pros on Sunday, using another name.
Joe Carr, first [commissioner] of the league, wanted the practice stopped, not only because he thought it reprehensible to have players using aliases, but because it was hardly endearing the fledgling professionals to the colleges, which Carr foresaw as the league’s source of talent in years to come. So Carr made an example of the Packers.
Who just happened to play in the NFL’s smallest city (and were in their first season in the league). Four years later, Red Grange would gallop hither and yon for the Bears before his college class had graduated — indeed, just five days after his last game for Illinois — but nobody tried to kick George Halas out of the league. And five years after that, Halas did the same thing with Notre Dame fullback Joe Savoldi . . . and lived to tell about it.
But the Packers were almost strangled in the cradle, thanks to the NFL’s questionable concept of justice. (Fortunately, Curly Lambeau applied for a new franchise the following summer — after the original owner bowed out — and Green Bay got a second chance to write its remarkable story.)
The only thing that’s really changed over the decades is that, occasionally, owners fight back now. Al Davis took the league to court — and won — when it sought to prevent him from moving the Raiders to Los Angeles (and back). Jerry Jones exchanged lawsuits with his lodge brothers after having the audacity to sign separate sponsorship deals for the Cowboys’ stadium.
And now we have the Patriots’ Bob Kraft and his quarterback, Tom Brady, ready to go to the mattresses over Deflategate — and the hole-ridden report used as the basis for the team’s whopping penalties. No, it ain’t 1921 anymore.
And that’s a good thing. In the old days, the commissioner would rule and his “subjects” would simply bow their heads and accept their fate. There wasn’t much recourse. When the Giants’ Frank Filchock and Merle Hapes were banned indefinitely for failing to report a bribe offer before the 1946 title game, their collective goose was cooked. They were free to play in Canada, which they did, but they were persona non grata in the NFL until the commissioner said otherwise. For Hapes, that was essentially forever. Filchock, meanwhile, was out of the league for three years (and played, ever so briefly, in just one game when he returned with the 1950 Baltimore Colts).
“They needed a scapegoat in the whole business and I was it,” he said later. “They dealt me one off the bottom of the deck. They took the easy way out.
“Twice since my suspension I wrote to [Bert] Bell and asked him for the chance to talk this over. He answered me, all right, but just wrote that if I had any new evidence to put it into writing. . . . He’s just got me hanging. [The gambler behind the fix attempt] is out [of prison], isn’t he? What about me?”
Nobody had a bigger gripe than the Pottsville Maroons. In 1925 the Maroons were the best team in the NFL. They proved this by winning 10 of their 12 games, racking up seven shutouts and beating the next-best team, the Chicago Cardinals, 21-7, on the Cards’ turf. (And believe me, a 21-7 road win the ’20s was a Serious Skunking.) But you won’t see them on the list of league champions because they made the mistake of playing an exhibition game late in the season in Philadelphia, the Frankford Yellow Jackets’ territory.
The Yellow Jackets complained, Carr suspended the Pottsville franchise — denying it the championship — and, well, it’s one of the low points in league history, if you ask me. Joe, who’s in the Hall of Fame, has a lot of defenders, but I can’t see any reasonable rationale for such a harsh penalty.
I wrote about the whole sorry episode back in 2003 for The Washington Times. Give it a look, if you’re interested, and see what you think. Maybe it’ll help answer the question: Where does Goodell get his chutzpah?
Here it is:
The NFL title that wasn’t
The Pottsville Maroons were in the news recently. That alone is news. The Maroons, northeastern Pennsylvania’s contribution to NFL history, haven’t belonged to the league since 1928, since the days of dropkicks and leather helmets. They’re less a team than a trivia question, a $1 million answer. Name the first coach of the Pottsville Maroons. Name the last. Name anybody who ever had anything to do with the Pottsville Maroons.
The Maroons did have one brief, shining moment, though. In 1925, they won the NFL championship. At least, they thought they did. But then they played an exhibition game in Philadelphia, home territory of the Frankford Yellow Jackets, and got bounced from the league before they could collect their trophy. The title ended up going to the Chicago Cardinals, who Pottsville had beaten by two touchdowns just a week before at Comiskey Park — and who had considerable baggage of their own (as we shall see).
It’s easily the most controversial ending to any NFL season, and Pottsvillians have stewed about it ever since. In 1963 they got the league to reconsider the matter, but the owners decided to let sleeping Maroons lie. At last week’s NFL meetings in Philadelphia, however, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell pleaded Pottsville’s case and convinced the league to take another look at it. The town isn’t asking that the Maroons be declared champions this time, only that they be allowed to split the title with the Cardinals.
Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, the former lawyer, seems to share the sentiment in Pottsville that the punishment exceeded the crime. “People recognize that the passion of fans, not only in Pottsville but throughout Pennsylvania, should lead us to try to do something that’s positive recognition of those fans and the accomplishments of that Pottsville team,” he said. Would that the league had been so judicious 78 years ago.
In 1925, alas, the NFL operated much differently. Its presidency — the commissionership didn’t come until later — wasn’t even a full-time position, and scheduling was left up to the teams themselves. The Duluth Kelleys played three games that year; Frankford played 20. Some clubs, such as the Dayton Triangles, never had a home game; others, the ones that could draw a decent crowd, rarely had a road game. Everybody was scrambling to make a buck, from the Chicago Bears on down.
Late that season, the Bears caused a sensation by signing Red Grange, the celebrated “Galloping Ghost,” after his last game for the University of Illinois. They proceeded to parade him around the country, filling stadiums in Philly and New York (where a record 65,000 watched). Never before had pro football gotten so much attention.
Around the same time, Pottsville contracted to play an exhibition against a team of Notre Dame all-stars featuring the Four Horsemen. This, too, figured to be great for the pro game. Problem was, the Maroons’ field, Minersville Park, seated only about 9,000. If they were going to cash in, they needed a bigger place. So they moved the game to Philadelphia’s Shibe Park, home of the baseball A’s.
This didn’t sit well with the Frankford club. The Yellow Jackets protested to NFL president Joe Carr, and Carr agreed that the Pottsville game violated their territorial rights. He advised the Maroons not to play the Four Horsemen in Philly — and that there would be dire consequences if they did.
But Pottsville was a tough mining town that tended to play by its own rules. (Six of the infamous Molly Maguires, a group that wreaked vengeance against abusive mine owners, were hanged there in 1877.) There was a state law back then that prohibited sporting events on Sundays; Pottsville, typically, ignored it. As a local historian once put it, “Who was going to tell anthracite miners that they can’t have football on their one day off?”
On game days, the Maroons dressed in the fire station, then ran the two blocks to the stadium. Their field, opponents complained, was covered with more coal slag than grass. “After a rain,” Dr. Harry March wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs, “the minerals from the soil were so toxic that little wounds became infected and were dangerous.”
So, no, Pottsville wasn’t going to be dictated to by any part-time NFL president. And really, how much harm did their game figure to do to Frankford, especially if it was a one-shot deal? It’s not like the Maroons were thinking of moving to Philly. They were merely following George Halas’ lead in his handling of the Grange tour. The Bears had switched their game against Providence to Boston (which didn’t have an NFL team) and the one against the Yellow Jackets from Frankford Stadium to Shibe Park — all for the purpose of selling more tickets.
Indeed, in later years, the league would allow the Redskins to shift the championship game from Boston to New York in 1936 and the Cardinals to play the Lions in Milwaukee in ’45. Why? Because the Redskins couldn’t get anybody to come to their games in Beantown, and the Cards couldn’t find an available stadium in Chicago. So for the good of the league, exceptions were made.
Why Carr didn’t see the Pottsville-Four Horsemen game as an exception remains unclear. He was still recovering from an appendectomy when the controversy arose; maybe that had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was just the way the NFL worked in those days. Pottsville was in its first season in the league — the first of just four, as it turned out. It was probably viewed as a junior member, if not an intern.
Consider: Only one Pottsville player, end Charlie Berry, made the 11-man all-pro team that year, even though the Maroons were the best club in the league. (The Bears, who finished with seventh-best record, placed three on the squad, and the Cardinals and Giants two each.) Also, more than a few people think Pottsville back Tony Latone belongs in the Hall of Fame. After the Four Horsemen game, Ed Pollack of the Philadelphia Public Ledger gushed, “[Latone] hit the line like a locomotive plowing into an automobile at a grade crossing — and with the same result.” But Latone, of course, isn’t in the Hall of Fame.
The Cardinals, on the other hand, were charter members of the NFL — and are still with us today. That might explain why Carr didn’t revoke their franchise when they ran afoul of league rules late in the season. The stunt the Cardinals pulled, after all, was infinitely more scandalous than what the Maroons did. In their next-to-last game, they annihilated (59-0) an undermanned Milwaukee Badgers club that was supplemented by four players from a Chicago high school. (The kids, one of them just 16 years old, had been recruited by the Cards’ Art Folz, an alumnus of the school.)
Folz was banned from the NFL for life, and the Milwaukee owner was ordered to sell his team. Cardinals’ owner Chris O’Brien, however, got off with a one-year probation and a $1,000 fine, even though he admitted in a statement, “Just before [the game started], I learned that there were high school amateurs on the Milwaukee team. Now I know the mistake I made was in not canceling the game right then. But there were several hundred people out there to see the game. Things were moving fast. I didn’t sit down and think it out carefully.”
That win — plus another over the Hammond Pros, who hadn’t played a league game in more than a month — left the Cardinals with an 11-2-1 mark to Pottsville’s 10-2. A more suspect 11-2-1 team the NFL has never seen. No fewer than eight of the Cards’ games were against clubs that finished with one or no wins. Their opponents had a combined record of 46-70-13. Oh, and did I mention they had only one road game — against the cross-town Bears?
Granted, the Maroons enjoyed some scheduling advantages, too. Six of their wins were over teams that had played the day before (and presumably had been softened up). Their opponents, though, had a combined record of 71-66-9 — and they did crush the Cardinals 21-7 in Chicago.
O’Brien, to his credit, refused the championship when the league tried to award it to him, but it was a moot point. Pottsville had been banished — it was reinstated the following year — and the Cardinals had the best record of the remaining teams. Amazingly, the Cards’ victory over Milwaukee, the club with the four high schoolers, remains on the books, even though Carr said it would be stricken. Without that win, their record would be the same as the Maroons’, 10-2 (ties didn’t count).
Was Carr within his rights to kick Pottsville out of the NFL (temporarily)? Absolutely. But was his action just? That’s a question the league must wrestle with. And it doesn’t make it any easier that Carr is a beloved figure in pro football history, renowned for his fairness and leadership. “Many times at league meetings, we would recess late Saturday night in turmoil and on the verge of permanent dissolution,” March wrote in Pro Football. “The next morning, he would lead the boys of his religion to Mass, and they would return in perfect harmony.”
In this case, however, the case of the 1925 Pottsville Maroons, ol’ Joe might have blown one.
From The Washington Times, May 29, 2003
Sources: The Pro Football Chronicle, pro-football-reference.com.
Is it possible to talk about Deflategate and leave emotion — which runs high on both sides — on the inactive list? Let’s try.
As you may have noticed, a large faction of NFL Nation has been doing backflips since the league announced its ruling, which suspends Tom Brady for four games, fines the Patriots $1 million and strips them of first- and fourth-round draft picks next year. What Roger Goodell did is kind of like what Sheriff Bullock did to George Hearst, the mining mogul, in Deadwood. The commissioner didn’t just throw Brady in jail, he took him there by the ear.
Sheriff Bullock escorts George Hearst to the hoosegow in “Deadwood.”
It isn’t hard to understand the lust for Patriots blood that rages in the other 31 NFL cities. New England hasn’t just owned the league the last 14 seasons, winning four Super Bowls, it’s done it, at times, very annoyingly. Pro football has always been a few-holds-barred enterprise, but the Pats seem to glory in testing boundaries and flouting rules — whether it’s videotaping defensive signals, fooling with the air pressure in balls or some other bit of only-whispered-about subterfuge.
I mean, we get it, fellas, we really do. For Bill Belichick, son of a longtime Navy coach, football is Total War (minus the bullets, the drones, the IEDs, the fatalities . . . did I leave anything out?). Or to put it another way: Nobody worried about whether Grant had too many men on the field at Vicksburg.
The lengths the Patriots have gone to in their pursuit of victory have diminished their considerable accomplishments. They’re on one of the great runs in NFL history, but they’ve left fans wondering — with some justification — how much of their success is due to their willingness to step over the line, to operate in the Gray Area.
Of course, pro football has always had its villains. In the early years, no one had anything on the Bears’ George Halas in the ruthlessness department. Later on, Al Davis’ Raiders were the team people loved to hate. Belichick’s Patriots are merely the latest in the line, and probably not the worst. You could get away with so much more in the days before saturation media coverage and omnipresent security cameras. Heck, the home team used to pay the officials, and some clubs played a lot more home games than others.
Nevertheless, this latest Patriots scandal seems far more overinflated than the balls were underinflated. It broke at the most visible time of the season, in the run-up to the Super Bowl, and it raged pretty much out of control until Tuesday, when Goodell meted out his punishment. The NFL tried, feebly, to contain it, but the rumors, leaks and innuendo flew — and kept on flying — until the Wells Report was finally released 108 days later. It was yet another reminder that the most powerful league on the planet seems to have forgotten how to manage crises.
But let’s move on. One of the problems with this scandal is that folks can’t agree on whether Brady was guilty of a felony, a misdemeanor or an even lesser offense — like jaywalking — for his assumed role in this circus. Maybe the gravity (or lack thereof) of the situation will become clearer if we take a trip back in time. For starters, underinflated footballs have never been much of an issue in the NFL before now. Fascinating, don’t you think? A search of various newspaper archives the other day turned up almost nothing — since 1960, at least.
There was one story, in 1973, about the Steelers accusing the Raiders of “dirty tricks.” (And this was after a 17-9 win!) They “complained that the Raiders had smeared their uniforms with a greasy substance, had underinflated the footballs and had written obscenities on one of them,” The Associated Press reported. “There were also complaints that the Oakland Coliseum clock was not operated properly.”
Several days later — days, mind you, not months — the NFL handed down its verdict: not guilty.
“As for the deflated ball,” league publicist Don Weiss said, “all were checked, as prescribed by rule, by the officials prior to the game” and had the required 12 ½-to-13 ½ pounds of pressure. “Balls were changed frequently because of the rainy, wet weather,” he added. “When [Pittsburgh center] Ray Mansfield told the umpire, Tom Hensley, he felt one ball was under-inflated, Hensley honored his request automatically, just as he’d honor any other request, and replaced the ball.
“No official saw any ball with anything written on it, nor was it brought to their attention.”
And that was that. You get the impression the NFL — in those days, at least — just refused to deal with such Mickey Mouse accusations. There was no grand inquisition, no 243-page, multimillion-dollar report. A few phone calls were made, and the matter was dispensed with. The last thing the league wanted was to have a charge like that hanging in the air for the rest of the season. It simply wasn’t important enough. Football air pressure? Good lord.
If the Colts had bitched about the Patriots to Bert Bell, the commissioner in the ’40s and ’50s, my guess is that he would have rolled his eyes and said, “Do you guys really want to go down this road? First of all, you just got beat 45-7. Whatever happened with those footballs, it’s not the reason you lost the game. But beyond that, we’re talking about the air in the balls. How many things are less significant, in the grand scheme of things, than the air in the balls?
“Why do you think the rule reads ‘12 ½ to 13 ½ pounds’? Because there’s no magic number. There’s just a range we’d like to see teams adhere to, more or less. The rulebook, you’ll notice, doesn’t say you need to gain 8 to 10 yards for a first down. It doesn’t say you should kick off from the 40- to 42-yard line. But it does say the ball should be inflated to 12 ½ to 13 ½ pounds, because there’s some flexibility there. Let’s not get all bent of shape because the pressure might be a touch low or a touch high. We’ve got so many bigger fish to fry than that.
“Besides, this is football. If you piss and moan about something trivial like this, you may live to regret it. I think back to my own days as a coach and owner. If another team had raised a fuss about my quarterback throwing deflated footballs, I would have found a way to get even, and it might not have been pretty.”
In late January, when Deflategate became a cause célèbre, I wrote a post about Redskins legend Sammy Baugh telling the clubhouse man to underinflate balls — to 11 ½ pounds — because they “felt better to me.” Nobody, apparently, noticed or gave it a second thought. It’s interesting, too, that these slightly deflated balls didn’t hurt Baugh’s punting any. For a long time, in fact, he had the highest career average in history: 45.1 yards.
“Bootleg footballs” they were called. In the first few decades, especially — when the ball was fatter and harder to pass — clubs were known to Get Creative with the “wind-jammed pig rind” (Paul Gallico’s classic term). In a pro game between Canton and Massillon in 1905, 15 years before the NFL was born, the Tigers supplied a ball that was “the kind you would use in high school,” Dr. Harry March, the Giants’ first general manger, wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs. “It weighed about 10 ounces instead of the 16 ounces now required in all regular games, either amateur or professional. It was the kind of ball one could use in a kindergarten, as it would not hurt a male infant if kicked in his face. . . .
“[Canton Coach Blondy] Wallace protested . . . but was told that the contract put the selection of the ball up to the home team, and the one on hand was the one which would be played with that day. If he did not want to accept it, he could take his marbles and minions and go back to Canton. Naturally, that was the ball played with that afternoon. The game was a Massillon victory. They had been practicing weeks before with this featherweight ovoid and could handle it like magicians. The superiority of the Canton kickers was wiped out by this one bit of strategy.”
This sort of behavior was finally addressed by the college football Rules Committee – whose lead the NFL usually followed – in 1929. The year before, according to The New York Times, “reports began to come in that strangely shaped balls had been observed in play – balls with ‘snouts ideally adapted to gripping for forward passing’ – and that dealers were selling ‘either passing balls or kicking balls’ at the option of the buyer.
Reports also were received of overinflation of the football, the oval in some instances being blown up to 50 pounds of pressure, or more than three times the correct poundage, with a consequence that booting the ball felt like kicking a radiator or a hat with a brick in it. A punter capable of getting 40 yards with the genuine article thus could get no more than 27 or 28 yards with the rock-like counterfeit.
Blowing up the ball by guesswork at the corner garage, [committee chairman Edward K. Hall] said, naturally caused wide variation in the amount of inflation, and this, as well as the strange case of the snouted ball, his committee has already undertaken to remedy.
Under the rules for 1929 the use of a new apparatus designed to measure a football in length and width, after the manner of the foot-size gauge in shoe stores, will become compulsory. The referee before the game will slip the ball into this box-like contrivance and determine in an instant when a football is not a football within the meaning of the committee.
After that, you heard hardly a peep about footballs not meeting specifications. As long as the balls were, well, in the ballpark size-wise, everything was copacetic. And remember, for decades the home team furnished the balls — and inflated them to suit their own quarterback, not the visitors’. Baugh told me the Steelers liked to use a ball made by Goldsmith that had “10 laces instead of eight, and it was just fatter than everything. . . . You could throw it, but it was a different kind of ball.”
And now, all these years later, we have one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time getting suspended for a quarter of the season for the Deflategate fiasco. It just doesn’t seem possible. For this, Tom Brady is going to be branded with a scarlet D?
But then, these are different times from the ’20s and ’70s, more judgmental in some respects. (Or maybe it’s just that social media can turn any molehill into a mountain in the space of 140 characters.) We also, let’s not forget, have a commissioner who’d been under fire for his laxness in dealing with disciplinary cases — and who may very well have overreacted to Deflategate to make up for his initial underreaction to Ray Rice’s Frazieresque left hook.
Those who rooted for Goodell to make an example of Brady and his “outlaw” team love to talk about The Integrity of the Game. Sorry, everybody, but that horse left the barn long ago — if, indeed, it was ever in the barn. Respect for the rules in the NFL has always been grudging. Coaches and players are forever trying to bend them, twist them and circumvent them in ways totally contrary to the spirit of said rules.
That’s sports for you. Find a loophole, create a (temporary) edge. Some call it cheating, others gamesmanship. In truth, it’s probably a little of both, but the point is: It’s engrained — and you’re dreaming if you think much can be done about it.
Are Tom Brady’s deflated footballs like Nuke LaLoosh’s garter belt?
It may well be that Brady prefers a softer ball because he’s always thrown a softer ball, all the way back to his days at Michigan. In other words, the effect might be more psychological than measurable — like Nuke LaLoosh pitching better in Bull Durham when he wears a garter belt. Fully inflated balls certainly didn’t take away from Tom’s performance in the second half of the AFC championship game (12 of 14 for 131 yards and two touchdowns) . . . or in the Super Bowl (37 of 50 for 328 and four scores). In those six quarters he had a rating of 114.
Here’s what defies logic: The NFL has spent the last 80-odd years catering to quarterbacks by (a.) slimming down the ball (most recently in 1988), (b.) adjusting the rules to open up the passing game and (c.) making it easier, generally, to play the position (see: intentional grounding). It’s also getting harder and harder to hit the passer without drawing a flag. He’s got a “strike zone” these days the size of Eddie Gaedel’s.
In 2006 Brady and Peyton Manning mobilized quarterbacks and convinced the league to let them decide which balls would be used in games. This enabled them to practice with the balls during the week and have them prepared to their individual liking — rougher, smoother, more inflated, less inflated, etc. As a result, passing stats have exploded, scoring is at record highs and profits, naturally, keep going up and up.
After all this coddling of quarterbacks, the NFL is putting its foot down now? Now it’s saying, “This is going too far. Ball pressure can’t fall below 12 ½ pounds”?
Why on earth not? Does football cease being football under those conditions? Does the ball become so squeezable that fumbles, an increasingly endangered species, become extinct? (By the way, it’s not like any of this impacts the kicking game, because kickers are now required to use straight-from-the-factory K balls — a move brought about by widespread doctoring of the ball.
Which reminds me: Does anybody recall a kicker being suspended for four games, or any games, for sticking a ball in a microwave to “get it ready”? No? Wanna know why? Because once upon a time, the NFL had a sense of proportion. When an issue like this came up, it didn’t launch a four-month, multimillion-dollar investigation. It merely said, “We have to provide more supervision. Clearly, teams can’t be left to their own devices.” And the issue went away.
This whole Brady business is the silliest of stands for the league to take. It shouldn’t matter if the Patriots quarterback is partial to a slightly underinflated ball, just as it shouldn’t matter if Aaron Rodgers likes ’em overinflated. If it doesn’t change the game in some undesirable way, why would anyone make a big deal of it.
Unless, that is, he had an agenda, one that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with “protecting The Shield” . . . or whatever Goodell’s objective is.
With women making all these inroads in pro football, I figured it might be a good time to post a story I wrote in 2000 about their oft-forgotten impact on the game — in ways large and small. I’ve brought the piece up to date in a few places, but most of it remains unchanged. As you’ll see, the role they’ve played is hardly inconsequential.
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The NFL couldn’t agree on how to realign after merging with the American Football League in 1970. Owners spent eight months batting around various ideas without reaching a compromise. Some of the possibilities were downright scary. Two of the plans broke up the age-old Bears-Packers rivalry. Another put Philadelphia and Detroit in the NFC West.
Commissioner Pete Rozelle finally stepped in and settled the issue. He put the five most popular plans in a cut-glass vase and asked his secretary, Thelma Elkjer, to reach in and pick one. Thelma pulled out plan No. 3, the only one, it turned out, that kept the black-and-blue division (Chicago, Green Bay, Detroit, Minnesota) intact. Had she selected any of the other four, the Vikings would have been in the NFC East.
We tend to think of the NFL as a man’s world, and it is to a great degree. But that doesn’t mean women haven’t, from time to time, played important roles in its history. Women have had a much bigger impact on pro football — in all sorts of ways — than most fans realize. (And not just by giving birth to, say, the Manning brothers.) For instance, did you know that the wife of the Pittsburgh ticket manager came up with the name Steelers? If it hadn’t been for Mrs. Joe Carr, we might be calling them the Iron Men or something. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. . . .
Corinne Griffith, wife of Redskins founder George Preston Marshall, made all kinds of contributions to the cause in the ’30s and ’40s. She designed the team’s uniforms (as well as the costumes for the marching band). She planned elaborate halftime shows that became the model for the rest of the league. She even wrote the lyrics to Hail to the Redskins.
(The latter might seem like a small thing, but it became very big indeed when Clint Murchison was trying to get a franchise for Dallas in 1960. Murchison knew the Redskins were opposed to another southern team joining the NFL — they considered the South their territory — so a buddy of his acquired the rights to the Redskins’ fight song and threatened to deny Marshall the use of it unless he supported Dallas’ bid. George capitulated, of course.)
There was nothing Corinne wouldn’t do for her beloved Redskins. One year, The New York Times reported, the Brooklyn Dodgers sent “Dean McAdams and Merlyn Condit to [Washington] for Bob Masterson, Ray Hare, George Smith, Tony Leon, Leo Stasica, $2,000 and a boxer dog, Toby. Referring to that one-sided transaction — McAdams and Condit never played with the Redskins — Mrs. George Preston Marshall, whose husband made the deal, averred she didn’t mind losing the players, but hated to give up Toby.”
Which brings us to Lizette Mara, wife of New York Giants founder Tim Mara. Lizette wasn’t nearly as active in team affairs as Corinne Griffith, but she did wield a certain influence. How so? Well, after the Giants played their first game at the Polo Grounds in 1925, her young son Wellington, who had stood on the sideline all afternoon, came down with a cold. Mom was none too pleased.
“She immediately came up with a novel solution,” Barry Gottehrer wrote in The Giants of New York. “The Giant[s] bench, placed on the south side of the field, was in the chilling shade from the second quarter on while the visiting team’s bench remained bathed in sun.”
“She told Pop to switch the benches,” Wellington, who followed his father into the Hall of Fame, told Gottehrer. “It was either that or leave me home, so Pop switched benches. And they’ve stayed switched ever since.”
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The 1999 NFL champions, the St. Louis Rams, were owned by a woman: former actress/chorus girl/nightclub singer/TV weather person Georgia Frontiere. Frontiere inherited the franchise, then located in Los Angeles, from her husband, Carroll Rosenbloom, and made no friends by (a.) letting the club go to pot and (b.) bolting to St. Louis in 1995. Fans saw her as too bottom-line conscious — and totally over her head. They’d bring signs to games begging her to sell the team.
Unfortunately for them, she liked being an owner.
“It’s too much a part of my life,” she said in a rare interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “What would I do on Sunday? There is still a certain kid in me. When I first met Carroll [who originally owned the Baltimore Colts], he used to take me to practice, and I played catch with Johnny Unitas. That was the greatest thing to ever happen.”
Many were skeptical when the Rams went to St. Louis, even though the team negotiated a sweet financial deal that included a new stadium. The city simply hadn’t supported pro football that strongly in the past. But Frontiere seemed to learn from her mistakes in L.A. First, she loosened the purse strings, giving huge contracts to Marshall Faulk, Orlando Pace and Isaac Bruce. Then she got incredibly lucky when her backup quarterback, Kurt Warner, turned into the NFL’s MVP (and was rewarded with a lucrative contract himself).
The ’99 season was pure magic — and ended with commissioner Paul Tagliabue handing Georgia the Super Bowl trophy. “[This] proves that we did the right thing in going to St. Louis,” she said in her acceptance speech. Tagliabue, who had opposed the move, didn’t argue. After all, the Rams were champs, and the city they left behind had been passed over for an expansion franchise in favor of Houston.
Violet Bidwill with Cardinals coach Pop Ivy at the 1961 draft.
Frontiere, it might surprise you to learn, wasn’t the first woman to own an NFL championship team. More than a half-century earlier, in 1947, Violet Bidwill presided over the title-winning Chicago Cardinals — quite unexpectedly, I might add. Her husband, pro football pioneer Charley Bidwill, had died of a heart attack the previous spring, and poor Violet was left to run the club.
These were the glory years for the Cardinals franchise, the years of Jimmy Conzelman, their ever-quotable coach, and the “Dream Backfield” of Charley Trippi, Paul Christman, Pat Harder and Elmer Angsman. The team played for the championship again in ’48, losing in a snowstorm to the Eagles in Philadelphia, but won only one playoff game in the next six decades. Which is really all you need to know about Violet Bidwill, NFL owner.
Vi — adoptive mother of current Cardinals owner Bill Bidwill — was a nice woman, by all accounts. She was just . . . well, why don’t I let Bob Nussbaumer tell you about her?
“I was helping the Cardinals out with the draft — gathering information on players and stuff like that,” he told me. “And in those days [the ’50s] they used to hold the draft in Chicago all the time, in a hotel. So we’re sitting at the Cardinals’ table, waiting for the draft to start, and here comes Vi Bidwill with a bunch of college football magazines. True story. Honest to God. And she’s flipping through them [at the table] and saying, ‘What about this guy? He sounds pretty good.’”
Vi was approached about selling the club in 1958 — and this is where she left perhaps her biggest mark on pro football. The man who approached her was millionaire oilman Lamar Hunt, who was anxious to buy a team. When Vi turned him down, Hunt went off and organized the AFL — which gave us Joe Namath, 2-point conversions, skyrocketing salaries and a decade of highly entertaining interleague strife.
So look at it this way: If it hadn’t been for Vi Bidwill, there might have been no AFL (or at the very least, a much different AFL).
There certainly would have been no St. Louis Cardinals, which is where she took the team in 1960 after years of playing second fiddle to the Bears in Chicago. (Son Bill continued the tradition of itinerancy by packing the club off to Arizona.)
You could even argue that, without Vi Bidwill, there would have been no Detroit Lions dynasty in the ’50s. Buddy Parker, who coached the Lions to championships in 1952 and ’53 (and laid the groundwork for their title in ’57), had previously coached the Cardinals. But he left the team after a winning season in ’49 because Vi wasn’t sure if she wanted to renew his contract.
“I wanted my status established,” Parker said at the time. “Mrs. Bidwill wouldn’t give me a direct answer. She said she wanted to wait and see. I’ve decided not to wait and see.”
Instead, he joined the Lions as Bo McMillin’s top assistant and moved up to the head job the next year when Bo was forced out. Soon enough, Detroit was an NFL powerhouse
You have to admit, Vi Bidwill cuts a wide swath through NFL history, even if she didn’t always mean to.
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Moving along . . . other women besides the aforementioned helped make pro football what it is today. Frances Upton, for instance. She was the Ziegfeld Follies girl who married Bert Bell — and gave him the $2,500 he needed to acquire the Philadelphia franchise in 1933. (Bell wasn’t much of an owner, but he made a fine commissioner from 1946 to ’59.)
Women, in fact, bankrolled several owners in the early days. The mother of Bears center George Trafton loaned George Halas $20,000 so that he could buy out Dutch Sternaman and become sole owner of the Bears in 1932. Without that timely infusion of capital, Halas might well have lost the team (or so the story goes). In the depths of the Depression, it was a significant sum.
Then there’s Kate Smith, the famous singer from the ’40s. She was the main source of Boston Yanks owner Ted Collins’ wealth — Ted being her manager. “It was a standing joke on the team,” one of Collins’ players once said, “that if Kate ever got a sore throat, nobody would get paid.”
Collins always claimed Smith didn’t invest in the club, but she was, at the very least, a loyal supporter. She sang the national anthem before the Yanks’ inaugural game in 1944 and often could be seen rooting for them at Fenway Park. The Boston Globe offered this press box glimpse of her during a Yanks-Bears game in 1947:
“When the Bears sent McAfee, Turner, Holovak, Keane and Kavanaugh into the game for their final spurt, songstress Kate Smith — seated on the 50-yard line — almost jumped into the game to stop them. . . . She rooted violently for Boston throughout the game.”
Having a celebrity like Kate connected to the league was great for its image. Pro football in the pre-television era wasn’t thought of as very glamorous and didn’t have nearly as many followers as college ball. But, hey, if Kate Smith went to the games, they must be the place to be, right?
Another high-profile female who lent her fame to the fledgling NFL was figure skater/film star Sonja Henie, wife of Brooklyn owner Dan Topping. (Sonja might even have owned a piece of the club, though there’s some dispute about that.) In 1940, when the Dodgers opened the season against the Redskins in Washington, the Norwegian ice princess was prevailed upon to throw out the first ball. The United Press reviewed her performance thusly: “Until you have seen Sonja Henie throw a forward pass, you cannot possibly realize the truth in the statement concerning the weaker sex.”
Lovebirds Glenn Davis and Liz Taylor at the beach.
And let’s not forget the Hollywood starlets who consorted with an assortment of Los Angeles Rams in the ’40s and ’50s. Elizabeth Taylor — Liz Taylor! — was once engaged to running back Glenn Davis (and Terry Moore actually walked down the aisle with him). Jane Russell, meanwhile, was married to quarterback Bob Waterfield. The stands at the L.A. Coliseum always seemed to be adorned by a Marilyn Monroe or a Lana Turner.
“Jane [Russell] would come with Bob [Waterfield] to the games in Philadelphia,” former Eagle Ernie Steele told me. “She was just a regular person. Everybody loved her. We were in the Washington Club one time after a ballgame — it used to be on Market Street — and she was just sitting at the table with us, drinking a couple of beers. One of the gals wrote on the wall of the ladies room: ‘Jane Russell peed here.’”
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More on Corinne Griffith, George Preston Marshall’s wife-of-all-trades: In addition to her aforementioned talents, Corinne also was an author. In 1946 she wrote (with the L.A. Times’ Bill Henry) My Life With the Redskins, one of the earliest — and best — books on pro football. It’s funny, informative and full of great stories.
Example: For the Lions’ first game at Briggs Stadium in 1938, owner Dick Richards had 6,000 yellow chrysanthemums flown in from California and gave one to each of the first 6,000 women to arrive. “Soon,” Corinne says, “6,000 chrysanthemums yellow-dotted the packed the stadium, lending their clean, tangy odor to the cool, crisp autumn air.”
(Corinne never dreamed up a promotion like that for the Redskins, but she did have Santa Claus flown into Griffith Stadium in a helicopter in 1946.)
Elsewhere in the book, she says it was she who convinced Marshall to move the club to Washington from Boston. “You see,” her logic went, “there are so many displaced citizens in Washington. . . . As a matter of fact, the D.C. after Washington means: Displaced Citizen. Most of these D.C.’s are alone in Washington with nothing to do on Sunday afternoon other than sit in parks and feed the squirrels and pigeons. . . . I have a definite feeling that Washington’s D.C.’s would welcome a little more action on Sunday afternoon.”
After Corinne came Perian Conerly. In the late ’50s, Perian, who was married to Giants quarterback Charlie Conerly, began writing a weekly column for her hometown newspaper in Clarksdale, Miss., about being a football wife in the big city (and including, naturally, behind-the-scenes information about the team and her own observations about the games). The column proved so popular that it was syndicated; one of the newspapers that carried it was The New York Times. Here she is trying to stump the panel of celebrities — movie star David Niven (!) among them — on the famed TV show, What’s My Line?
In one of Perrian’s columns, on players’ “sideline occupations,” she informed her readers that “a Chicago Bear[s] end, Dr. Bill McColl, specializes in surgery and recently performed an offseason knee operation on one of his in-season opponents.” Another time, writing about game day and its attendant anxieties, she revealed: “[Giants punter] Don Chandler’s first move [after waking on Sunday] is to race to the window of his apartment, which overlooks Yankee Stadium, and check the flags displayed there. Thus he gets an immediate indication of how the wind will affect his punting.”
Then there was this gem that ended a column about the growth of pro football and the “enlightened attitude of the general public toward the game”: “I have still another criterion for measuring this evolution of attitude. It concerns tone of voice. ‘Your husband plays professional football?’ has been the stock opening line of new acquaintances since our marriage in 1949. It remains so in 1960. But the exclamation today bears not a trace of pity.”
Perian hung up her typewriter at the end of the ’61 season, when Charlie retired. Three years later, though, Joan Ryan, wife of Browns QB Frank Ryan, picked up where Perian left off in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (and later, after Frank signed with the Redskins, in The Washington Star). “Backseat Brown,” her original column was called.
Joan Ryan, pen and notebook at the ready.
Joan’s writing had a little more of an edge to it than Perian’s. She made cracks about other teams’ uniforms. (“The psychological letdown of having to go into a locker room on a bleak day and don [the Redskins’] mustard-gold pants with a maroon-and-gold jersey would make me want to forfeit.”) She ripped the offensive line her husband played behind when he was with the Rams. (“The first time I saw [Frank] throw four consecutive passes standing up was the first time I saw him play for the Browns.”) She told a story about Frank accidentally cleating coach Paul Brown during warmups (and how, after the game, his teammates were “jovially patting Frank on the back . . . [and] were hopeful that Paul might miss the next game because of the injury.”)
But that was nothing compared to what she said about Don Meredith in 1966. Five days before the Browns were to host Dallas in a huge game, she called the Cowboys quarterback “a loser.” (Think that might have caused some tension in the Ryan household?) When the teams met, though, Joan came off looking pretty good. Dandy Don threw four interceptions as Cleveland coasted to an easy victory.
Do Corinne Griffith, Perian Conerly and Joan Ryan have anything to do with this?
It’s hard to believe they don’t.
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No discussion of women and their impact on pro football would be complete without Heidi. Granted, Heidi was a girl — and a fictional one at that — but she’s the reason 60 Minutes gets delayed, if need be, so an NFL game can be shown in its entirety.
That policy wasn’t quite set in stone in 1968, when the Jets played at Oakland in a preview of the AFL championship game. With New York leading by a field goal in the final minute and the game running late, NBC switched away from Joe Namath and Ben Davidson so it could air the children’s movie Heidi, which was supposed to begin at 7 p.m.
Talk about a bonehead move. So many angry fans called the NBC switchboard in New York that it broke down. The network tried to placate them by returning to the game, but by then the Raiders had scored the go-ahead touchdown. It was, in every respect, a disaster, but something good did come of it: No network ever messed with a football game again.
So there you have it, folks, the never-before-told story of how women — yes, women — helped shape pro football. With Sarah Thomas about to join the ranks of NFL zebras, there’s no telling what the future holds. Someday, a female might grab a grease pencil and design a defense that will confound the next Tom Brady. In the mind’s eye, it’s the daughter of a football coach, a Condoleezza Rice-type, only she decides she’d rather be a defensive coordinator than Secretary of State.
This story originally appeared, in slightly different form, in The Washington Times, Nov. 19, 2000.
This Redskins season has become so utterly devoid of meaning that a practice-field slapfest between an offensive guy and a defensive guy got turned into The Thrilla in Ashburn this week. I won’t even bother you with the video. (Put it this way: I’ve seen disputes over parking spaces that were more spirited.)
Most Fridays, just for fun, I post a boxing or wrestling match featuring a former NFL player. But today I’m going to talk about some real football fights that took place in Actual Games, just to put Bashaud Breeland-Andre Roberts I in perspective.
Granted, there were some blows landed in the Breeland-Roberts bout, but did either of them pick up a goal-line marker and hit the other over the head with it? That’s what the Steelers’ John Henry Johnson did to the Rams’ Bill Jobko during their late-game square-off in 1961.
Pittsburgh, down 24-17, was trying to salvage a tie when the Rams’ Eddie Meador picked off a Bobby Layne pass and started heading for the end zone. Pat Livingston of the Pittsburgh Press described what happened next:
The brawling started when [running back] John Henry Johnson knocked Meador out of bounds on the Steeler[s] 7. Johnson was hit from behind and knocked down by linebacker Bill Jobko and got up swinging the goal-line marker.
The marker hit Jobko on the head but, luckily, the Ram was protected by the helmet he wore. It was enough to empty both benches, though.
Johnson emerged from the scrap with “a deep cut” on his nose, Jack Sell of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Naturally, he was none too pleased about it.
“They were roughing me up all day,” he said. “They were dirty as hell. I don’t have to take it, and I won’t.”
(Years later, a story in the Post-Gazette revealed: “The Rams punished Johnson with a series of late hits in retaliation for Johnson having broken the jaw of Ram[s] linebacker Les Richter earlier in the game.”)
Speaking of Richter — a Hall of Famer like Johnson — he was involved in another memorable fight, seven years earlier, on the same Los Angeles Coliseum field. It was the first quarter of a game between the Rams and Colts, and he and Baltimore defensive end Don Joyce got into it over something or other. It depends on your source.
Joyce said Richter started it by kneeing him on a kickoff return. Richter’s version: “I blocked Joyce on the kickoff. He grabbed me by the head. My helmet came off in his hands, and the next thing I knew he hit me across the face with my helmet.”
Here are a couple of visuals for you. The first is a photo of the aftermath — Richter lying on the ground, grabbing his face, while Joyce looks on unsympathetically. (Note the helmet at Don’s feet. He was ejected from the game, by the way.)
The second is a shot of Richter taken later in the week, after he’d needed 15 stitches to close the cut over his right eye.
(In an era in which few holds were barred, Joyce was one of the tougher customers. As Carl Brettschneider, a roughhousing linebacker for the Cardinals and Lions, put it: “Every team had a guy the other team was always aware of – guys like Hardy Brown, John Henry Johnson, Bucko Kilroy, Don Joyce. You didn’t turn your back on Don Joyce.”)
Commissioner Bert Bell looked into the situation and — you’ll love this — decided not to suspend Joyce. The Colts had one game left, against the 49ers in San Francisco, and Don was in the lineup. There may have been a fine, but I’m not even sure of that. Bell wasn’t exactly a disciplinarian when it came to such matters.
“We cannot condone this short of thing,” he told the Baltimore Sun. “But there is no sense flying off the handle and condemning the boy too harshly. I have already talked to the boy, and he and I will work it out. . . .
“Four or five years ago I fined two players heavily. After the season was over we got together and talked over the situation, and since that time neither has been put out of a game. They also got their fines back.
“If people would just let the players and myself thrash out the difficulties, we would be able to do it without all the fuss and bother.”
They also got their fines back. That kinda says it all for 1950s justice — and for how the commissioner dealt with the violence issue. Bell, I’m convinced, low-keyed it because he figured if he did, sportswriters wouldn’t make as big a deal of it. And for the most part, they didn’t.
Finally, there’s this from the Sun story: “Word from San Francisco says Joyce probably will get a big hand when he takes the field against the 49ers Saturday. The folks from the Golden Gate didn’t care for the way Les Richter played against their team.”
Now tell me again about this bloodless practice-bubble battle at Redskins Park.
Sources: pro-football-reference.com, The Pro Football Chronicle.
Whatever the equivalent of IR is for commissioners, the NFL’s Roger Goodell is surely on it. He’s taken a serious beating this year, most recently when a mediator decided he had overstepped his bounds in the Ray Rice case by penalizing the Ravens running back twice for KO-ing his wife. Rice’s indefinite suspension has been lifted, and he’s free to play for any team that’ll have him.
Pete Rozelle: Did he inhale?
Part of Goodell’s image problem is that he’s always being compared to The Ghost of Pete Rozelle. But even Rozelle, I’ll just point out, was known to overstep his bounds in the dispensing of discipline. One time was in 1974, his 15th year on the job. A federal appeals panel ruled he couldn’t just impose a $200 fine on players — 106 in all — who had left the bench during a fight. It was something that had to be collectively bargained. The players association had brought the suit, which was initially rejected by the National Labor Relations Board.
“Judge Gerald W. Heaney, writing for the judges, said if Rozelle was the agent for both the owners and the players ‘and promulgated the rule as their agent,’ United Press International reported, ‘one must assume a serious breach of ethics by the commissioner if he talked to only one of his principals. And no one suggests that the commissioner is an unethical man.’”
Ergo, Teflon Pete did it unilaterally, at the behest of the owners.
Red Smith of The New York Times also weighed in on the subject:
So while Goodell got shot down by Barbara S. Jones, the former federal judge who arbitrated the dispute, it was hardly unprecedented in NFL history. Why, it even happened to the sainted Pete Rozelle.
The question I’ve been wondering about all weekend is: What would Pete Rozelle, cub reporter, have written about Roger Goodell’s news conference Friday? Depending on who you’ve been reading lately, Rozelle either (a.) parted the Red Sea or (b.) landed a spaceship on the moon during his nearly 30 years as NFL commissioner.
But long before that he was an aspiring journalist at Compton Junior College whose dream job was to be sports editor of the Los Angeles Times. He even did some stringing for the Long Beach Press-Telegram while serving as the student-sports information director at Compton. Why don’t we flip through Rozelle’s clip file to get a feel for his prose style? All these stories are from 1947 and ’48, which would make him 21 or 22 years young.
Here’s Pete covering a pivotal JC football game in 1947:
And here’s Pete following up Michigan’s 49-0 wipeout of Southern Cal in the 1948 Rose Bowl:
And here’s Pete rhapsodizing about Compton, California’s own Duke Snider, who in 1948 was in the second year of his Hall of Fame career with the Brooklyn Dodgers:
And here’s Pete sitting down with Phog Allen, the legendary Kansas basketball coach:
And here’s Pete at the scene of a dramatic JC basketball game:
And finally, here’s ubiquitous Pete reporting on high school football — reporting, in fact, on his alma mater:
Two things are cool about this story. First, the Don Klosterman who played quarterback for Compton High is the same Don Klosterman who was later general manager of the Los Angeles Rams — the job Rozelle had when he became commissioner.
Second, Compton’s athletic teams were/are called the Tarbabes — short for Tartar Babies. Is this a great country or what?
So if we took in all this information and tried to come up with a Typical Pete Rozelle Lead Paragraph coming out of Goodell’s news conference, it might read something like this:
NEW YORK — Embattled Roger Goodell, his boyish red hair giving evidence to barely 40 of his 55 years, addressed Friday the scandal that threatens to sound a death knell to his commissionership and take a wrecking ball to the NFL’s image. Grilled by some of the nation’s top sports writers about his botched disciplining of “Rapid Ray” Rice, the Ravens’ will-o’-the-wisp Negro halfback, and “All the Way Adrian” Peterson, the Vikings’ jet-propelled, two-time rushing champ, Goodell admitted mistakes and promised to make things right during a tension-soaked session.
Rozelle took an amazing elevator ride after his byline stopped appearing in the Press-Telegram. Within a dozen years — at the age of 33 — he was NFL commissioner. The path he took:
Whether or not Roger Goodell survives this latest tempest, the job of NFL commissioner has to change. Goodell spends too much time these days in his judge’s robes, weighing evidence and dispensing justice (or some facsimile). When things get particularly gnarly — and how often aren’t they these nightmarish days — it’s almost as if he’s presiding over night court.
And it’s not just players who are being hauled before him by the bailiff. It’s an owner who drove drunk (with a veritable pharmacy in his car). Or an owner who thought he could game the salary-cap system. Or a coach who ran a bounty program.
There’s simply too much misbehavior in the NFL for one person to deal with, especially when you consider all the other duties a commissioner is expected to perform. The job was never meant to be like this. Or rather, the Founding Fathers — George Halas and the rest — never thought of the commissioner, first and foremost, as judge, jury and executioner. A spokesman for the league? Sure. Its commanding general in labor battles and TV negotiations? Absolutely. A consensus-builder and Man of Vision on important issues? Without question. But a pro football version of “Judge Judy”? Not so much.
In the early years, Joe Carr, who was commissioner longer than anyone except Pete Rozelle (1921-39), could usually be found traveling around the league, attending games and looking in on
franchises. “I was always getting calls,” he once said, “to come in and help them unsnarl their finances.”
When owners meetings got contentious — that is, when the Bears’ Halas looked ready to slap a headlock on somebody or the Redskins’ George Preston Marshall started irritating his lodge brothers in his imperious way — Carr would step in and calm the waters. “Many times at league meetings, we would recess late Saturday night in turmoil and on the verge of permanent dissolution,” Dr. Harry A. March, the Giants’ first general manager, wrote in Pro Football: Its Ups and Downs. “The next morning, he would lead the boys of his religion to Mass, and they would return in perfect harmony.”
Disciplinary matters took up little of Carr’s time. Oh, he might fine a club for signing an ineligible player, but the game itself was largely self-policing as far as on-field conduct was concerned, and off-field conduct was pretty much beyond his purview. (Though he did tell one sports columnist “a rule similar to the one in hockey, penalizing the player who offends by a one- or two-minute removal from the game, might make [for] less fouling and more action,” and that he planned “to urge the adoption of such a rule.” If only it had come to pass.)
Things began to change late in the 1946 season, when an attempt was made to fix the championship game between the Giants and Bears. A front man for a gambling syndicate had broached the subject with two members of the Giants, quarterback Frank Filchock and fullback Merle Hapes, and neither had reported it to the league. It was the last thing the NFL needed: any suggestion its games weren’t on the up and up. So commissioner Bert Bell was given more
authority to deal with such situations — and anything else that might be deemed a threat to the league. He suspended Filchock and Hapes indefinitely, and soon enough the scandal burned itself out.
Still, the commissionership then was nothing like the commissionership now. Nowadays, for instance, Goodell has to be eternally vigilant about the violence issue; and when he isn’t bringing down the hammer on somebody for over-rough play, he’s lobbying — or taking steps himself — to make the game safer. So much so that some are beginning to complain, with more than a little justification, that “you can’t play defense anymore.”
“Somebody fouled [Eagles quarterback] Davey O’Brien once,” he told the magazine. “That guy got straightened out a little bit — in language — and every time he got hit. It was a little harder every time he got hit. . . . Sure, if a guy is looking for trouble, he gets it. That’s true. He’ll take a pretty fair thumping from the players, but legally.”
Bell, a former NFL owner and coach — and a college player at Penn before that — had a predictably old-school, boys-will-be-boys attitude toward dirty play and dangerous tactics. After the Eagles’ Bucko Kilroy broke the nose and jaw of the Steelers’ Dale Dodrill with an elbow in 1951, he said, “There are 300 big boys in this league, and somebody is bound to get bruised. I also noticed while reviewing this game that one of the Eagles got a busted cheek, too. I suppose that was an accident?”
After Bell, the job became a lot more complicated. Recreational drugs became an issue. PEDs became an issue. Misbehavior on and off the field became more visible and problematic. And again, this isn’t limited to just players. In management and the coaching ranks, the anything-it-takes-to-win mindset has never been more prevalent. You see teams trying to circumvent the cap, coaches bending OTA rules, all kinds of nefarious activities. If the NFL had any shame, it would be embarrassing.
At any rate, all this has fallen in the commissioner’s lap, and it’s clearly too much. Goodell’s handling of the Ray Rice episode — or mishandling, if you prefer — fairly screams this. Rice’s original two-game suspension, when many were expecting more, smacks of a commissioner who just wanted to get the case off his desk, Get The Matter Behind Us, rather than one committed to getting the decision right.
Is that a character flaw on Goodell’s part or merely occupational overload? If it’s the former, there isn’t much that can be done about it; but if it’s the latter, there is. For starters, you can take the Judge Judy out of the job and turn it over to . . . well, that’s an interesting subject. My first call would be to Alan Page, the Vikings’ Hall of Fame defensive tackle, who’s now an associate justice on the Minnesota Supreme Court. “How about coming back,” I’d say, “and helping us clean up this mess?”
Page, now 69, is probably too smart to want to assume the duties himself, but he’d no doubt have some good ideas about how to set up the operation so that everybody — not just the league and players, but also the fans — would feel their interests were being served. It might be a difficult balancing act, but it’s certainly worth the try. Right now, all we have is a commissioner handing down penalties from on high and, almost invariably, being criticized for being either (a.) too harsh or (b.) too lenient.
OK, occasionally folks actually agree with one of his rulings, but more often than not it’s a no-win situation. And all that does is make him — and the commissionership — look weak. It needs to stop. Now. If the NFL does nothing else in the wake the Rice debacle, it should create an Independent Judiciary to police the game. Goodell obviously isn’t up to the task. Indeed, no commissioner may be up to the task, as time-consuming as that function has become.
Maybe one man, one exceptional man, can do it. Maybe a tribunal is the answer — or a rotating group of arbitrators. There are all kinds of possibilities. Almost anything would be better than what the league has now.
It bears mentioning that Roger Goodell isn’t an elected official. He owes his allegiance to the owners, not the public. So he has no obligation to tell us the whole truth and nothing but the truth — unless, of course, he wants to, thinks he should. That’s just the way it works in corporate America. Or didn’t you get the memo?
He also wasn’t the guy who KO’d Janay Rice in the elevator — though, from the level of outrage directed at him, you’d sometimes think he was. Here’s what Goodell is, above all: A man who, in this emotionally charged instance, did his job incredibly poorly (and then dug the hole deeper by doing an even worse job of explaining himself).
The question now becomes: How does the league respond, pending the outcome of the investigation by former FBI director Robert S. Mueller III? Will Goodell get fired? Will he voluntarily fall on his sword? Or will the owners keep him on but decide, rightly: We have to find another way to deal with crime and punishment?
Whether Goodell stays or goes is of little concern to me. I don’t think he’s a particularly good commissioner, but I’m also not convinced the next one will be an improvement. The same owners, after all, will be hiring him. There’s plenty of evidence, though, that the job has become too big for one person.
The NFL is no longer the mom-and-pop operation it was in Carr’s day, and the winking denial of the Bell years has ceased being acceptable. So it will be fascinating to see where the league goes from here. Hopefully, for the game’s sake as much as their own, the owners understand they have to go somewhere, they can’t just keep doing what they’re doing. That would be the biggest mistake of all.
In the days before they made $44.2 million a year, NFL commissioners scratched out an existence any way they could. Elmer Layden, who held the job from 1941 to ’45, pushed Jockey long johns. “Lengthen your shorts,” he said in a newspaper ad, “and you’ll lengthen your years of activity.”