What a rough week for the National Football League, a week that reminded us of:
- The cold-blooded business of the sport.
- The recklessness of some of those who play the sport.
- The deception and possible cover-ups by those who run the sport.
All of this packed into five days.
The week began innocently enough with the stunning news that Denver’s Von Miller, an eight-time Pro Bowler, had been traded from the Broncos to the Los Angeles Rams. Despite being a supposedly hardened veteran, Miller said in a series of emotional interviews that the trade caught him off guard.
What struck me was Miller’s raw expression of hurt. He had been blindsided by the only pro team he’d ever known.
From season-ending injuries to trades, we have been conditioned to see players as cartoon characters, inanimate objects in a pinball machine to be cut and traded and bounced around. We tell ourselves: “They know what they signed up for,” as if that understanding and the compensation eliminates the pain, the uncertainty of being injured and uprooted. It’s why we tend to give so little credence to athletes who cite “mental health issues” as a reason for needing to take a break from the game and step away from the competition.
“At first it hurts, it hurts bad,” Miller told reporters about being traded. “I’ve been there for 11 years. I don’t know anything else. I was a Denver Bronco. They told me that I was getting traded to the Rams. Hurts. Had all my goodbyes. Looking at my house, looking at all the memories that I had there throughout 11 years, it was tough.”
On Tuesday, Las Vegas Raiders wide receiver Henry Ruggs III rear-ended a car with his Corvette at 3:39 in the morning. According to police reports, Ruggs, a former star at Alabama, was driving 156 mph with a blood alcohol content twice Nevada’s legal limit before his car slammed into the vehicle, killing a 23-year-old woman inside and her dog.
The Raiders immediately parted ways with Ruggs, a star athlete, a young athlete, now an ex-NFL athlete, selfishly playing by his own set of rules, playing in a league that often functions as a law unto itself.
The tragedy happened just as the Raiders emerged from under the cloud of disgraced former head coach Jon Gruden, who resigned last month amid revelations of racist, anti-gay and misogynistic emails exchanged with NFL officials and business partners years earlier.
Meanwhile, the NFL has steadfastly refused to turn over thousands of other emails that might expose similar racist, anti-gay and misogynistic sentiments of other league executives.
Protect the shield.
On Wednesday, we learned that the face of the league, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, tested positive for the coronavirus and would miss the highly anticipated showdown against the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday.
We subsequently learned that Rodgers is unvaccinated and might have lied about his status and violated coronavirus protocols, possibly with the Packers’ and the NFL’s knowledge.
Rodgers inserted himself in the middle of an intense culture war surrounding COVID-19 during training camp in August when a reporter asked whether he was vaccinated. Rodgers responded, “Yeah, I’ve been immunized.”
We assumed at the time that “immunized” meant vaccinated. It did not.
ESPN reported that Rodgers, using his personal physician, received homeopathic treatment in order to elevate his antibody levels. Rodgers then petitioned the league to accept the treatment as the equivalent of being fully vaccinated. The league said no and informed Rodgers that in its eyes, he was unvaccinated.
Making his first public appearance since the coronavirus firestorm, Rodgers, appearing Friday on the Pat McAfee Show, said he observed all protocols — except the one requiring him to wear a mask during a news conference with the media. He didn’t think that made sense.
Incredibly, Rodgers quoted civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.: “You have a moral obligation to object to unjust rules and rules that make no sense.”
King was referring to the evils of suffocating segregation. Rodgers was defending his decision to flout regulations designed to protect his fellow man.
In any event, the league knew that Rodgers was not vaccinated according to its own definition of what it meant to be fully vaccinated.
Among other requirements agreed upon by the NFL and the players’ association, vaccinated players are:
- Required to wear masks at all times indoors at the team facility and at the stadium on game day.
- Required to travel separately from their unvaccinated teammates, who are required to undergo daily testing.
- Prohibited from gathering outside team headquarters in groups of more than three players to attend house parties without wearing personal protective equipment.
Based on photos and news reports, Rodgers remained maskless during indoor news conferences with reporters at Lambeau Field. In one now-infamous photo, Rodgers was seen unmasked at a Halloween party with teammates.
Earlier this week, the NFL issued a statement saying the league was “aware of the current situation in Green Bay and will be reviewing the matter with the Packers.”
Will Rodgers be fined? Will he face further suspension? Will Green Bay be fined and lose draft picks? Last year the NFL issued stiff fines to the Raiders and the New Orleans Saints.
But who is investigating the NFL and whether the league and team chose to look the other way while Rodgers violated protocols that other players have been forced to obey?
You can make the argument that fretting over COVID-19 is overkill. But it feeds into a larger pattern of cover-ups and deception that allows the league to achieve its highest goal: protecting the NFL shield.
It’s done that to the detriment of many of its players.
In 2011, 75 former players, citing fraud, negligence and failure to warn, sued the NFL for concealing the dangers of concussions for 90 years.
In 2016, The New York Times reported that the league had omitted more than 100 concussions from data used in scientific studies that downplayed the frequency of head trauma in pro football.
That same year, the NFL settled a class-action suit by agreeing to pay close to $1 billion over 65 years to more than 20,000 retired NFL players. But alas, this year we discovered that the NFL had used a formula called “race-norming” to make it harder for Black former players to collect payment from the settlement.
For years the NFL used race-norming to settle concussion lawsuits, using a formula that assumed that Black players were predisposed to have started with lower intelligence than white players, so Black players had to prove a greater amount of cognitive decline than white players to get the same payout.
Only last month did the NFL and attorneys for the former players reach a settlement to end race-norming.
So how does an institution like the NFL get away with these shenanigans year after year, decade after decade? Why does the league seem to not only survive its various deceptions, but thrive in the face of them?
It’s because the game has become a highly addictive drug: The league is the pusher, the fans and we — the media — are addicts. Legalized gambling has made the drug more potent.
Some vow to boycott the league for blackballing former quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Some vow to turn away because of the toll the game takes on bodies and minds. Others are disgusted by the cold-blooded way the teams treat players and by the arrogance of a league that refuses to turn over incriminating emails.
And yet, we keep coming back. The game is a habit we can’t seem to kick.