The National Football League has a big image problem. Yes, again.
To the eyes of the outside world, it seems like the league is completely out of control.
At the same time, the NFL never seen fatter times. It is flush with money, stemming from fabulously lucrative television deals and largely sold-out stadiums from New England to Seattle. The NFL is at the center of the public’s obsession with Fantasy Leagues. The league benefits mightily from fans’ fixation with gambling on sports events.
Now, the NFL has to do damage control on its worst nightmare — a bullying scandal that has exploded on to the front pages and threatens to expose the league as being the province of lawlessness. Everyday, it seems, there is some news about a football player doing something reckless on or off the field that looks embarrassing.
The Miami Dolphins and the rest of the NFL have been rocked by the latest problem for the league’s image” bullying. Dolphins lineman Richie Incognito was suspended by the team after it came to light that he had been hazing fellow lineman Jonathan Martin to the point where Martin abruptly left the team, in emotional distress.
Martin weighs 304 pounds,so the story seems quite amazing on its face. How can such a big, strong man get bullied like a little kid on a school yard? The point here obviously is that if this man of granite can get bullied, anyone can. This is why the story has resonated so completely.
The MIami Dolphins clearly have no idea how to control the damage of this scandalous situation. The team’s press briefing on Wednesday afternoon was a fiasco in itself. The coach looked evasive. The quarterback looked ridiculous as he mindlessly spouted uplifting statements. Both of them seemed to have been well coached by a public-relations counselor. But nobody adequately explained how such a climate of fear could have pervaded a pro football team.
Can the NFL clean up its mess? The story has been explosive. It has been at the forefront of the TV network news shows. No matter how reporters slice and dice this news, the NFL winds up looking very bad.
On the field, the players use their bodies and helmets like missiles. The other night, much of the showdown between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears was waged with back-up quarterbacks because the starters had been sidelined by injuries. It made for a rather boring, poorly played game, no matter how close the score was throughout.
Off the field, they are often caught up in episodes of drug abuse, drunk driving and domestic violence.
Yes, football’s frequency of head injuries and concussions and brain damage is tragic. But the league could respond by saying (correctly, for what it’s wort) the bottom line is that nobody puts a gun to a player’s head. He enters organized ball because he wants to. It is terrible when a young man suffers lifelong damage, especially to his brain. But this is what football is all about: on-the-field violence.
But off the playing field, players should feel safe and unthreatened, especially by his teammates. Jonathan Martin, a young offensive lineman, who weighs 304 pounds and went to Stanford, walked away from the Miami Dolphins and a mid-six-figures contract because he could no longer stomach the bullying of a teammate named Richie Incognito. It has come to light that Incognito taunted Martin with racially charged remarks and virtually did a shakedown, demanding that Martin pay thousands of dollars for purported team functions.
The bullying scandal is potentially more damaging for the NFL, even though it is likely that fewer players will be affected by it than the numerous cases of physically damaged players. That’s because hazing and bullying are now so pervasive in society and the issue has achieved front-burner news statusin stories about education, families and juvenile justice.
The NFL had better find a way to resolve this story, for its own good. It won’t simply go away. With each passing day, the Incognito-Martin story turns up a new wrinkle, more incredible than the previous one.
Now, the league has to deal with the bullying problem in the Dolphins locker room. It won’t go away. It won’t be easy to clean up them mess in a league that is already out of control.