In a sporting world suddenly gone topsy-turvy, there are many, many, questions currently raging that are quantum leaps beyond the poor capacity of this space to offer answers. Nor will your host be dumb enough to hazard even a try.
Moreover, the last thing you need is another frothing sermon on the subject – dripping in piety and sanctimony – from another self-appointed arbiter of the conventional morality whose only qualification for the task is his good fortune in having commandeered a column or a microphone.
There’s a limit to such a license and I suspect it has lately been reached.
Columnists and commentators in my business who scale the heights of righteous outrage and indignation at times like this tend to make me squirm, however much they may be on the right side of an issue in denouncing what is manifestly wrong. Sometimes the temptation is too great to resist. But one ought at least give it the old college try, if only in deference to that imperishable wisdom urging us to be careful about being in a rush to cast stones, etc., and so forth.
So here we go again, and rarely has it gotten much uglier in the realm of Sport, which is supposed to be all about fun and games and the teaching of heroic values and the practicing of heroic virtues and a constant striving for perfection of rare and wonderful skills, as tens of thousands cheer and sometimes even millions. We of the sports pages can handle all that, often quite well.
But this time it’s not about performance and strategy, games won or lost, trials and triumphs, winners and losers; all of that banter is child’s play compared with what’s now on the table. This time it’s all about some of the more twisted urgings in the human spirit and we’re not equipped to deal well with that. It’s well beyond our depth.
It was an awful week in the kingdom of Sport, mostly, although not entirely, for the game of football. The lowlights included:
• In South Africa, a controversial decision is handed down in the murder trial of a fallen Olympics hero who only a couple of years ago was the most inspiring athlete in the world.
• In Atlanta, an NBA owner is obliged to sell his team after his racially insensitive comments, rendered in emails no less, were revealed. Subsequently the team’s general manager falls from grace, too.
• In Baltimore, on the eve of the playoffs, the pennant-winning Orioles get jarred by the suspension of their premier slugger for a performance-enhancing drug violation, the latest proof that nasty issue hovers still over baseball.
• In Washington, the Senate majority leader roundly denounces the owner of the capital’s pro football team for his intractable obstinacy on the issue of his team’s bloody nickname. Only in America!
• In Indianapolis, the humiliated owner of the Colts, Jim Irsay, accepts the league’s stiffest penalty: six week’s banishment and a half million dollar fine for getting nailed by police for driving intoxicated.
• In Dallas, the NFL’s most notable owner, or at least its most bombastic, gets ensnared in what the tabloid’s gleefully proclaim “a sex scandal.” Jerry Jones, outsized boss of the Cowboys, bitterly protests that the million-dollar civil suit mounted by a Dallas stripper is a “shake-down” and vows he’ll fight with all his might. Alas for Jones, there’s video – newly the anathema – making the rounds. For Jones, it’s at minimum a miserable mess with timing that could not be worse.
Which brings us, however reluctantly, to the dominant matter of the moment: the domestic abuse charges being levied principally against Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens but, as of the writing, rapidly expanding to entangle others, including those deemed complicit by way of the mishandling of the cases. There is no end in sight. The potential for the once so high and mighty, untouchable, and impervious National Football League is devastating.
It was argued in this space a week ago – just before the Ray Rice issue detonated with the explosive revelations of that elevator video – that as another NFL season begins, football at all levels is seriously stressed while courting increasing disenchantment with its long- devout fandom, mainly over issues stemming from its inherent violence, which has even notably alienated its best players. That has long seemed clear to me, but has not been a wildly and widely popular position.
In one week, that festering notion, held mainly by isolated cranks, has ripened into a full-fledged threat to the game in general and to the National Football League in particular. That’s just how big a bombshell the Rice case and the others now gathering steam represent. After this crisis has passed, and it will, the NFL will have to confront its problems. There will be no ducking them anymore.
Much about this business is peculiar.
How could the New Jersey police have waived so lightly on Rice, allowing him to walk unscathed when he was first accused of abusing his then-fiancé in that Atlantic City hotel? Isn’t their negligence even more reprehensible than whatever blunders the NFL committed?
According to ESPN’s highly regarded sports-issues program “Behind the Lines,” reported by much respected Bob Ley, the domestic abuses of Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy were significantly graver than Rice’s crimes. ESPN charges that Hardy struck his girlfriend multiple times, injuring her severely and threatening to kill her while brandishing weapons. Hauled into a North Carolina Court in July, Hardy was found guilty, fined, and given a suspended sentence. But he had not missed a day of football until the Panthers suddenly panicked over the weekend, benching him for Game 2 at the last minute. What’s that all about?
The most bizarre incongruity, however, is taking place in San Francisco. With much indignation the 49ers suspended their play-by-play man for vaguely wondering on the air why Rice’s fiancée would choose to become his wife after he beat her up in Atlantic City. It was posed by announcer Ted Robinson not as part of a diatribe, but merely as a query. Nonetheless, it outraged his bosses.
Meanwhile, down on the field, the Niners continue to play defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who is charged with precisely the same offenses that Rice and Hardy are facing. Nor will the team so much as comment on the matter. For whatever it’s worth, you may be reminded the Niners are coached by another Harbaugh, brother of the Harbaugh who coaches the Ravens.
And I ask again: What’s that about? But then for my part, I only have questions, no answers.
Could Roger Goodell be lying about that tape? No idea, but it’s hard to believe a chap so smart could do something so dumb. In the end, does Goodell serve as sacrificial lamb for his dear pals, the avaricious owners? No idea, but it’s hard to believe they would pull the plug on the commissioner whose works and policies have doubled their worth in just seven years.
Does Rice face ruin? If he proves too hot to redeem, can he be banned for life. No idea, but it’s hard to believe any court of appeals – and there’s one out there – would tolerate a punishment quite that harsh.
Critics are arguing that the violence on the field begets the violence off the field. Bart Scott, an ex-player and Ravens’ teammate of Rice, notes, “They teach us how to turn on the rage, but nobody teaches us how to turn it off.” Why not?
According to USA Today, there have been more than 40 comparable domestic-abuse cases involving NFL players in the Goodell era alone. In fairness, must they all be dredged up and dealt with to some proper degree. Or do Rice and perhaps a couple of the other contemporary offenders get scapegoated?
A great question to which no one at this moment could possibly have an answer. But the very fact that it needs to be asked and must be answered bodes rather poorly for the no longer so lordly National Football League.