Dear Roger

Dear Roger:

After more than 30 great years filled with incredible memories, I never imagined I’d be writing to tell you that it’s over. I’m breaking up with you. You and the NFL. It’s really hard to say, and harder to do, because of how much I love the game.

A walk down memory lane
My passion for the NFL blossomed in the middle 80s, where all-time great NFC rivals tested their wills in epic playoff battles. I can still remember Bill Parcells and the Giants in 1985 avenging their prior year playoff loss to the Bill Walsh-led and Joe Montana-quarterbacked 49ers, only to be crushed by the eventual Super Bowl XX Champion Chicago Bears 21 – 0 in the frozen confines of Soldier Field. It was so windy that day punter Sean Landeta whiffed on a punt deep in Giants territory, something the G-men could ill-afford. The Phil Simms and LT-led Giants never had a chance, with Bill Parcells later noting that there was a 1 in 10 chance of his team beating that Monsters of the Midway team.

Several of the names from the 1985 Bears are still with me, like Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, Dave Duerson and Gary Fencik on D, and sweetness himself, Walter Payton at running back. Add free spirit Jim McMahon at QB, defensive-end William “The Fridge” Perry inserted at full back down by the goal line, and coach Mike Ditka calling the shots, and you’ve got a timeless concoction of domination and personality.

The following year, the Giants crushed the 49ers in the playoffs 49 – 3. They were helped by Jim Burt knocking Joe Montana out of the game with a hit to the chest that was so hard everyone watching lost their breath. The G-men took out the Washington Redskins and Denver Broncos on their way to winning SuperBowl XXI. I was officially hooked.

Running the wrong route
But, in recent years my respect for you seems to be dropping by half with each issue you’ve managed to bungle. A lot has been said about your miss on Ray Rice. What is less talked about is that you questioned Ray’s then-fiancée, the one he knocked out in an elevator, with Ray in the room. Even if she begged you to go easy on him, it was your responsibility to put her in a setting where she could be candid.

Then, there’s Thursday Night Football. That it is hated by the players for short-circuiting their recovery and for impeding game planning were reason enough to pass on the idea before it even began. The league added it in 2006, the same year you became Commissioner. It’s also the same year you added Sunday Night Football. In 2012, you doubled down by expanding the number of Thursday night games. Sure, you grew the league’s revenue. But in so doing, you broke the cardinal rule of marketing. You didn’t leave the fans wanting more. Now, with the ratings tanking, your chickens are coming home to roost. Let’s call that taking a sack which puts you out of field goal range mid-way through the 4th quarter in a game you’re trailing 20-17.

It’s safe to say that passing is a critical part of the game. And yet, we still don’t know what a catch is. With apologies to Dallas (and more recently, Pittsburgh) fans, this hole in the NFL’s zone defense was laid bare by the reversal of Jets’ tight end Austin Sefarian Jenkins’ TD catch against the Patriots in Week 6. The man regained control of the ball before he went across the goal line and hit the pylon. It doesn’t matter how many NFL officials in how many booths in how many cities with how many years of experience say otherwise. The man had possession. To overrule the TD called on the field, as per your rules, requires irrefutable evidence that the wrong call was made. Forget irrefutable. There’s no evidence of any kind to take away the touchdown.

Other existential questions I sometimes ponder in times of quiet solitude are, What is pass interference?, and Why is the plane of the end zone only important when running — but not catching — the ball across it?

We salute you!
It would be unfair not to celebrate your successes. Else, I’d never have been so enamored with you. I greatly admired the NFL for its unabashed patriotism and support of our armed forces. The recognition of service members gave fans the opportunity to show their appreciation for the people whose profound sacrifices we so rarely think about. Who is more deserving of honor than our armed forces members? The parallels between the NFL and the armed forces are obvious: teamwork, execution, commitment and sacrifice. A perfect fit. Then, I learned that the NFL was actually being paid to be patriotic, and wanted to puke.

An inconvenient truth
I was disturbed by the death of Mike Webster at age 50, but had hoped it was an anomaly. The next decade saw the suicides of Andre Waters and Dave Duerson. All the while, I looked unsuccessfully to the NFL for clarity. Then came PBS Frontline’s League of Denial. How did I miss the sad deaths of Pittsburgh O-linemen Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long? Sadness turned to anger though when I reflected on the sheer magnitude of obfuscation you and the league employed to sidestep the link between football and CTE. Anything to protect the shield, right?

You made this break up much easier than it should have been
If there was any chance I’d be able to move past my misgivings about you and the NFL, it was extinguished by your mind-blowingly feckless handling of the NFL player protests. Inexplicably, you allowed a very simple issue to metastasize into a disaster so big it knocked CTE into the shadows.

What’s so simple? This truth: Americans don’t have a right to free speech in the workplace. That’s pretty simple, right? Still, maybe you missed it. So, here it is again: Americans don’t have a right to free speech in the workplace. Look it up yourself if you don’t believe me. The players are paid to play football. The stadium is their workplace. Maybe you haven’t make the connection, but the uniform they’re wearing is that of their employer.

Sorry, Philadelphia Eagle Chris Long, but your tweet which included the statement, “I support Colin’s right to protest, and what he’s protesting.” Sorry, Fox commentator Tucker Carlson, whose lead-up to an interview of two former NFL players included, “Nobody contests the 1st Amendment right of these players to do what they’ve done.” No amount of players, pundits or press repeating it will make it true. No one, not you, not me, not even the golden boy, er, man (now that he’s 40)  Tom Brady has a right to free speech in the workplace.

Maybe you need to hear it from a real somebody, Vietnam veteran and 4-time Super Bowl champion Rocky Bleier, who stated:

“It’s very simply this: This is a workplace, you are at the stadium, you are working that day, this is not a platform for protest. The American people, they can’t go to their workplace and start to protest about whatever may be happening in their life. That wouldn’t be allowed and that shouldn’t be allowed in the NFL.

“It’s not a violation of the First Amendment at all. You have off days, you can do it outside of the stadium or on other platforms, but not the gameday platform. It’s a very simple question and people are making it more complex than it really is.”

He continued:

“There was a lack of leadership there on the owners’ side as well as the Players Association long before to nip whatever was coming down the road after the Colin Kaepernick situation a year ago, in the bud. It should never have gotten to this point, nobody has stepped up to say ‘No, this is not what we do on gameday.’”

Roger, you are obviously having trouble discerning which end is up, so I’ll point out that the passage “lack of leadership there on the owners’ side” refers to you.

You’re in over your head
By now you must have wondered many times over the course of the last two seasons how you let it get away. Your mistake was to be swayed by Mr. Kaepernick’s righteousness. It’s understandable. He was making a statement against what he believes to be injustice. Who could be against that? You were so mesmerized by his belief in his cause that you simply forgot you were the Commissioner of the NFL.

As Commissioner, you should have noticed that the courage of putting his career at risk was surpassed by Mr. Kaepernick’s sense of entitlement to use the NFL — a platform painstakingly developed over nearly 100 years by countless players, coaches, executives, commissioners and owners — to make a personal statement.

How ironic is it that you, the same guy who bullied Dr. Omalu for the better part of a decade, couldn’t find a vertebrate, let alone a full spine, to stand up to Mr. Kaepernick? So much for protecting the shield.

Roger, all of this was so avoidable. Mr. Kaepernick and the protesting players could have leveraged their significant wealth and enormous social media platforms to spread their message and effect the reforms to resolve the issues about which they are protesting. When? During the six days of the week that are not game day. Heck, as a grossly overpaid CEO used to raking in $30 to $40 million per year, you could have volunteered to personally contribute a few million.

Much has been written about Mr. Kaepernick’s decision to protest during the playing of the national anthem. There’s not much I can add, save for a picture that best conveys what the flag means to millions. If you don’t get it, then I can’t help you.

Not a very good year
While I’ve not watched much NFL football this season, I wanted to keep an open mind and see how this year played out. We’ve had a melee between the Broncos and Raiders. There was the over-the-top NFL salute to the troops over Veteran’s Day weekend, with the league cramming as many service members per screen inch as technology allows. We had players standing for the British anthem but kneeling for our anthem. All the while, your major broadcast partner ESPN has continued imploding, but no so much that its anchors would reconsider their propensity for taking political potshots. In early November, you remarked during an interview that fans come to games “to have fun, to be entertained, not to be protested to.” And?

You are so casual about the protests when you do not have that luxury. Do you even realize that the NFL may already be dead, felled by the growing awareness of CTE, as evidenced by a drop in youth football participation?

In late November, you tried to placate the protesters by pledging $89 million toward social justice issues. But, only one player, Malcolm Jenkins, announced that he would stop protesting. Why didn’t your pledge get more traction? It has to do with which parties are playing which roles. Figure it out for yourself.

Then, in December the owners circled the wagons, giving you an extension through 2024 on a contract that doesn’t even expire until 2019. To the list of incompetents, I can now add the owners. It is all of you who can’t grasp another Marketing 101 concept. The NFL is a business. Football is a form of entertainment. Your job is to make sure the fans are entertained, not lectured to, protested at, or demeaned. To the extent the fans are no longer entertained, they will look elsewhere. At least as the ship continues faltering, you can all hold hands.

Back to life, back to reality
Driving home a while back, I listened as sports talk radio legend Mike Francesca discussed how the league has a different “feel” this year. How daring. It took a bigger radio legend to put his finger on it: The NFL has lost its mystique. The magic is gone. The spell has been broken. With time expiring, you have officially fumbled the ball out of the back of the end zone while going in for the Super Bowl-winning score.

To be sure, there will be some backsliding. There’s every reason to believe I will sneak a peek at the conference championships and conveniently attend a Super Bowl party to catch up with people I haven’t seen in a while. Such are the throes of a dying love affair.

I fully expect that the players will announce that their protests will end this year. They have to know that they are killing – no, bludgeoning – the golden goose. But, it’s too late. The damage is done. I’m done.

And to think, all I wanted to do was watch a little football.


Tom Barrella

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