If I Ruled the NFL….

Don Wright/Associated Press

Two weeks ago, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell officially signed a five-year, $200 million (!) extension which will make him the league’s commissioner until, at the earliest, 2023. Despite Goodell’s profitable extension, the league has plenty of issues on its hands, between declining ratingshorrific injuries, and controversial refereeing decisions.

But let’s go to an imaginary world where Roger Goodell doesn’t exist and everything else is the same, except yours truly is the league’s new commissioner. My confidence in myself is very low on this one, but here are a few things I’d do to fix some of the NFL’s biggest problems.

Ban Thursday Night Football

Believe it or not, there are actually fewer injuries on Thursday night than there are on Sunday or Monday, but the moral of this story is that there are too many injuries in general. However, if injuries are not a good enough excuse for getting rid of Thursday Night Football, then its quality of play certainly is.

Of the 26 teams that have played on TNF this season (this excludes Thanksgiving and the first game of the season), exactly nine of them would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Last year, the league went an astounding 9-for-28 in scheduling playoff teams for Thursday night. If you’re keeping track at home, just one-third of all teams that have played on Thursday Night Football in the past two seasons have made the playoffs. If you want a little more context on that, here you go: while the league picked just 33% of its best teams to play on Thursday nights, Houston Astros star Jose Altuve got a base hit in 34.1% of his at-bats in the last two seasons. Getting hits on the best pitchers in the world shouldn’t be easier than picking good teams to play in prime-time. But keep this in mind: the league often uses Thursday Night Football as a way to get every team on prime-time television at least once; Goodell even copped to that in 2012, when the TNF schedule expanded to what it is now.

All this, of course, is to say nothing of the fact that teams cannot possibly create an adequate game plan in three days and the league’s over-saturation on television, which Thursday Night Football has heavily contributed to, is a big reason why its ratings have begun to hit the skids over the past couple of seasons.

So while there may not be more injuries on Thursday Night Football, the weekly fixture’s terrible quality of play and lackluster matchups would, in an ideal world, be enough to scrap the idea completely.

Decide What a Catch Is or Is Not

What is your definition of a catch? Unfortunately, it depends on who you ask.

For example: is this a catch? What about this? Or this? Don’t feel any pressure to answer these questions correctly, because no matter how you answer them, you will have the same understanding of an NFL referee as to what a catch actually is.

Just to show how confusing the catch rule is to some people, I put out a Twitter poll earlier today asking my followers if they thought Steelers tight end Jesse James made a legal, NFL catch at the end of yesterday’s bonkers, off-the-wall Patriots-Steelers game (a contest that drew a 17.0 rating, the highest of the NFL season to date). I was expecting at least something approaching a clear consensus, and while we’re still waiting on Alaska and Hawaii, that’s not exactly what I got:

If you show 30 people something and you ask them if what they just saw was a catch or not, it shouldn’t finish in an 18-12 vote. While I didn’t think James completed the process of the catch, the league should be as clear and concise as possible in the future with this rule. The other thing the league should do is throw out whatever precedent it has set in recent years, because this one is as bad as it gets.

Seriously Examine Other Alternatives to Painkillers

We’ve all heard stories about NFL players becoming addicted to painkillers, and according to court documents revealed in March, the league violated federal law in distributing these medications to its players. The solution to this problem is simple: stop distributing these addictive drugs and find a viable solution for them.

This includes doing serious research into alternative, non-opiate remedies that can help players heal quickly. One of them, kava, was recently the subject of an article on ESPN.com, while another, medical marijuana, has been recommended by multiple retired players as a better alternative to pain pills. The NFL should probably listen to these people because they very well may be on to something.

Get Rid of Grass Fields

If you play in one of these 19 NFL stadiums, your risk of injury on any particular day may depend on the weather and be significantly higher than it would be otherwise (NOTE: the team that plays its home games in each stadium is in parentheses):

  1. Arrowhead Stadium (Chiefs)
  2. Bank of America Stadium (Panthers)
  3. EverBank Field (Jaguars)
  4. FedEx Field (Redskins)
  5. FirstEnergy Stadium (Browns)
  6. Hard Rock Stadium (Dolphins)
  7. Heinz Field (Steelers)
  8. Lambeau Field (Packers)
  9. Levi’s Stadium (49ers)
  10. Lincoln Financial Field (Eagles)
  11. Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum (Rams)
  12. M&T Bank Stadium (Ravens)
  13. Nissan Stadium (Titans)
  14. Oakland-Alameda County Stadium (Raiders)
  15. Raymond James Stadium (Buccaneers)
  16. Soldier Field (Bears)
  17. Sports Authority Field at Mile High (Broncos)
  18. StubHub Center (Chargers)
  19. University of Phoenix Stadium (Cardinals)

And about that thing I mentioned regarding the temperature of the field:

A 2016 study published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine found that the incidence rate of concussions and ankle injuries on grass surfaces was nearly two times as likely in games with an outdoor temperature of 50°F or cooler than if the game was played on a natural grass surface at 70°F or warmer. Translated: if you’re playing in one of those 19 stadiums and the temperature is below 50°, you’re in serious trouble.

That same study found that at any given time, an NFL player is 1.36 times more likely to suffer a shoulder injury on natural grass than he would have been on artificial turf. Of course, many athletes object to playing on a synthetic turf because of fears about the long-term health of their knees (take, for example, FIFA’s much-maligned decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf). That being said, football does not require as much running as soccer and another one of the main concerns with the latter (turf burns) does not often apply to football.

Starting in December, your choice as an NFL player is simple: play on a surface where you may have slightly more risk of a knee injury or play on a grass surface, upon which you definitely have more risk for a shoulder, ankle, or head injury. I would go with the former.

Guarantee Players’ Contracts and Don’t Pay the Commissioner $40 Million 

This one is self-explanatory.

Matthew Stafford is the NFL’s highest-paid player, and he makes $27 million per year. However, even though he signed a contract for five years and $135 million, only 68% of the contract ($92 million) is guaranteed. Therefore, Stafford will be making, with the league’s richest contract, around $18.4 million of guaranteed money per year. Is your humble new commissioner more than twice as valuable as the league’s best quarterback? Somehow, I doubt that. It’s time for the NFL to adopt guaranteed, no-cut contracts. It’s not like the league is about to reach $14 billion in yearly revenue, or anything.

Of course, I could likely never be an NFL commissioner and I obviously respect the work that all sports commissioners do on a regular basis. But the NFL has serious problems that need serious solutions. And if Roger Goodell is looking for a successor after this deal is up, I have ready-made fixes for issues he likely won’t tackle anytime soon.

Shocker: The NFL Once Again Abuses Its Powers with the Al-Jazeera Four

Photo Credit: Scripps Media

I’m sure this will come as an absolutely shocking development, but Roger Goodell is abusing his powers again. I know; surprise, surprise.

Last December, Al-Jazeera news released the results of a months-long investigation into doping in sports (the American wing of the organization folded three months later). The reason why you heard about it was because then-Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning (and others; more on them later) was implicated in the exposé as being affiliated with Dale Guyer, the head of Indianapolis’ Guyer Institute. It is known that Manning visited Guyer’s anti-aging clinic multiple times in 2011, which also coincided with the season he missed because of four neck surgeries. Why he went to the Guyer Institute is not known; what is known is that Manning never failed a drug test and there is no credible evidence that he was doping. Frankly, it’s none of our business why Manning went to the institute. Guyer did send drugs to the Manning household under the name of Ashley Manning, Peyton’s wife. And it’s none of our business if she was the one taking drugs, either, which is very plausible.

Of course, Manning retired into the sunset after last season’s Super Bowl victory over the Carolina Panthers. Where this story (which is nearly 8 months old) pertains to today’s events is that four current players were implicated in the report. They are Julius Peppers and Clay Matthews, both of the Packers, James Harrison of the Steelers, and Mike Neal, who is currently a free agent. An unpaid intern at the Guyer Institute, Charlie Sly, attested to giving Delta 2 (or D-2 for short), a banned substance, to every player but Matthews in various instances. Sly said that Matthews was not on D-2 but requested Toradol from Sly in a text message shown in the documentary. (Toradol is so dangerous that it is banned in several countries; it is legal to obtain it in the United States.) Another doctor, Chad Robertson, also claimed to give Matthews Percocet before the 2015 NFC Championship Game. Sly says that Matthews used to take HGH and was on Ipamorelin at the time of the documentary. Robertson also claimed to have given Neal, then a linebacker for the Packers, medication that helped increase his salary from $400,000 to $2 million in the span of a season.

If you’re reading all that and your head is about to explode, I don’t blame you. The documentary features many damning claims about quite a few of the league’s best players; it also implicates Ryan Howard, Ryan Zimmerman, and Taylor Teagarden, all of whom played (or are still playing) professional baseball at the highest level. There is a lot of juicy information packed into 49 minutes and 13 seconds of video. There’s just one problem that I found with the investigation:

There is absolutely zero hard, credible, concrete evidence that the players implicated actually used performance-enhancing drugs.

Teagarden is the one exception to this rule. In the report, aptly titled The Dark Side, Teagarden is seen talking to a British runner named Liam Collins; Collins was visiting with Sly to pick up medication he will never take to help his chances at making the Olympics. Collins was hired by Al-Jazeera to carry out his fake story and is most famous off the track for swindling would-be customers out of nearly a million dollars in a property scheme. Anyway, Teagarden speaks about his years of testosterone use and how he evaded multiple drug MLB drug tests. My gut feeling is that he wouldn’t be talking so openly about this if it was all a lie. Then again, four United States Olympic swimmers are in the news for straight-up lying about being robbed at gunpoint, so I don’t know who to believe anymore.

And that’s where the NFL and Goodell come in.

Last week, the league threatened to suspend the current players involved in the Al-Jazeera report. To be clear, the threat of suspension would only come true if the players didn’t cooperate with the league’s investigation. Ironically, this same NFL investigation exonerated Manning of any wrongdoing three weeks ago. However, the league used the suspension threat as a way of getting the players to cooperate with the investigation. Apparently, it worked; it was announced today that Harrison, Matthews, and Peppers have agreed to meet with investigators associated with the NFL.

But that’s not the problem here. This is the real issue: the NFL clearly overstepped its bounds in threatening suspension for players who refused to speak with the league. To be completely honest, abuse of power has been Roger Goodell’s legacy in his ten-year (!) tenure as NFL commissioner. We saw this abuse in Deflategate, Bountygate, the Ray Rice saga, and almost any other incident involving NFL players and coaches. He is slowly turning the league into his own totalitarian regime and has made himself judge, jury, and executioner in disciplinary matters.

The NFL overstepped its bounds because it needs credible evidence or a failed drug test as a basis to interview the players. It has neither of those things. And while the league has told the Players’ Union that it has evidence “beyond what’s been reported publicly”, it hasn’t been willing to come forward with that new information. So it may be an honest, independent investigation. Or it could be a nontransparent witch-hunt. I’d say the lack of an in-between option might be an issue here.

And yet, the players are partially to blame for this. I feel like a broken record in saying this, but the players did negotiate away key rights in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement. Among those rights was Roger Goodell’s policy power; the players had the opportunity to hold out and have Goodell’s all-encompassing disciplinary faculties either severely reduced or eradicated completely. They didn’t do that, and that’s a very large part of the reason we’re sitting here talking about this today. And while the players have the right to complain about Goodell’s power, those who were around in 2011 contributed to the growth of Goodell’s empire.

And I’ll also say this: I’m somewhat surprised the players decided to agree to the interview. While they believe answering questions will improve their chances of avoiding suspension (and rightfully so), I honestly thought they would take a stand against the league. Albert Breer of The MMQB made the case for the players doing this today:

Don’t show up. Don’t go to New York. Block Adolpho Birch’s number if you have to. Sit on your hands, dare the NFL to suspend you, and see what comes next.

After union losses in the cases of Tom Brady and Adrian Peterson, if these four players answer Goodell, there’s no way to conclude that the commissioner powers are going to change before 2021. It also wouldn’t bode well for what’s to come in the next round of labor talks, given that it would score another union-busting win for the NFL’s barons and another blow against player solidarity.

Adolpho Birch is one of the league employees who helps Goodell oversee the league’s disciplinary policies and drug enforcement. He was also the poor gentleman rolled out by the league to defend the commissioner in the wake of the Ray Rice incident; it didn’t go too well.

The NFL players are not without blame in this situation; just today, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs said that there was no relationship between the Players’ Union and Goodell. But while the players aren’t without reproach here, it’s clear that Goodell overreached in his powers by forcing the players into an interview.

But is that even a surprise anymore? It shouldn’t be.

It’s Time for Ray Rice’s Second Chance

Photo Credit: Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

Over two years ago, the NFL suspended then-Ravens running back Ray Rice for a domestic violence incident that took place in Atlantic City, NJ.  At the time, many thought the suspension was egregiously lenient, a product of the league’s flawed and archaic attitude toward domestic violence.  In the wake of the Rice incident, the league tightened up its domestic violence policy, mandating a six-game suspension for a first-time offense and a lifetime ban for a second offense.  The league seemed to be making legitimate progress toward mitigating a problem that had blighted its reputation for years.

That was, until TMZ released the video.

You don’t need me to tell you what “the video” refers to.  It became one of the most infamous tapes to reach the public in recent memory.  In it, Rice is seen punching his then-fiance Janay and subsequently dragging her out of an elevator at a local casino.  The video is so disturbing that I’m not even going to hyperlink to it; you can see it for yourself if you really want or need to.  It is, without exaggeration, one of the most repugnant acts you will ever see caught on camera.  Rice was immediately released by the Ravens, and no team has latched on to him since the incident.  Rice may never again sign with an NFL team based on the events of that February 2014 night.

And yet, even after all of this, I still think Rice has earned himself a second chance in the league.  Why hasn’t he gotten it yet?

The short answer is rather simple.  Commissioner Roger Goodell basically made an example out of Rice in changing the league’s domestic violence policy in the wake of the incident.  Because of Goodell’s actions (such as suspending Rice indefinitely after the release of the tape), Rice essentially became radioactive to teams, even those in need of a running back.  By way of seeing the video and placing the violence in visual terms, many front offices deemed the risks of Rice’s employment greater than the benefits.  Your opinion of many things will change when you actually see them for yourself, and the Rice controversy was no different.  As a populace, we were already against Goodell’s initially lenient suspension. After seeing the video, we were collectively appalled at the original punishment.

But we have to go back to the NFL to know why Rice is still unemployed.  If Goodell had not arbitrarily levied the indefinite suspension, a team may have aimed to acquire the Rutgers product after the Ravens released him.  However, Goodell did what he has always done best: make things up as he goes along under the guise of “protecting the shield”.  It’s understandable that the league was in full-blown crisis mode in the wake of the video, and one can comprehend why it would act this way.  But the NFL had no right to punish Rice indefinitely, especially after it handed down an initial suspension.  In November of that year, a judge overturned the league’s ruling for that exact reason.  But the judge could not overturn the damage Goodell and the league did to Rice’s future.

Let me say this: I don’t necessarily feel sorry for Ray Rice.  What he did was deplorable and set a horrible example for those who looked up to him as a role model.   Even though the league’s reaction to the video was absurd, he really deserved whatever punishment he received.

That being said, it has been surprising that no team has taken a chance on Rice in almost two years. This has to do with both his radioactive reputation and his ability, or lack thereof, to still play the game at a high level.

For example, Rice rushed for over 1,000 yards for four seasons from 2009-2012, the last of which ending in a Super Bowl victory over the 49ers (blackout game, anyone?).  More importantly, he played in every game during that period and has never played fewer than 13 games in a season over the course of his six-year career.  His injury-riddled 2013 season was easily the worst of his career, as he only averaged 3.1 yards per carry and suffered major declines in almost every major statistical category.  The domestic incident occurred that next March.  The infamous video surfaced in September. And now we’re here.

Needless to say, Rice has paid the price for his actions.  It’s a price that he absolutely deserved to pay and brought upon himself.  He has no one to blame but himself, and he earned his exile from the league. But can’t we reach a point as a country and society where we can give someone a second chance?  Why haven’t we reached that point with Ray Rice?

Consider this: for as bad as Rice’s actions were, he was (and still is) a first-time offender.  It’s none of our business what happened between he and his fiance that night, but to our knowledge, he has not engaged in any other violent actions involving women since then.  Also, Rice has seemingly been a perfect citizen since that night, engaging in counseling and seemingly bettering himself in the process.

What’s worse, though, is that other perpetrators of domestic violence have received second chances before Rice.  For example, defensive end Greg Hardy was signed by the Dallas Cowboys last season.  Hardy was suspended by the league for threatening to kill his ex-girlfriend just two months after Rice’s incident; he repeatedly showed no remorse for his transgressions.  Rice has done the opposite, apologizing for his actions on multiple occasions and taking the steps necessary to improve himself in the process.  If Hardy, a seemingly terrible human being, can get a chance before Rice, what does that say about the current state of affairs in the NFL?

Rice has more than served his punishment for his actions.  He seems to have learned from them, though: he says he’ll donate his salary to domestic violence charities if he plays in 2016.  There’s this to consider, too: he’s only 29 years old.  With two full years off, he may be able to avoid hitting the wall most running backs crash into once they reach age 30.  We saw what happened last season after Adrian Peterson was forced to miss a season after his own transgressions: he came back to the league better than ever before and won a rushing title last season.  Rice may not be able to do that, but he should have something to give for a team that can properly utilize him in its backfield.

Ray Rice has earned his second chance.  Whether or not he gets it, unfortunately, is a very different story.

We’ve Made It: A Summation of Deflategate

Tom Brady during Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Photo Credit: Elsa Hosk/Getty Images

Tom Brady and the “Deflategate” saga have received plenty of attention over the past year and a half.  I even wrote about it last September; like many others, I was completely and unequivocally done with the Deflategate story at that point.  If you told me that we’d have to go through another ten months of it after the United States District Court reversal of his four-game suspension last year, I would have politely informed you that you were insane.

Yet here we are, and there really isn’t an end in sight.  Today, the 2nd Circuit United States Court of Appeals denied Brady’s request for a rehearing of the case.  In case you’re new to this story (God love you if you are), the 2nd Circuit Court overturned the District Court’s, and Judge Richard Berman’s, decision to overturn Brady’s original suspension.  Brady and his legal team appealed for a rehearing of the case and now we’re here.

But with all of that decided and well out of the way, Brady still has one legal move left.  If you guessed that his last move would be to appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States of America, you would be correct.  Yes, our long national nightmare of under-inflated footballs, circumstantial evidence, and weight loss is about to reach the highest court in the land.  Move over Marbury v. Madison, Plessy v. Ferguson, Roe v. Wade, and McCullogh v. Maryland.  We may now have the most famous (or infamous) Supreme Court Case ever: Tom Brady v. the NFL, or something like that.

Many, including myself, will probably die from laughter if this case reaches the Supreme Court.  But this is the question we must all ask ourselves: why are we still dealing with this?  And why did the NFL decide it was a good idea to go after Brady the way it did, especially when the league has other, far bigger, problems to address?

As for the first question, we are still dealing with this story because of the collective greed of Brady and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. Both parties have wanted to maintain their integrity throughout this laughable process, even as courts have ruled one way or another and the affairs of the matter have become increasingly complicated.  It’s no secret that Goodell, in particular, has taken measures to increase and fortify his power over the course of his tenure as NFL commissioner; the most infamous of these measures was a change to the league’s Personal Conduct Policy that gave the commish more wide-ranging authority to levy discipline on players, coaches, and teams.

However, it’s also true that the Players’ Association had the opportunity to check Goodell’s power during the negotiations of the Collective Bargaining Agreement in 2011 (hint: they didn’t exactly do that).  They were more interested in returning to the field before the start of the season, which was more than understandable at the time, but they also made a very large concession to get the agreement done.

That can’t be forgotten here: the same players complaining about Goddell’s despotic power are the ones who signed off on the CBA that enabled it five years ago.  While we can all agree that Goodell has far too much power and has abused it on more than one occasion, the players who were involved in that negotiation have no right to gripe after the fact.  They had the chance to make Goodell relinquish at least some of his authority, and they completely blew it.  That’s on them, not the league.

And now we move on to the matter of Brady and the New England Patriots.  The exact reason why Brady was originally suspended was because of the use of under-inflated footballs in the 2015 AFC Championship game.  The balls were found to be under the 11 to 12 PSI that the league requires of its regulation footballs.  Almost immediately after the game, the league launched an “independent investigation” into the events of that game and how the game balls ended up how they were.  I air-quote the words independent investigation because while the NFL claims it really was independent, it also paid Wells lots and lots of money to conduct the investigation. To me, that’s not really independent at all.

But, much more importantly, why is the NFL so concerned with Brady when it has far bigger issues?  For example, recently-retired wide receiver Calvin Johnson admitted that doctors would distribute painkillers in the locker room “like candy”.  It’s generally a bad idea to treat Vicodin and Percocet the same way you would Sour Patch Kids, but that’s just a rule of thumb.  Anyway, the league is also engrossed in other issues such as quality of play, what to do with the Pro Bowl, and, of course, player safety.

And then there’s this obvious issue: did Tom Brady and the Patriots definitively and knowingly do anything wrong?  While it is plausible that Brady knew of the deflation of the footballs, we can’t conclude that for sure.  Even the Wells Report admitted that it was “more probable than not” that two equipment officials tampered with the game balls in a deliberate manner.  The report also stated that Brady was more likely than not “generally aware” of the process of the deflation.

This, though, is far from a definitive statement and it leaves room for much speculation on what actually happened on January 18, 2015. For example, how can we know for sure if Brady knew about the tampering of the game equipment?  And how can we be 100% sure that no external, natural forces such as weather meddled with the footballs?

There are many questions that are still, even 18 months later, left unanswered.  I’ll give you my opinion: I think Brady is innocent of guilt.  I don’t necessarily feel sorry for him but I believe he is innocent based on reasonable doubt.  We can’t prove for sure that he fully knew of what was going on.  In my book, if he was not fully aware and there is no concrete link between him and the equipment officials, the NFL has no right to suspend him.

He really was witch-hunted in this case; the NFL decided to make an example out of him when it had much bigger issues to deal with. However, it probably won’t go away anytime soon, nor will our fascination with it.  We can’t seem to stop talking about it and it looks like we’ll pay close attention to the case until the very bitter end.  Our country seems to love obsessing with certain things; after all, the New York Times just released this article about how we can use Pokemon Go, the latest app craze, as a personal tour guide.  All you need to know about Pokemon Go is that it is an addiction, one we’re hooked to and won’t be getting off of anytime soon.

We’re hooked to Pokemon Go in the same way we’re hooked to Deflategate.  Let’s hope that it doesn’t take 18 months for Pokemon Go to, well, go.  Away.

And let’s hope Deflategate goes away, too.  My bet is that it won’t anytime soon.