ESPN’s Hannah Storm delivered an emotional and poignant monologue on SportsCenter the other day, raising the questions: why isn’t Ray Rice in jail, why didn’t he get fired and what does the NFL stand for? I wouldn’t presume to know the actual answers to these questions, but we can offer up a fairly strong series of guesses. American professional football players are royalty, and between the money, the hero-worshiping and the regionally proud fan-base, the dark underbelly of the sport, even post-Rice, will continue on without interruption because of it.
I’ll be completely up-front about my bias in all of this. In recent years, I’ve watched my sport, professional cycling, the sport I both enjoy as a fitness activity on the road and as a pass-time on television, get dragged into uncertainty, ridicule and scandal while one of its former heroes, Lance Armstrong, continues to this day to fight a losing battle that’s already cost him all of his victories, a lifetime ban from all professional sports and, ultimately, the bulk of his fortune. The public shaming was so thick that jokes about cancer became acceptable in Armstrong’s context (evidently testicular cancer is the hilarious cancer). Yes, I get it, people think he’s an asshole. He’s also a liar, insofar as he covered up his use of performance enhancing drugs, just like all of the top contenders in his sport for the duration he was active, by the way. Using PEDs is a violation of the rules of the sport and, in some cases, a crime. But unless I’m mistaken, lying to the press and being an asshole aren’t against the law and, in fact, are prerequisites for running a Fortune 500 business or being elected to Congress.
Armstrong should have absolutely been punished for using PEDs. No question. The degree of punishment, however, far outweighed the crime, at least relative to similar activities in other sports. But to even suggest that perhaps the effort to bring down Armstrong was even slightly unfair or even vaguely lopsided given what happens in other sports is, in the eyes of most, a trespass almost as bad as the doping itself. Lance is the devil. Case closed. Now… who’s playing Monday night?
What bothered me most about the Armstrong story wasn’t that he was caught, or the disappointment to learn that he was just like the other top cycling contenders 1999-2005 who were also using PEDs, it was how loudly he was condemned by the same American public who gathers in stadiums and living rooms and sports-bars from coast-to-coast for five months every year cheering for men who are pumped full of a menu of PEDs more powerful than anything Lance Armstrong or his teammates could’ve ever consumed in a lifetime. But America’s professional football players get a pass both professionally and publicly because it’s the mighty NFL. The sport itself is popular and beloved, and the players are Sunday supermen.
Until TMZ posted a video.
Initially, Rice was only suspended for two games and criminal charges were dropped. It took the actual video of his now-wife being punched out in an elevator, and news of an apparent cover-up after the fact by league management, for America to wake up from its chips-dip-and-Lite-Beer induced torpor and realize what’s happening in the NFL in terms of illegal activity, but, more importantly, in terms of the sport’s ludicrously weak policing of it. Though given how animal abuser Michael Vick was only suspended for two games and went on to be signed to an $8.2 million contract by the Philadelphia Eagles anyway is sufficient to suggest that both Peterson and Rice will be back on the field one of these days and comfortable members of the otherwise despised “one-percent.”
Take a look at how the NFL “punishes” its players.
Donte Stallworth killed someone while drinking and driving but continued to play in the NFL after missing the 2009 season. When he was hired by The Huffington Post recently, there seemed to be more outrage over his 9/11 Truther views than, you know, killing someone or his relatively minor 16-game suspension. Also, notice how there’s only one PED case in the above list. If you think it’s because only one player used PEDs, I have some robot insurance to sell you.
The upshot here is that America’s Sport is polluted with lies, cheating and crime — and more than its share of assholes. Yet it’s been, up to this point, immune from serious damage — damage that even Major League Baseball was unable to avoid, though it’s worth noting how the most juiced MLB players didn’t face Armstrong-level punishment. Even now, with the Rice scandal escalating all the way to Roger Goodell’s office, the activities that brought down Armstrong, not to mention the accusations against Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez seem quaint by comparison. But you’ll never again see Lance Armstrong competing in not just bike races or triathlons but any other professional sporting event of any kind because he’s been banned from all pro sports for life. When was the last time a football player was banned from all sports for life? Not even Pete Rose, whose punishment also far exceeded his infractions, was banned from all sports, just baseball. When a football player is banned from all sports for life due to PEDs or gambling — asshole, liar or whatever — hell will freeze over.
I’m not sure this is exclusively due to the leniency of Goodell. Perhaps a fraction of responsibility for the NFL’s light suspensions is due to football fans who enable it by refusing to acknowledge the seriousness of their sport’s dark side, seldom expressing the same degree of outrage as is normally hurled at athletes committing lesser crimes in other sports. The number of cheaters or criminals in any sport is relative to the degree of policing in each those sports, but football can barely muster a slap-on-the-wrist when a woman is cold-cocked by a player in a casino elevator much less widespread use of PEDs, and only when a video emerges months later do the commissioner and the fans begin to take a harder look. With the past as precedent, though, fans will continue to accept guilty players who retake the field after a few games off, whether suspended for PEDs or, in the cases of Rice and Peterson, far more harrowing deeds.
Hannah Storm wanted to know what the NFL stands for, and based on these episodes it clearly stands for a lack of justice — by management and fans alike. And there’s no real end in sight.
UPDATE: As I predicted, Peterson was reinstated today.
During the conversation, news broke that the Vikings will reinstate Adrian Peterson — who was arrested on child abuse charges over the weekend — for Sunday’s game against the Saints. Peterson’s arrest capped a tumultuous week for the NFL image-wise, maybe the worst in the league’s history.