The National Football League kicks off its 95th season on Thursday night when the Green Bay Packers enter the den of the defending Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks and the din created by Seattle's rabid fans (a.k.a. The 12th Man).
This is a wonderful opening matchup (the schedule makers are no dummies). To understate, this game should be fun. And while I would not overstate and suggest that the NFL is desperately seeking a saviour -- Johnny (Football) Manziel, may well come to mind -- it has undeniably been taking considerable flak from all angles of late. And, as such, is a league that could really use a super opener and a sensational season to take the spotlight off all off-field turmoil and put it back on the players, the teams, the games, the sport.
For a league that seemingly ran forever like a well-oiled machine, sans hiccups and without glitches, this off-season was, well, an off off-season. Actually, off the playing field, the league that all other sports leagues aspire to become, has had an off year or two. That is, a couple of years where the NFL has hit pretty much every pothole in the road, and appeared... almost vulnerable. Suddenly the mighty National Football League finds itself festooned with the slings and arrows of outrageous scandal.
Consider: the NFL has had to shell out hundreds of millions of dollars to settle lawsuits by former players who claim the league was not at all upfront and forthright regarding the game's inherent perils, particularly concussions. To boot, there are brain-traumatized ex-players and a flock of legal eagles out there who would tell you that those settlements are but the tip of a very large iceberg.
Last season, of course, a bullying scandal came to light in pro football wherein Richie Incognito, a truly offensive offensive lineman, was (in the words of The New York Times) "found to have engaged in serial harassment" and "a pattern of bullying" against Miami Dolphin teammate Jonathan Martin, who eventually left Miami under "psychological duress." The full story was odious and more than many fans could stomach -- and it was only aggravated and made all the more odious and stomach-turning when assorted old-schoolers stepped up to say that there was nothing wrong with Incognito's aggressive, racist, bullying behavior. In fact, it was commonplace, the norm for many NFL locker rooms.
Speaking of odious incidents -- speaking of tarnishing the golden goose -- in the off-season, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was involved in a domestic violence incident with Janay Palmer, his then-fiance (they've since married) in Atlantic City. Suffice to say, the incident was ugly, involved Rice dragging an unconscious Ms. Palmer from a hotel elevator, and... was documented by security cameras.
The outcry when Rice was handed a measly two-game suspension for violating the league's personal-conduct policy was both ubiquitous and cacophonous. To the point where last week NFL commissioner Roger Goodell actually apologized for his lenient decision in the Rice case and announced changes to the league's Personal Conduct Policy. From here on, any player violating the policy will receive a six-game suspension. Second-time offenders will be banished for at least one year.
What does all this add up to? A public-relations nightmare. Chinks in the NFL armour. And a need for a little on-field revitalization, if not actual redemption (redemption on these issues will require healing time, and further positive, pro-active measures by the league). Still, there's no denying how some serious feel-good action on the field could well translate into goodwill for a league: look no further than the 1998 home-run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa that helped elevate Major League Baseball out of the doldrums into which it sank following labor upheaval in 1994 (a strike that resulted in the cancellation of the World Series).
Finding itself in a little doldrum of its own, the National Football League kicks off its 95th season on Thursday night. Packers at Seahawks. A wonderful matchup. To understate, this game should be fun. But, then, the kick-off of any NFL season is always fun for fans jonesing for a fix of the slickly packaged pigskin product after a bordering-on-unbearable seven-month off-season. Particularly fun as it follows on the heels of controversies that have overshadowed everything.
Everything. With the possible exception of Johnny (Football) Manziel's off-field antics. Manziel: a kid having boatloads of fun with his new-found fame and fortune. Alas, Johnny Football's fun has innumerable super-serious scribes trying their best to turn his antics into but another big, brewing controversy.
Seriously? You've got a team in Washington nicknamed the Redskins and you're fulminating over a young quarterback acting like, ah, a young quarterback. Hey, just imagine for a second if Broadway Joe Namath was navigating New York's social scene in this, the age of social media. In comparison, Johnny Football might actually look choirboy tame.
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