Controversy lies around every corner in everyday life it seems. One cannot turn on the TV, look at an electronic device without running into the latest issue that has people curious or nervous. Now, take the country’s premier sports league, the NFL, with all of its vast riches, power and influence and society has controversy bouncing up like a fumbled football. The game of football is one steeped in tradition and its fans like to remember the game, as it was when they were growing up. “Old school!” But over the last decade the game has gone through major changes due in part to one controversy or another. Here are the five controversies that have or will lead to changes to the NFL, as we know it.
1. Michael Sam
Michael Sam has yet to play a down in the NFL and already he is changing the game. Recently, Sam came out as a gay man on ESPN. Sam is a likely draft pick. If he is chosen, he will be the first openly gay man in the NFL. This brings into question the NFL’s culture and if the league is ready for a gay man in the locker room. Reporters have asked and so far the results are split. Ready or not here comes Michael Sam. There have been some who have compared him to Jackie Robinson. No matter what, the NFL will have to take a good long look at itself and adjust accordingly.
2. The Wells Report (Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin)
Imagine seeing a co-worker humiliated day in and day out at work. Pretty disturbing, right? Well that is what was happening with Jonathan Martin of the Miami Dolphins. Teammate Richie Incognito harassed and bullied him until Martin walked away from the team and his lucrative contract. The league ordered an investigation that eventually gave us the “Wells Report.” The findings here have sent a shockwave through the league. Once again the NFL has to get its house in order. This is a game changer because the scrutiny of the NFL locker room is under the microscope. The environment of the locker room is not a nice place at times. But each team will have to monitor and in some instances change the very culture of the player’s sanctuary.
The very nature of football calls for players to put their health and sometimes their lives on the line to play a sport millions of fans worldwide are completely rabid for. So there are chances they take that come in the forms of concussions. Dozens of former players have come out saying that multiple concussions during their playing days have caused them to suffer from brain disease. The lawsuit that came about after the initial findings is in limbo. The judge on the case said that she had questions on how the $765 million dollars would be paid out and in fact that number may be too low. The impact of concussions has already affected the game. Numerous rule changes have been instituted to protect players and make them safer. Many opponents to the new rules say that this attempt at safety is stealing the very soul of the game. It is football after all. Big hits, bring big ratings. The outcome of the settlement drama and how the controversy is handled going forward can lead to change in the way the NFL operates.
4. Spy Gate
There’s an old saying, “if you are not cheating then you are not trying.” New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick took that saying and went all the way with it. The Patriots were caught video taping the New York Jets defensive formations and signals during the 1st week of the 2007 season. Belichick was fined $500,000- the largest ever imposed on a coach in league history. The Patriots organization was fined $250,000 and the team lost its 2008 first round draft pick. Commissioner Roger Goodell brought the hammer down swiftly on this because the integrity of the game had to be protected. Till this day treatment of possible cheating is looked at through a different lens than anytime before. Just ask Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers how he liked writing that check for $100,000 for his 2013 “mistake”.
5. Bounty Gate
Football is a violent sport. There is no way around that. But in 2011 that violence and the damage it can do to a player came to the forefront when half of the New Orleans Saints were indicted in a bounty scandal. Players were financially rewarded by then Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams. When the news hit, Roger Goodell suspended Williams indefinitely and suspended head coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season. The Saints went 7-9 and gave up a league high 7,042 yards that year. This controversy changed the NFL because it highlighted the violent and win at all cost culture of the NFL. The ramifications of Bounty Gate is still being felt as the NFL seeks to keep their players safe.
Football is an American institution. But it cannot remain static. It must change as time goes on. These five controversies have changed the NFL and some would even say it can lead to a better future for the game.
Editorial by Tony Bowers
The Bleacher Report