Saturday’s antics in Cincinnati created a bad look for the NFL, there’s no doubt about that. But as blame is assigned and, more importantly, adjustments to behavior are made, there will be a debate over whether the fault lies with the NFL’s players or those who employ them.
Peter King of TheMMQB.com has penned an open letter to players that urges them to consider the impact of their behavior on the future of the game. But a different batch of letters is needed, because today’s players have no stake in the future of the game. The league, its teams, and its owners do.
They would go like this. Dear teams, don’t covet talent so zealously that you put guys like Vontaze Burfict on the field, who was undrafted for a reason. Dear owners, realize that the behavior of your coaches and players will affect the manner in which you and your team are perceived in your home city and beyond. Dear NFL, you need stronger disincentives for the kind of behavior we saw on Saturday night, because your current arsenal of options isn’t working.
Pacman Jones got it right when he told Dan Patrick that coaches should be held to a higher standard. Almost always older and presumably wiser, they shouldn’t be pulling hair or chirping at players. (And maybe, if their boss didn’t constantly project the unreasonably angry-faced, chest-thumping demeanor of a player, the assistant coaches wouldn’t be.)
The coaches are, for many players, the fathers they never had. The coaches set the example, at every level of the sport, on what is expected and what won’t be tolerated. Unless and until teams make it clear that the stuff that happened on Saturday night won’t be tolerated, it will keep happening.
Plenty of teams already don’t tolerate it. Rodney Harrison of NBCSN’s Pro Football Talk explained on Monday’s show that players like Vontaze Burfict would have been long gone from New England by now.
But not every organization understands the connection between having reckless players and failing to achieve the broader goals of pursuing championships. So it’s on the league to make that connection more clear, by throwing flags, issuing ejections, levying fines and imposing suspensions.
Balanced against the desire to clean up the sport is the reality that plenty of people like it dirty. As King notes, 27.5 million people were watching the game between 10:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. ET. They weren’t sufficiently revolted by what they saw to change the channel; they were enthralled by it.
That said, there’s a balance that the league must strike between brutality and sound business judgment. But it’s for the league, not the players, to care about that. The players aren’t the stewards of the game; they’re the people among us with sufficient youth and athletic gifts to become the current ingredients in the NFL’s meat grinder. Unless and until players are given equity in the league or its teams, it’s not for the players to care an iota about the future of the sport.
It’s for the players to make as much money as they can, just like the owners do. And it’s for the owners to worry about their ability to make as much money as they can in the future, long after today’s players no longer have sufficient youth or athletic gifts to be among those who are inflicting potential injury upon each other in the crucible that the NFL has created and maintained for nearly a century.