Enshrinement Weekend at the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a chance for football to be at its best.
But during his induction speech Saturday night, former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. also offered a challenge, underlining one of the biggest problems the game faces today.
DeBartolo has been hailed for the above-and-beyond way he took care of his players and other employees in times of crisis, but said he didn’t always see the same commitment in the modern game.
“Frankly, I think we could use a little bit more of that sense of family in the NFL today, DeBartolo said. “I think we could use a little bit more of that sense of duty to one another and that sense of responsibility for one another. I know that’s what my good friend the commissioner and the players union desperately want and are trying to do today.
“Make no mistake, history has its eyes on all of us right now. It’s about the respect and gratitude we feel for these athletes who have given their all to this game. We’ve got to do all we can to look after one another and take care of one another, not just when the uniform is on, but when the uniform comes off, too.”
For several years, the ice between the league and the NFLPA has been hard to crack, with each side dug into intractable positions. But for any of the bigger issues to be solved, there will have to be a thaw that we’ve seen few signs of.
At the Hall of Fame (which operates independently of, yet still in close cooperation with the NFL), it’s easy to see the message they want to present. A new exhibit featuring a holographic Joe Namath hits on all the lessons the game wants to promote, such as commitment, sacrifice for the greater good and things coaches like to talk about during halftime speeches. And when former Army Reservist such as Kevin Greene finishes his passionate speech by thanking the military and saluting, it’s the kind of packaging the powers that be can’t get enough of.
But as DeBartolo underscored, some of the problems the league is dealing with can’t be changed with just talk, but a true commitment to the principles they’re selling. Saying football is family is easy. Making that bond real will be harder.