A look into the growing threats to the popularity of the NFL and what the league can do to avoid collapse The National Football League, despite its massive success and unprecedented earning power, is at its most pivotal moment since the AFL–NFL merger four decades ago. With public awareness of the issues plaguing the NFL—from domestic violence, drug use, and health of the players to oversaturation—there is a possibility that football as we know it could vanish in the very near future. In Two Minute Warning, author Mike Freeman, who has covered the league for almost three decades, looks at all the factors that could cause the league, as we know it, to collapse in on itself. Freeman has interviewed top NFL athletes, coaches, and executives as well as economists and scientists to paint this complete portrait of the league today—and lay out the steps it can take to move into the future.
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About the Author
Michael Freeman is a football columnist for Bleacher Report. He has previously been a writer for the Boston Globe, CBSSports.com, the Dallas Morning News, the Florida Times-Union, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. He is the author of seven books, including Clemente: The True Legacy of an Undying Hero and Undefeated: Inside the 1972 Miami Dolphins’ Perfect Season. He lives in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.
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Two Minute Warning
How Concussions, Crime, and Controversy Could Kill the NFL (and What the League Can Do to Survive)
By Mike Freeman
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2015 Mike Freeman
All rights reserved.
The Worst Year In NFL History
"Football is not for the well adjusted."
— The late George Young, former New York Giants general manager
Is this how an empire falls? Does it begin with cracks THAT at first seem tiny? That's often how the great collapses start. They get ignored. Many scoff at predictions of their demise. The resources keep pouring in, so no one cares. The popularity is unshaken. The ratings beat everything else on television. The bond between product and consumer seems unbreakable. The empire looks imposing and unbeatable. Then something happens that signals a shift — a frightening moment inside the elevator of an insignificant casino, inside that elevator a declining player, once thought a good person, changing things forever. Or a 265-pound player being convicted for choking a petite woman. Or a star runner injuring his own four-year-old child. Is this how empires fall? Does it begin with the worst week in NFL history, in what was the worst year the sport has ever seen?
If the NFL's seemingly unbreakable stranglehold on the attention of American sports fans is indeed lost, then one week in particular — the week of September 8, 2014 — and one season in particular — the 2014–2015 season — will be seen as the catalyst.
That week started when security video of Baltimore runner Ray Rice knocking his fiancée unconscious was leaked; continued when the story was broken of Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson hitting his young son with a switch, causing deep abrasions in his son's leg; and ended with calls for Commissioner Roger Goodell to resign and the NFL to lose its invaluable antitrust exemption. That week would bleed into the most controversial season the league has ever seen. The New England Patriots, once punished for filming opponents' sidelines in an attempt to steal signals — the infamous Spygate scandal — being accused of underinflating footballs to gain a competitive advantage. The Cleveland Browns were involved in a sideline texting controversy. The Atlanta Falcons were accused of pumping fake crowd noise into their stadium to keep opponents from communicating at the line of scrimmage.
There have been ugly moments in football history before this year. The NFL once played games in the hours following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a decision that former commissioner Pete Rozelle would call his greatest regret. Recently, Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez was accused of multiple murders. Michael Vick ran a cruel and brutal dogfighting enterprise, and Chiefs player Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then shot himself. There have been NFL players who killed people while driving drunk. Maybe the most famous, and infamous, NFL alum is O.J. Simpson.
In 1909, 26 people were killed and 70 injured playing football. There was nearly a nationwide panic about the safety of the sport. The New York Times ran a lengthy story in 1909 that read in part:
The State of Virginia will probably be the one which will give the heaviest blow to football. Following the death of one of the State University players and the injury of several of her youths within the State, a bill will be introduced into the Legislature at the next session to forbid all such contests in the future. It is expected that this bill will be passed. Already the City Council of Norfolk and Portsmouth have forbidden all contests within the city limits.
The death which attracted the most attention throughout the country, and which revived to a large extent the movement for the suppression of football, was that of Cadet Byrne, a West Point cadet. Byrne was an upper classman, 22 years old, when he was fatally injured during the contest with Harvard University. His neck was broken during a mass play, and despite the fact that every attempt was made to save his life, he died soon after.
The interest in this accident was so great that expressions of opinion were asked from the heads of nearly every institution of learning in the country. Some of them saw it in proof that the game should be abolished, while others urged changes in the rules. Some, however, looked upon it as an unfortunate accident and declared that the game as it is now played could not be made less dangerous without taking away the exciting features.
The issue was so serious that it ultimately required intervention from President Theodore Roosevelt. Yet those deaths, while tragic, happened in another century, long before there was even an NFL, or even professional football. And the crimes committed by players like Vick and Simpson happened months or years apart. That week ... it changed things because so many horrors happened in a span of days. The video of Rice attacking his fiancée, Janay, was a game-changer. It was no longer abstract; there it was, in living color. It was the same with images of the injured leg of Peterson's son. In the viral information age we live in, those images made it the worst year the league has ever seen.
There was no video of Vick killing and torturing dogs. There wasn't a camera mounted on the windshields of players who drove drunk and killed people. But there was video of Rice, and it was bad. The video first appeared on TMZ.com at 5:15 am Eastern time on Monday morning. It clearly showed Rice hitting Janay once and knocking her unconscious. It became viral in just a matter of hours. One league executive who saw the video later that morning immediately texted home to his wife: "You may not see me for a few days. Armageddon is about to hit here."
At the NFL offices, there was widespread disbelief. The best way to describe the reaction, as one league executive put it, was panic. The NFL, especially its smart and highly effective public relations arm, knew instinctively the damage it would generate. One of the initial main concerns of the NFL were the racial implications of the video. With a player base that is approximately 70 percent African American, the NFL was worried that a general public would see a black man hitting a woman and assume that most of its black players were that way. One white NFL assistant coach remembers, after seeing the video on ESPN, sitting his young son down to explain, "You're going to hear from some whites that all blacks do this. It's not true."
Some of Rice's teammates were equally stunned. They stood by Rice after the initial incident became public, before any video of the incident was released. Rice had told players on the team that he struck Janay, but it wasn't with a fist, and she had hit her head against a railing inside the elevator. When the footage emerged, some on the team, according to players, felt Rice had misled them. Several players talked openly about how they no longer wanted Rice on the team. Rice would contend he always told the truth about that night.
The entire NFL was shaken. Perhaps the last time the league was this wholly disturbed was when Rae Carruth was accused of plotting to murder his pregnant girlfriend in 1999. He was convicted of the crime and sentenced to 18 to 24 years in prison. A close second may be Ray Lewis initially being charged with murder in 2000 before accepting a plea deal for misdemeanor obstruction of justice. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue later fined Lewis $250,000.
But, again, it was the pictures that changed everything. At 2:18 pm, still on that Monday, not even 12 hours after the video's release, the Ravens announced the termination of Rice's contract. Just 23 minutes later, Goodell announced in a statement that Rice would be suspended indefinitely due to the new video evidence. This was when the story shifted and it officially became one of the biggest threats the NFL ever faced. In the Rice case, the question became: What did the NFL know, and when did it know it?
Actually, there were two Rice videos. The first showed the aftermath of the Rice assault: an unconscious Janay being dragged out of the elevator by Rice as if she were a sack of potatoes. That led to Goodell suspending Rice on July 25, 2014, for two games. Then the second video was released, showing the assault. The NFL said it had never seen the second tape, but few believed that. Sentiment emerged among fans and media that the NFL was engaged in a cover-up. The redoubtable Keith Olbermann, longtime journalist of ESPN fame, called for Goodell's resignation after the commissioner gave an awkward press conference at the beginning of the 2014 season in Canton, Ohio, in which he defended Rice's initial suspension.
"We begin tonight with the pathetic performance of National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell in Canton, Ohio, today, in the wake of his insufficient suspension of the domestic violence perpetrator Ray Rice," Olbermann began on his Monday, September 8, 2014, show. "It was a performance distinguished only by a thorough, consistent, self-congratulatory tone-deafness to the realities of domestic violence, and the near-universal outrage at the NFL's weak, damaging, almost enabling reaction."
Olbermann later added, "It is necessary, Mr. Goodell, for you to now resign as commissioner."
The NFL's handling of the case was awkward at best and willfully ignorant at worst. One of the better examples of the latter came during the June 16, 2014, prediscipline meeting between Goodell and Rice at the NFL offices in New York. In addition to Goodell, a number of others were in attendance, including Jeff Pash, NFL general counsel; Adolpho Birch, NFL senior vice president of labor policy and government affairs; Kevin Manara, NFL senior labor relations counsel; Dick Cass, Baltimore Ravens president; Ozzie Newsome, the team's general manager; Heather McPhee, associate general counsel of the union; Ben Renzin, Rice's agent and friend; and Janay Palmer, Rice's then-fiancée.
As arbitrator Barbara S. Jones would later determine, the key principles from the Goodell side either didn't take notes or took extremely poor ones. "The Commissioner's notes are not detailed and do not contain any verbatim quotes of what Rice said happened in the elevator. They do not contain the word 'slap' anywhere," Jones wrote in her decision. "They do contain the word 'struck' at what appears to be the only entry relating to Rice's statements about what happened in the elevator."
"Birch's notes are even sparser, with the phrase 'bottle service' the only reference to the night of the assault," Jones continued. "Manara's notes are more detailed than those of the Commissioner and Birch, which is to be expected since he was the assigned note taker. In relevant part, Manara's notes read, in six successive lines: 'arguing while waiting for elevator / exchanging words / she hit him / got in elevator / she hit him again / he slapped her; fell; knocked herself out.' ... While Manara was a credible witness, I am not persuaded that his notes reliably report that Rice used the words 'knocked herself out.' For example, although Manara's notes use 'slapped,' the majority of the witnesses, including Newsome and Birch [did not]," and Jones wrote that Manara's notes were "not verbatim."
My belief is that few of the NFL principals composed detailed notes because they wanted to be flexible in their recollections. It should be noted the arbitrator credited the union representative at the meeting, McPhee, with taking extensive and thorough notes. That's because the union likely wanted exact recollections because they would help its cause with an arbitrator.
Judge Jones also wrote this: "As soon as he arrived at the office [on the day the elevator video was released by TMZ], the Commissioner assembled all those who worked on the issue to a meeting, at which they looked back at the notes of the June 16 meeting, and 'made sure all of us had the same recollection.'" Of course, that is judge-speak for everyone got their stories straight. (It would not be the last time a judge, in the NFL's year from hell, would slam the league. Judge David Doty, a longtime NFL nemesis, in the winter of 2015 ruled against the NFL and ended Peterson's suspension. Doty said the NFL could not retroactively apply its new anticrime policies to Peterson's case.)
Then the arbitrator wrote something that devastated Goodell's credibility: "Following the release of the inside-the-elevator video, which prompted a new round of criticism," she wrote, "the League suspended Rice indefinitely. Now, the League argues that Commissioner Goodell was justified in imposing the second discipline because Rice had misled him and because the video demonstrated a level of violence that he had not understood.... I have found that Rice did not mislead the Commissioner. Moreover, any failure on the part of the League to understand the level of violence was not due to Rice's description of the event, but to the inadequacy of words to convey the seriousness of domestic violence. That the League did not realize the severity of the conduct without a visual record also speaks to their admitted failure in the past to sanction this type of conduct more severely."
Translation: the NFL had never cared about domestic violence before the Rice case, and the decision by Goodell to suspend Rice for just two games for such a serious offense showed that it didn't care about the issue of domestic violence. It only cared when such violence was caught on camera, showing not just how flawed the light suspension was but also the way the NFL hadn't evolved on the issue of domestic violence, while society at large — albeit slowly and by far not completely — had.
The NFL's uneven administration of discipline even caught the attention of President Obama. In an interview with the Colin Cowherd show on ESPN, the president said of Rice and the NFL's domestic violence policy, "I'm so glad we got more awareness about domestic violence. Obviously, the situation that happened in the Rice family was important, but it did lift up awareness that this is a real problem that we have to root out and men have to change their attitudes and their behavior.
"The way it was handled also indicates that the NFL was behind the curve, as a lot of institutions have been behind the curve, in sending a clear message," he continued. "You don't want to be winging it when something like this happens. You want to have clear policies in place. The fact that policies have now been established I think will be helpful in sending a message that there's no place for that kind of behavior in society, whether it's in sports or anyplace else."
Not since the deaths of dozens of players in the early 1900s had football been so widely and harshly criticized. Pash, the NFL's chief attorney, responded to the hammering Goodell and the NFL received from the arbitrator with a lengthy letter that was sent to each NFL owner. It was an attempt at doing damage control with Goodell's bosses, but the letter was also a tacit admission that the league's image was severely damaged. "No part of Judge Jones' decision questions the Commissioner's honesty or integrity," Pash wrote, "nor his good faith consideration of the issue when he imposed the indefinite suspension on Mr. Rice. Nor is there any suggestion that the Commissioner had seen the video from inside the elevator before it became public, or knew of the contents of the video."
One of the more stunning mistakes the NFL made in this case was that Goodell interviewed Janay Palmer with Rice present. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand the inappropriateness of having perp and victim in the same room together.
Goodell's mistakes were not just borne out of ignorance on the issue of domestic violence. They were also borne of arrogance. The NFL, up to this point, believed it was untouchable, and as a collective, the league thought it could never make serious errors. It was this same arrogance that led to the NFL's concussion crisis. Why it had seen player lockouts and strikes. And labor unrest with game officials. Why it put more and more football on television with no concerns about saturation. The NFL had never had to pay for making those errors because people kept watching. But now, arrogance has become one of the NFL's most potent forms of kryptonite.
"There are systemic issues in the league office much bigger than Roger Goodell," said longtime NFL veteran Scott Fujita, "and it's been that way for a very, very long time. So there have been plenty of reasons for people to question [its] credibility. But typically the NFL has been bulletproof. Why? Because we either have a short attention span or we're not paying attention or the games just keep coming. But I think [the Rice] case might be different. To me that videotape was a game-changer. Because that's imprinted in our minds now ... the public is always going to have this perception there was foul play, and I don't know how the NFL escapes that." In other words, for the first time in its modern history, the NFL had a headwind. The Rice case could not be so easily neutered by what happened on the field.
Excerpted from Two Minute Warning by Mike Freeman. Copyright © 2015 Mike Freeman. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1. The Worst Year In NFL History,
3. Heavy Is the Crown,
5. The Savior,
6. The Three Horsemen,
7. The Monster,
8. Ending the Violence,
9. The Hero,
11. The Plan,
12. Football 2039,
13. When Football Righted a Wrong,
14. The Last Word,
15. The Last, Last Word,
About the Author,