What you're about to read isn't science fiction. It's not an alternate universe, football's equivalent of The Man in the High Castle. It's something that could now actually happen...
It's early in the season and training camps are just beginning. In one city, a man decides he wants to wreck the life of a star player on a team he hates.
He contacts a local television station. The man tells the station that he provided the starting quarterback with a variety of performance-enhancing drugs, including anabolic steroids.
The man has no proof—no paper trail, no emails, no video. But his story is convincing. The local station goes to the quarterback for his side and the quarterback says it's not true. Never heard of the guy. Never used PEDs. The station decides to air the interview.
The story is picked up on blogs and trends on Twitter. The union issues a denial on behalf of the quarterback.
The man later alters his story and says he didn't mean what he said. But it's too late. The NFL has opened an investigation. It wants to talk to the quarterback. The union says no. You have no proof. The NFL insists. The player insists that the NFL go jump off a bridge.
So the NFL says, Talk or we'll suspend you. Doesn't matter that there's no proof or that the original accuser recanted. Talk or don't play.
You don't think this can happen? Well, it basically just did.
The NFL's desire to be all-powerful, to have inexorable and unreasonable domain over its players, has in fact left those players, every one of them, open to blackmail.
This tale gets complicated, and Sports Illustrated's Michael McCann detailed many of those intricacies. Yet while there are many pieces to this puzzle, part of this story remains startlingly clear. My belief, and the belief of many players, is that the NFL is abusing its power.
First, remember the backstory. In December, Al Jazeera reported that a worker at an anti-aging clinic in Indianapolis, while being secretly recorded, said Peyton Manning's wife, Ashley, received shipments of human growth hormone. Peyton was with the Indianapolis Colts at the time the alleged shipments happened. The report also mentioned other NFL players, including James Harrison, Mike Neal, Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers.
That worker, Charles Sly, later recanted his statements.
This is a good place to pause and reflect. There is no proof that the players did anything wrong other than Sly's statement/non-statement.
My guess: Sly was probably telling some version of the truth, but his word—his recanted word—still isn't proof.
In fact, the NFL's own investigation showed there was no credible evidence to the Manning aspect of the story.
The NFL will argue that just because there was no evidence that Manning was involved, the league still has a right to speak with Matthews, Peppers, Neal and Harrison. But understandably, they have declined to speak with the NFL. Who can blame them? Many of the recent investigations conducted by the NFL, going back to Bountygate, have been massively flawed. Any player would be a fool to speak to the NFL.
Scott Fujita once cooperated with the NFL in the Bountygate case, and look what that got him.
So what did the NFL do next? The league expanded its powers in an attempt to force the players to speak with them.
The NFL will say this isn't true. The league will maintain it has always had this right, but I don't believe that.
This is what the NFL did. It won the Deflategate case when it was appealed to a higher court. That court said the NFL's power to rule against Tom Brady was enforceable by the collective bargaining agreement. Particularly, under Article 46, which is the "Commissioner Discipline" clause, a conduct-detrimental catch-all that allows the commissioner to effectively discipline players for any reason he chooses.
Then the league did something that, to me and many others, was highly unusual, perhaps historic. It applied Article 46 to the drug policy. Again, the NFL will say this isn't true or historic, but it effectively is.
Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio laid out the exact problem:
The PED policy, as written, contemplates that the NFL will impose discipline if it has "credible evidence" of a violation, and that the player then will tell his side of the story if he files an appeal. Since the PED policy says nothing about requiring players to submit testimony or other evidence before a finding of a violation is made, the players arguably have no obligation at all to cooperate with the investigation. The NFL, emboldened by the ultimate outcome (pending appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court) of the Brady case, points to Article 46 as the basis for forcing the players to cooperate.
But the NFL doesn't have credible evidence. If it did, the evidence would have leaked by now. All it has is the recanted words of Sly. That's not credible.
The idea that players should voluntarily help the NFL punish them is absurd. It also enters an entirely new level of bullying.
The main problem is all of this is totally unnecessary. Nothing will be gleaned from these interviews. They are simply an intimidation tactic. It also, again, speaks to how this regime views its players. The league doesn't see them as partners; it sees players as pieces to be controlled. Just shut up and do what we say.
(I know what Patriot fans will say: Welcome to the party. The NFL abused its power in railroading our quarterback. First, this is different from what the NFL did to Tom Brady. The organization had been punished for Spygate prior to Deflategate, so the NFL and others had precedent for suspecting the Patriots. Second, not everything is about you, Pats fans.)
I cannot tell you how upset players are about the NFL's latest act. This is the angriest I have ever seen any of the players I speak to on a regular basis.
Many players hate Roger Goodell—not all, but many—and this will only worsen the divide between players and the commissioner.
"If I could punch him in the face right now," one starting player told me, "I would."
Goodell often gets too much blame for almost everything, from global warming to Putin. The criticism often becomes almost cartoonish.
In this case, however, the blame is well-earned. It's disgraceful what the NFL is doing. It really is.
The main source of anger from players is how they are constantly told that the PED policy isn't there solely for punishment, that its main function is to help players recover from possible addiction. The same way you cannot have a society full of addicts, you cannot have a league full of them. This is what the NFL repeatedly says to players.
The problem is, the NFL is now using the policy in a punitive way. The league has turned it into a blackmail device for creeps and criminals.
"...Somebody could come out and say James Harrison is a pedophile," Harrison told reporters, in response to a question about why he doesn't do the interview if he has nothing to hide. "They are going to suspend me, put me under investigation for being a pedophile just because somebody said it? I'm not going to answer questions for every little thing some Tom, Dick and Harry comes up with."
He said he is "definitely" prepared to sit out.
"I'll do what I have to do. They'll do what they have to do. We'll make that decision when that time comes. ...I just am doing what I'm advised to do [by the NFLPA]. It's the right thing to do."
It is, yes, and what the NFL is doing could not be more wrong.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.