We used to turn to football to escape our everyday problems. Now we look to football to explain our everyday problems.
For five consecutive years, the opening of the NFL season has come saddled with some major legal or sociopolitical controversy, the kind fans couldn't ignore no matter how hard we jammed giant foam fingers in our ears. Instead of turning on the games and turning off our minds, we selected our fantasy starters, ordered jumbo nachos, and then held solemn referendums on topics that would be better suited for political settings…if only our politicians were better suited for political settings.
These kickoff controversies follow a now-familiar path: a football player, team or executive involved in an incident that is related to a major societal capital-I Issue. The player/team/executive then becomes the subject of a proxy debate for the Issue. Instead of asking, "How could we let domestic violence fester for so long in society?" we ask, "How could Ray Rice do such a thing?"
The proxy debate gives fans who are wary of discussing serious political topics a safe way to talk about subjects like domestic violence, LGBT rights or racial problems. It also forces those discussions into taprooms, living rooms and fantasy drafts, making the topics and problems more a part of our lives. So the NFL is really filling an important cultural role, despite itself.
Unfortunately, the kickoff controversy debates, useful as they are, can take a turn for the idiotic when we all take extreme sides on Twitter, or when midday sports talk hosts weigh in and make Twitter fights look like Plato's Apology.
No matter. Even when things get dumbed down, we can still learn lessons about ourselves as a society.
The NFL can learn lessons, too. The controversies can feel like a runaway tractor-trailer full of nightmares when we are in the weeds. But it's possible to come out of these scandals a little wiser. That's a good thing, because they aren't going to stop any time soon.
Let's look back on five years of kickoff controversies to see how these proxy debates work and discover just how far we have come.
2012 Incident: The Saints Bounty Scandal
Social Issues: Our changing attitude toward violence; the right to a fair appeal process.
Brief Recap: Saints coach Sean Payton and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams received suspensions (Payton for one year; Williams indefinitely) when a league investigation revealed evidence of a systematic bounty program for potentially injurious hits. The NFL handed down suspensions for the coaches in March and four players in May, but legal action involving linebacker Jonathan Vilma and other players lingered through the season. The Friday before the first Sunday of games, initial suspensions against the players were vacated.
Proxy Debates: Where is the line between demanding rugged, physical action and advocating violence? Has society lost its taste for a certain level of violence…or lost its edge in the name in the name of safety consciousness and political correctness? What is the responsibility of an employee when an employer demands something unethical and potentially dangerous?
The Bounty Scandal also morphed into one of the first great Goodell-as-Caesar dramas, making us ponder the wisdom of letting authority figures play the judge-jury-executioner role.
Finally, this scandal established the official template for most future scandals:
- NFL player/coach/team does something.
- There's a massive public outcry for the NFL to act.
- NFL acts.
- There's a massive public outcry against the NFL's action.
The Debate, Dumbed Down: Coaches are monsters who would order mass decapitations if they thought it would get them a win versus You might as well send the quarterback out there in a tutu if defenders can't body-slam him into the ground three seconds after the throw.
What We Learned About Ourselves: We chuckled about bounties in the Buddy Ryan era. But concussion and CTE awareness made it hard to scream rip the quarterback's head off at the television without feeling a little guilty. The Bounty Scandal redrew the boundaries of what many fans considered acceptable violence levels on the field.
What the NFL Learned About Itself: Coaching along the lines of the drill sergeant from Full Metal Jacket had been slowly going out of style anyway, and the Bounty Scandal nudged it along. The NFL now is a little more cautious with its tough-guy rhetoric. That can only help when coaches at lower levels realize that ordering impressionable young Johnny to KILL MAIM DESTROY is not a great idea.
Goodell must also have enjoyed issuing heavy-handed punishments, then navigating though months of appeals, countersuits and reversals, because that's pretty much all he has done with his time ever since.
2013 Incident: The Dolphins Bullying Affair
Social Issues: Tolerance, acceptance and inclusion in society; workplace hostility.
Brief Recap: A few weeks into the season, offensive tackle Jonathan Martin left the Miami Dolphins for "emotional issues." An investigation soon revealed that Martin endured persistent insults and slurs from Richie Incognito and other teammates and that a coach either encouraged or ignored all manner of antisocial locker room behavior. Suspensions and penalties ensued.
Proxy Debates: The NFL's readiness to accept players who don't fit a predictable mold, and the hostility level of the league's underlying culture. Those questions port easily to other workplaces and social institutions.
In the locker room, classroom, corporate office or even cyberspace, where does conflict or kidding around end and bullying or harassment begin? Is "bullying" really an appropriate term for adult conflicts? What responsibility does management have over maintaining a non-hostile workplace environment?
The Debate, Dumbed Down: Oh, now we need PC, bubble-wrapped safe-zones in locker rooms, too? In my day, the dorks LIKED getting swirlies because they knew it toughened them up! versus OMG, an all-male sport with militaristic overtones dominated by wealthy Christians from rural areas is not as progressive and tolerant as our Brooklyn maker-space studio! (Swoons face-first into organic fair-trade latte).
What We Learned About Ourselves: Bullying and workplace hostility remain hot-button issues in schools and offices. Anyone who has had their kids' schoolyard shoving match reclassified as "bullying" knows we are still veering all over the road in search of solutions. But the Martin-Incognito affair helped establish a baseline of absolutely intolerable behavior. High school coaches are a little less likely to look the other way during "traditional" freshman locker room initiations. Everyone is growing a little smarter about what vicious text messages and internet posts can do to another person.
What the NFL Learned About Itself: Incognito, the guy who could play, is still playing. Martin, who couldn't play, isn't. That's either the competitive marketplace in action or a self-fulfilling prophecy at work. Who knows how Martin's career would have turned out if the Dolphins locker room wasn't the world's raunchiest frat house on pledge night?
As for bullying and workplace hostility, the incoming generation of players will find both homophobia and Incognito's racially-backwards antics from 2013 both unamusing and unacceptable. If every player who objects or feels alienated gets shrugged off or waived, football at all levels will feel the talent drain.
(Quick Note: Aaron Hernandez's arrest and indictment for the murder of Odin Lloyd also hung over the start of the 2013 season. That was not really a social controversy, though it did force fans to confront the real world instead of just switching our brains into tailgate mode).
2014 Incidents: The Troubles.
Social Issues: Domestic violence; an employer's responsibilities to society.
Brief Recap: Ray Rice punched then-fiancé Janay Palmer in a casino elevator in February. The NFL kinda-sorta investigated and issued a two-game suspension. Videotape of the incident became public. Earth stopped rotating on its axis for several days. Later incidents involving Greg Hardy and Adrian Peterson (alleged child abuse in Peterson's case) forced football fans to spend months face-to-face with some of society's ugliest truths.
Proxy Debate: What responsibility does an employer have over the conduct of its employees? What responsibility does a sports league (or other high-profile institution) have to act as an agent of social change? As a society, have we finally stopped waving off violence and cruelty within the home as "marital problems"? And if so, what now?
The Debate, Dumbed Down: Don't want to be too glib here. But many people must have thought domestic violence looked like an old episode of The Honeymooners until they saw the Ray Rice video.
What We Learned About Ourselves: Informed public debate was the silver lining of the incidents of 2014. Domestic violence, a taboo topic for most of society for generations, became something we had to talk about, on television, among families and even at fantasy football drafts. The language of discussing domestic violence has changed, which is a step toward finding better solutions.
What the NFL Learned About Itself: As Josh Brown's one-game suspension (following an investigation into a series of domestic violence charges levied by his wife) illustrated, the NFL is squarely back in lip-service and slap-on-wrist mode now that the public heat is off. The league's lapse into excuse-making and euphemism-spouting is an example of what not to do, and we should all learn from it.
2015 Incident: Deflategate
Social Issues: The limits and abuses of power. The role of unions and the legal system in solving all of our conflicts.
Brief Recap: You don't want to read a recap of freakin' Deflategate.
Proxy Debates: How much power should an employer really wield? What are the dangers of stretching the legalese in contracts and collective bargaining agreements to the illogical extreme? Is "taking this all the way to the Supreme Court" really the only way to resolve minor disputes these days? Can your boss actually ask to confiscate your cellphone?
The Debate, Dumbed Down: CHEATRIOTS CHEATRIOTS CHEATRIOTS versus trivializing the entire human experience by making everything that happens all about the martyrdom of Tom Brady: [Individual X] only got [Punishment Y] for [Heinous Act Z]…but Brady gets FOUR GAMES for nothing smh!
What We Learned About Ourselves: As Deflategate arguments devolved into Patriots fans versus Brady haters, it became clear that even tiny controversies can be layered with our preconceptions and preexisting loyalties, then transformed into an unwinnable rhetorical battlefield in which facts care twisted, forgotten or ignored in the name of justifying our worldviews. Happy election season, America.
Also, a huge percentage of us would flunk a 10th grade science test.
What the NFL Learned About Itself: Bad lessons. Lots and lots of bad lessons.
2016 Incident: Colin Kaepernick national anthem protest.
Social Issue: Free speech, patriotism, race, police brutality: minor topics like those.
Brief Recap: Kaepernick and a handful of other players remained seated during the national anthem in protest of what they feel is encroaching racial oppression in this country. Really, that's it. That's all people have been raving about for two weeks now.
The Debate: Is sitting during the anthem an unconscionable act of disrespect? Where do symbols of patriotism (flags and songs) end and the underlying meanings of patriotism begin? Why are we even pretending that this is anything but a thinly veiled left-versus-right argument?
The Debate, Dumbed Down: The troops fought and died for my precise, narrow interpretation of our rights versus Hooray! All forms of self-expression are equally beautiful! Except the problematic insensitive micro-aggressions I seem to find in every political speech, action movie and casual conversation. Those are crimes against society.
What We Learned About Ourselves: Perhaps some on the left realized in the last two weeks that there is still real value in some old-fashioned patriotic pomp and circumstance as a unifying force, while some on the right acknowledged that many segments of the population have good reason to feel so alienated and frightened by developments on the national political scene that they feel the need for drastic demonstration. (Checks Twitter). Nope. But maybe we will get there.
What the NFL Learned About Itself: The fact that the NFL itself appears to be waiting for this storm to blow over, rather than issuing a bunch of proclamations and suspensions, is either a sign of progress or naive wishful thinking. We'll know more in a few months.
Five years of kickoff controversies have eroded just about all of the NFL's moral imperative. Entering the bounty scandal, there was still a sense that the NFL could dispense satisfactory justice and solve a major problem. Now, we just hope that the league does no harm and that all conversation about an important topic doesn't collapse into the Goodell is Evil singularity.
But we haven't fared much better, as fans or citizens. As a half-decade of controversies has worn on, our opinions on them have become increasingly politicized and polarized. We arrive at the start of the NFL season with so much baggage that we're almost begging for a topic to blow our stacks over.
Football gives us a chance to air our grievances, then spend a few hours cheering, gasping and arguing about catches instead of controversies.
The NFL is a mess on a variety of levels. But it's America's national mess, and we would truly be lost without it.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @MikeTanier.