At times, the NFL has acted like a tobacco company. It suppressed, for years, knowledge about the dire effects of concussions. It mishandled, for years, numerous domestic violence cases. The commissioner is, at times, pompous and robotic. The league has been money-grubbing, selfish, mean and may have railroaded its best player ever over deflated footballs.
But something recently has changed. The NFL, quietly, is using its massive power in ways it never has before—positive ways. It's an effort that has stunned even the most cynical of team executives.
Can the NFL be an altruistic force for once? Can it be—gulp—decent?
The league fought North Carolina's infamous bathroom law known as House Bill 2, which required people to use the bathroom that reflects the gender on their birth certificate. The NFL opposed it.
"We firmly believe that discriminatory laws such as HB 2 are bad for our employees, bad for our fans and bad for business," 49ers owner Jed York said in 2016. "We believe that HB 2 will make it far more challenging for businesses across the state to recruit and retain the nation's best and brightest workers and attract the most talented students from across the country. It will also diminish the state's draw as a destination for sporting events, tourism and conventions, and new business activity. "
The NFL also is fighting another such law, this time in Texas, by issuing what was almost a thinly veiled threat.
"The NFL embraces inclusiveness," spokesman Brian McCarthy said in response to a Houston Chronicle email question on the bill. "We want all fans to feel welcomed at our events, and NFL policies prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard."
I've been told, and McCarthy intimated to the Chronicle, that the NFL is prepared to withhold any future Super Bowls from being played in the state.
In response to the league's ominous tone, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott told talk show host Glenn Beck that the NFL "is walking on thin ice" and "needs to concentrate on playing football and get the heck out of politics. For some low-level NFL adviser to come out and say that they are going to micromanage and try to dictate to the state of Texas what types of policies we're going to pass in our state, that's unacceptable. We don't care what the NFL thinks and certainly what their political policies are."
The NFL's opposition to the bathroom bills fits snugly with what have been bold overtures to the LGBTQ community in recent months, from the Patriots sponsoring a gay football event (which they have done before but is more attention-getting now since the team has such a pro-Donald Trump image) to the Rams also recently announcing sponsorship of a Venice gay pride event, among others.
There's more, even if of a less socially conscious nature. The NFL moved the draft outdoors to Philadelphia this year, a move that was roundly praised as a fan-friendly success. Women continue to be hired across the league's ranks. Celebration rules were relaxed, allowing players more freedom to shake their booties.
Even the staggering head trauma crisis has been addressed in a meaningful way with the league funding a study on concussion management.
All of these moves lead to the question: Why?
Are these genuine efforts to change, or are they merely targeted to enhance the NFL's horrid image? A little of both?
"We can't win," one high-ranking league official told B/R. "If we do the right thing, no one believes we're sincere. If we screw up, we're called evil. So might as well just do what we have to do."
But the official also said, "There's no question our image has been in the toilet."
The NFL is to public relations what milk is to cornflakes. It is obsessed with how football is portrayed. To say otherwise would be dishonest.
But there's also something else at play here, though it's a touchy subject. Several people who know Roger Goodell tell me the commissioner, after numerous mishandlings of issues and embarrassing statements, finally is loosening his grip on the league and allowing the sport to breathe a little.
The NFL is far from solely altruistic. The way the league is treating Colin Kaepernick by essentially blackballing him for his political views—and that's exactly what is happening—remains a source of trouble.
Still, there's no denying something is different about the sport now. It's undergoing a fairly serious transformation. There are still warts and faults, but there's also progress on fronts happening at speeds we haven't seen before.
Some of it is phony.
Some of it is real.
But it is happening.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @mikefreemanNFL.