How Can They Play? Murder, Suicide and the National Football League

The NFL has a long and shameful history in handling tragedy. The league played as planned on the Sunday after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. They were going to play the Sunday after 9/11 until the New York Jets rebelled and Major League Baseball cancelled its own schedule forcing the NFL to follow suit. Now we have another example of a sport absent of perspective. On Saturday morning, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher killed the mother of his three-month-old child, 22-year-old Kasandra Perkins. Then he drove to the Chiefs facility and took his own life in front of head coach Romeo Crennel, defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs and general manager Scott Pioli. By Saturday afternoon, it had been announced that the Chiefs would play Sunday at home against the Carolina Panthers as planned. CBS Sports had even, stunningly, factored Belcher’s suicide into whether he was a wise pick-up for fantasy football players. There would be no postponement, no mourning, and no space for his teammates to come to grips with what happened. On the highest possible cultural platform, the NFL told the world that the death of a 22-year-old woman, the suicide of a player and the mental state of his teammates is secondary to the schedule. The pretense of both the NFL and Chiefs owner Clark Hunt for playing as planned was that the team captains and Coach Crennel wanted to take the field. Even if we accept this at face value, and we shouldn’t in a league as tightly controlled as the NFL, it’s difficult to understand why this was their decision and not the decision of the league in conjunction with mental health professionals. The Chiefs and the NFL are also taking pains to say that professional grief counselors would be present at the game. I have not been unable to unearth who these people actually are and what their credentials might be, but how serious can they be about their presumed oath to “do no harm” if they are sending Chiefs Continue Reading

The Miami Dolphins, Richie Incognito and the Rot in the National Football League

The long-awaited report from Ted Wells investigating Richie Incognito’s alleged racist and homophobic verbal assault against Jonathan Martin in the Miami Dolphins locker room is officially out. It is almost 150 pages, and after reading it, several points now are certain. We can safely remove the word “alleged” from the accusations against Incognito, and we can add “physical assault” to the list of offenses. (Wells refers to the forced miming of male rape as “improper physical touching,” just one of the many euphemisms the investigator uses in an attempt to shine this turd to the best of his abilities.) We also learn that this should not be referred to as the “Incognito scandal” any longer. This toxicity extended far beyond the two central players. Teammates on the offensive line, Mike Pouncey, John Jerry and even offensive line coach Jim Turner were all a part of this swirling whirlpool of hatred. We also learn that those “bullied” extend beyond Martin to a teammate on the offensive line and a racially taunted Asian-American trainer. (I have gone back and forth about even using the word “bullying” to describe what is a case of assault, pure and simple. My belief is that while I understand why some people believe the word both minimizes and masculinizes the offenses on display, I also believe that “bullying” universalizes it, and allows for empathy into what Jonathan Martin and others had to endure. Reading the report, if you were ever made to feel powerless because of someone’s ability to physically intimidate you, then you can understand Jonathan Martin’s reality.) The entire report is one collective “trigger warning” of the vilest imaginable behavior. People can read it themselves here. They can also read the heartbreaking written messages Jonathan Martin sent his parents. Rather than rehash them, I want to comment on what was for me the part of Continue Reading

House committee, Anthony Weiner, grills National Football League doctors on head injuries, helmets

The NFL still has a long way to go in making player safety its top priority, a New York congressman said after Monday's congressional forum on football concussions."The NFL needed to take a 180-degree turn when it came to head injuries and it has taken some steps, but there are still signs the league doesn't quite get it," Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Brooklyn and Queens) said after the forum at the U.S. Custom House in lower Manhattan.Weiner expressed frustration that neurosurgeons Hunt Batjer and Richard Ellenbogen, co-chairmen of the NFL's Head, Neck and Spine Committee, have not played significant roles in gathering data about helmets and other equipment that could prevent or minimize concussions.Batjer and Ellenbogen were named as co-chairmen of the committee, replacing Ira Casson and David Viano, who resigned from the panel in November. Casson and Viano had been ripped by the NFL Players Association, lawmakers and their own peers for discrediting evidence that links concussions with dementia."Two so-discredited people were part of these studies," Weiner said. "You have years of an infected system that needs to be cleaned up." Batjer and Ellenbogen said they had been assured that the research initiated by Casson and Viano was adequate and that they would become more involved in helmet research.The House Judiciary Committee held hearings in Washington and in Detroit on the NFL's approach to head injuries in recent months. A forum similar to the Manhattan event was also held in Houston. The congressional interest in the issue, spearheaded by Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), has prompted the NFL to take steps to protect players from concussions.Sanchez compared the NFL's past denials of links between brain trauma and dementia to tobacco companies that shot down links between cigarettes and cancer, and she asked if the league would adjust its disability plan to reflect current concussion reasearch."If studies show a continued link between football Continue Reading

Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith among 2010 National Football League Hall of Fame finalists

If ever two players seemed like locks to make the Pro Football Hall of Fame in their first year of eligibility, Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith would be the choices. Rice retired as the NFL’s career receiving leader, and Smith finished as the top rusher. They were among 17 finalists announced Friday for the Hall of Fame, including two senior nominees. The voting for entry into the shrine by a 44-member panel will take place Feb. 6, the day before the Super Bowl. The Class of 2010 will be inducted in August in Canton, Ohio. Rice finished his career with 1,549 catches for 22,895 yards and 197 touchdowns. He leads second place Marvin Harrison by 447 career receptions, and his 208 total TDs (11 rushing) are 33 more than runner-up Smith. He is a two-time NFL Offensive Player of the Year for his 21-year career and also holds numerous Super Bowl records. Like Rice, Smith won three Super Bowls. He rushed for 18,355 yards and 164 touchdowns. He also caught 515 passes and scored on 19 receptions. Smith was the league MVP in 1993. Rice was the Super Bowl MVP in 1989 and Smith in 1994. Other finalists include receiver Tim Brown, also a first-time nominee, and fellow wideouts Cris Carter and Andre Reed. Tight end Shannon Sharpe, running back Roger Craig, center Dermontti Dawson, guard Russ Grimm, defensive tackles John Randle and Cortez Kennedy, defensive end Richard Dent, DE/linebacker Charles Haley, LB Rickey Jackson, and coach Don Coryell also made the cut. The two senior nominees are running back Floyd Little and cornerback Dick LeBeau, who is considered one of the NFL’s top assistant coaches and now is defensive coordinator in Pittsburgh.A final candidate must get 80 percent of the vote to make the Hall. A minimum of four and a maximum of seven inductees will be chosen, but no more than five modern-era nominees can be elected in a single year. For six entrants, one must be a senior nominee. For seven, both senior nominees must Continue Reading

Battle of the Gridiron: How the National Football League stacks up against Canada’s CFL

There is football as we know it, futbol as the rest of the world knows it and then there is the Canadian version of our beloved gridiron game. When the Jets take on the Bills Thursday night at the sold-out Rogers Centre - home of the Toronto Blue Jays and the Argonauts of the Canadian Football League - our neighbors to the north will recognize a very similar game at a much slower pace. Not counting, of course, two-minute drills and blazing speed on both sides of the ball. The biggest differences between the NFL and the CFL? In Canada, teams use 12 players on a longer and wider field, have just three downs to move the chains 10 yards, are afforded one timeout per half and operate under a shorter play clock (20 seconds to the NFL's 45). Goalposts are situated at the front of the end zones, which are typically twice as deep as the NFL's, and anyone in the backfield but the QB can be in motion - and moving toward the line of scrimmage - before the snap. The defensive line must also set itself a yard in front of the line of scrimmage, giving the Bill Belichicks of the CFL a built-in excuse when short-yardage plays become turnovers. "I think they'll be wanting us to punt on third down. The fact that there's no 55-yard line, I think will be a new wrinkle for them," joked Jets coach Rex Ryan, who spent a significant portion of his childhood in Toronto. "But you'd be surprised. There are a lot of NFL fans right there in that Toronto area. Obviously, you've got Buffalo right up the road." The Bills, who are in the second year of their five-year deal to play a handful of regular-season and preseason games at the Rogers Centre, may have a home-field advantage of sorts. But unlike CFL fans, the Jets will have to make few adjustments outside of traveling with their passports. If anything,  moving the game to Canada from Buffalo has increased comfort. The retractable roof at the Rogers Centre, which seats just over 46,000 for football Continue Reading

Going Deep: Intrigue from around the National Football League

OUR PRIZE WINNER It's come to our attention that five obscure Norwegians are the ones instrumental in selecting the Nobel Prize winner. Apparently these Norwegians have never seen the Bengals play because after Sunday, we think Inger-Marie Ytterhorn and the rest of her merry band of Norwegians would admit to being a bit hasty in handing their award to Barack Obama. The true winner, as we see it, can only be Marvin Lewis. After all, what has Obama truly accomplished yet? (We'll wait.) Right, nothing you can put your finger on just yet. But Marvin, why he's one freak ricochet in the opener away from having our Bengals at 5-0. We thought beating the Steelers early this year at home for the first time since 2001 merited Nobel consideration. Beating the Ravens in Baltimore in the final seconds Sunday? Landslide, people! (Honorable Mention to Ray Lewis for his cheap-shot late hit on Chad Ochocinco to extend the winning drive. You rock, Ray!) So when Carson Palmer caps a 10-play, 80-yard drive in 1:53 with a 20-yard TD strike to Andre Caldwell for the 17-14 win, we're getting our blue suit out of mothballs (we look good in blue) for Marvin's big day, knowing full well Inger-Marie and Co. will come to their senses and hand the award to its rightful recipient. (Memo to Inger-Marie: Guess who's all alone in first in the AFC North?) As of late last night, we were still awaiting word from Inger-Marie. But being the positive Bengals fans we are (remember, our beer mug is always half-full) we know the call is coming. It has to be. REPTILE WISDOM Vikings defensive end Jared Allen said before Sunday's game, "You never know which play is the one that will change the game." From what we saw of the Vikings' rout of the Rams, that pivotal play came when Minnesota won the opening coin flip. The Vikings then proceeded to go up 7-0 on their initial possession courtesy of an Adrian Peterson TD run. Not long afterward, it was Allen who put the cork in the bottle for the Vikes Continue Reading

Goin’ Deep: Intrigue from around the National Football League

<strong>PACK-ING IT IN</strong>Did you know that ancient Egyptians slept on pillows made of stone? (Which explains the scarcity of ancient Egyptians these days.) Did you know it's illegal in Natoma, Kan., to throw knives at men wearing striped suits? (It shouldn't be, but it is.) And did you know the flippin' Packers are petitioning the NFL to never, ever - ever - make them play in Tampa again?Now there was no way Green Bay was going to come up empty in Tampa Sunday, was there? The Bucs came into the game the league's lone winless team, were riding an 11-game losing streak, have a freshman coach, a rookie Josh Freeman was making his first start at quarterback and they were wearing their horrible bright orange jerseys (l.) from back in the day (the bad days). What could go wrong, cheeseheads? Well, the Packers' sieve-like offensive line gives up six more sacks for a league-leading 37, and when he is upright Aaron Rodgers tosses two interceptions that lead to 10 Bucs points, 803-year old Ronde Barber returns a blocked punt for a touchdown and Freeman looks like Montana and throws for three TDs and, voila, the Bucs are no longer winless. The Packers are now 1-7 all time at Raymond James Stadium and with the Cowboys, Steelers and Cardinals lurking in the weeks ahead, their playoff chances, much like the ancient Egyptians, appear gone for good.<strong>COMFORTABLY NUMB</strong>Finally, some good economic news: The Kansas City Chiefs have lowered the price of their logo shot glasses to just $7.00 at the team store on their Web site. A gift that makes watching the Chiefs more tolerable - 2 ounces at a time. Chiefs garden gnomes are still $25, however. Anyway, we think it was a sound business decision to lower the shot glass price as booze consumption is up 821% on Sundays in the greater Kansas City area this year. Or so we hear. Sunday, the Chiefs coughed up 426 yards of offense to Jacksonville, held the ball for just 23:00, didn't convert a Continue Reading

Going Deep: Adventure and Intrigue from around the National Football League

DON'T FEAR THE REAPER Was rereading Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' "On Death and Dying" the other day, you know, some light reading. For those of you who weren't asked/forced to read it in college, it's a cheery little page-turner on how to deal with death, broken down into five handy stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The book is 40 years old and was written by the late Lizzie, who experienced all five stages in 2004, after countless seasons of being a frustrated Lions season-ticket holder. (Editor's Note: That last part is a blatant lie.) Anyway, we thought it was time for a sequel, something like "On Death and Dying: The Rams Years," and yesterday's debacle against the Colts served as the perfect opportunity to launch our idea. As Peyton Manning spent the afternoon carving us up for three TD passes in a 42-6 loss, our afternoon went from sunny optimism to one of bleak pessimism. 1.) Denial: We feel good, and we feel a Rams win coming. We're due! 2.) Anger: Peyton Manning? We couldn't even beat Cooper Manning! 3.) Bargaining: Never mind seeing my kids graduate. Just let me live long enough to see the Rams win one flippin' game. 4.) Depression: Pick a Sunday. Any Sunday. 5.) Acceptance: We're 0-7 and have lost 17 in a row now and have been outscored, 498-196, over that span. But it could be worse. We could be Steve Phillips. As luck would have it, the Rams' long national nightmare has a chance to end Sunday when they play the Lions in Detroit. Lizzie would have liked that game. WHO'DA THUNK? Did you know in Tennessee you can't sell bologna on Sundays? (Un-American!) That in Joliet, Ill., women can be arrested for trying on more than six dresses in one store? (Men rejoice!) That in Florida men may not be seen in public in strapless gowns? (Thank the Lord!) If you didn't know any better, you would think there was a quirky law that prohibits the Browns from scoring a touchdown on Sundays at their home stadium. In their Continue Reading

Adventure and intrigue from around the National Football League

TUFF TIMES IN BUFF Carl Jung, long-time Bills fan (not really) and one of the great minds of the 20th century (depends on who you ask) once said, "Man needs difficulties. They are necessary for health." If that's true, than there are a whole bunch of healthy Bills fans in Buffalo this morning. Once upon a time, like a month ago, the Bills appeared to be the new face of the AFC East, jumping out to a 5-1 record and looking poised to be headed for their first postseason since 1999. But after yesterday's loss to the Pats, those "difficulties" Carl was alluding to seem to have once again sidetracked the Bills' season. No surprise about losing to New England, though - it was Buffalo's 15th loss in the last 17 games against the Patriots. The Bills - with Marshawn Lynch (46 yards) still looking for his first 100-yard game of the season - also have not won in Foxborough since 2000. The Bills don't have to see the Patriots again until Week 17. In the meantime, Bills  fans, at least you have your health. HIDE THE DOG, TED It's either an indisputable fact or urban legend. But back in the early 1970s, when the Packers were going through some lean times, a disgruntled Packers fan, incensed over the Pack's play, took out his frustrations by shooting coach Dan Devine's dog. Now we're certainly not advocating harming animals, but if we were Ted Thompson, Green Bay's beleaguered general manager, we would think twice about leaving Sparky in the front yard. Thompson teed off many Packers fans when he chased icon Brett Favre out of town in order to begin the Aaron Rodgers Error. And an error it has been. After beginning the season 2-0 (one win was against Detroit, so that barely counts), the Packers have now dropped 5-of-7 to free-fall into third place in the NFC North, while Favre has the Jets tied for first at 6-3. Yesterday, Rodgers was responsible for not one, but two safeties, being sacked by Jared Allen in the end zone abd also being flagged for an illegal Continue Reading

Arena Football League players cry foul at owners, try to survive shutdown

For Aaron Garcia, the hardest part was telling his three kids about Christmas. Sure, when the New York Dragons quarterback heard that the Arena Football League had voted to suspend the 2009 season, with no promise of return, the 38-year-old worried about his mortgage, his family's health insurance, and dusting off his resume. But the worst thing was explaining the situation to his 5-, 7-, and 10-year-olds. "I get this call two weeks before the holiday," Garcia says. "I had to tell my kids it was going to be a different type of Christmas than last year." Citing the recession and the need for an improved economic model, AFL owners voted in December to shut down the league for at least one year. The AFL, which was heading into its 23rd season, did not detail the specific problems or address why a shutdown was necessary to solve them. The decision came as something of a surprise for a league that had survived much longer than many skeptics thought it would, featured a unique style of play that included a 50-yard field and high-scoring games, and set an attendance record last year. Startled players were left to experience the visceral fear that has stalked the many Americans who have lost their jobs in this wobbly economy, unsure of the status of their wages and benefits, and upset with management about a lack of transparency. AFL salaries are modest, with most players earning between $40,000 and $50,000 per season. The league minimum is $31,000, and the average salary, boosted by the contracts of a handful of franchise players who earn six figures, is $80,000. Most arena athletes hold non-football jobs during the offseason. "I have a middle-class home in Sacramento, three bedrooms for three kids," says Garcia, who for most of his career has worked a second job during the offseason. "I have mortgage payments like everyone else. Now every day I'm making calls, trying to figure out what the next move will be. Maybe I'll go up to Canada to finish my career on Continue Reading