As Professional football teams begin reporting to camp, to officially kick off the 2021-2022 season, I am reminded of a famous Vince Lombardi chastising tirade, from one particular game, in 1967. The legendary Green Bay Packers Coach yelled to his team during a not particularly good afternoon of traditional Packer football, “What the hell is going on out there?” This was a message to his team that, not only was the coach dissatisfied with their play, he was angry at the level of performance, seeing it as below their capability and talent.
Below their capability and talent! Quite appropriate words for the best team in football, at that time. But an interesting assessment, if we were to think about todays’ teams, players, and the league as a whole. I think we are seeing an increasing amount of ’below their capability and talent,’ in today’s game. Lombardi’s words were a humorous anecdote, at the time, and became quite renown amongst fans, but I’m here to say, that if players don’t soon get a dose of humble pie, or teams don’t begin realizing this is a team game, and finally if the NFL doesn’t get its’ act together, the fans that have flocked to this game over the years, will begin crying foul and uttering something similar to Lombardi’s words; ‘What the Hell is going on with this game?’
First off, the players. Television revenues, both for local teams and for the league as a whole, have gotten so out of hand, that not only star players are earning astronomical salaries, but even first year non-stars are paid a salary ($660,000/year) that is 19 times higher than the average wage earner in the US. The NFL average, not minimum, is just under $1 million per player, a whopping 28 times higher than the average worker. I admit that these players careers are short lived, as the average career length is only 4 years. But they all know this, when they first sign an NFL contract, and yet they don’t save or prepare for the future, or have a career lined up to fall back on. Yet many of them act like fools, spend money like it’s going out of style, and then when it’s gone, file for bankruptcy. According to Sports Illustrated, 78% of NFL players, who are retired for only two years, file for bankruptcy. What the hell are you guys thinking?
The teams aren’t much better. Many will do anything to win and will literally sell their soles for a chance to be considered the best. Reminds me of the musical turned movie “Damn Yankees,” where the lead character sells his soul to help his terrible team beat those Yankees. So, these teams invest in players with ego, drug, health, and serious ethics and morals, issues. They rehire disgraced players, suspected criminals, many with serious emotional problems, just for that fleeting glimpse of potential greatness. All the while releasing hard working, clean, respectable, players whom they feel can’t make an immediate impact. To top it all off, they throw huge sums of money at these guys, including some true stars, only to see happen, what they should have known all along, that these players are only as good as the team mates that are around, and support, them. What the hell are these teams doing out there?
Onto the big bully and root cause of all this craziness, the NFL. The National Football League (NFL) is the most profitable professional sports league in the United States, and quite frankly can afford to spend any money, to do any thing, they want. But do they spend it on their players, their safety, their mental health, their continuing education, or potential career placement training after their playing days are through – NO! The NFL’s total revenue has constantly increased over the past 15 years, rising from about four billion U.S. dollars in 2001 to over 15 billion U.S. dollars in 2019. The NFL takes in nearly 50% more than its closest competing professional league and nearly double the revenue of the third-place professional league.
They don’t spend this money on the integrity, or the advancement, of the game. The NFL has had arguably the worst professional officiating since the late 1970’s and early 80’s. Fans would argue this was because the officials were part time and not being trained or educated during the season on the aspects of the rules, which certainly are similar …but…not the same as they are for Football at any other level. So, they made some officials full-time, but they didn’t really put them through any rigorous training or coaching, they just evaluated performance, and kept the best, they say, or what appears to most of us is, they kept the least likely referees to create a problem for the league. However, who does these evaluations? You would think professionals that know something about analyzing a set of rules, and assessing how these officials insured that set of rules were followed. People like professional referees from other leagues or sports, professional judges from other activities, or even possibly auditors, who do these types of assessments all the time? You would think so but NO, they hire coaches to be the evaluators, which leads to the teams these coaches work for getting obvious “considerations” during the games they coach. Trust me, the knowing fan has seen this all too often.
So, they spend the money on safety? Well poor officiating – I’m being too kind – TERRIBLE officiating contributes to higher risks and thus poor player safety. Players learn in training camp, and game by game, how the rules are supposed to be interpreted. For example, they learn they cannot hold another player – EVER – unless they are tackling that player. But in some games, they hold and it’s allowed, but in other cases it is not. This builds anger and frustration, which of course you cannot take out on the officials. So, the recipients are their opponents which leads to vicious and sometimes illegal hits, most of which don’t get called. Injuries, animosity, intent to do harm, throwing helmets, obscenities, and fighting wills, result. But, don’t say anything about these inequities because the league will fine you – in fact they may fine you for what they deem an illegal act, even when such an act is not flagged, as illegal, by the referees. What the hell is going on with these horrible calls – or no calls, out there?
So, integrity of the game and safety isn’t what they spend the money on, so what about technology? They say their investments in technology are making the game safer, and I say how? I contend this is another ethical and safety issue, because there is a true lack of use of technology and other tools. We are just now seeing better helmets, yet the officials calls on targeting the head, still occur far too seldom. What about the use of cameras? With the money the NFL makes, there should be cameras on every goal line, both sides of the field, and on all the boundary lines, again both sides of the field. Yet, they don’t do this -why? Because they like the water-cooler debate as to whether or not a player scored or was out of bounds. We have the technology to make this clear and accurate every time, but they choose not to use it. Let me also point out, that using these cameras wouldn’t cost the NFL one bit, since these costs align to the TV networks. When these calls are wrong, they often lead to additional plays which in turn adds additional injury risk to the players. The same could be said for the first down markers – the technology exists to eliminate this archaic activity – although as a purest, this alone would not anger me if it stayed in the game. What the hell is going on with the lack of technology out there?
Finally, the NFL says it is all about family’s…yeh right. The NFL says it wants to promote family and encourage youngsters to get engaged in the game. Yet they play some of the most profane songs, constantly at the games, and they promote and excuse all sorts of questionable behavior. I don’t think one has to be a prude to say that drinking needs to be responsible and not promoted to excess, and this goes for gambling as well, but they promote both as if they can’t get enough. I’m no prude on gambling either, as I have been known to go to the horse races, and place a bet or two or three. And on occasion I’ll play a slot machine or buy a lottery ticket. But I can’t impact what happens in, or the outcome of, a professional football game, when I gamble. Now that gambling can be legally done from anywhere, I have to wonder how many players, coaches, and yes referees are betting on games? Do you really believe that not one player, coach, or referee gambles – not one? So, where is the integrity of the game when gambling is involved. What the hell is going on out there?
My wife and I were season’s ticket holders for many years and we both love football. Quite frankly, it was the hypocrisy of the NFL that chased us away. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great people in the game, players, coaches and referees. Far more great and truly good people than the questionable characters. And the game itself has stayed mostly the same as its roots – MOSTLY! We still watch the games and we are still fans and usually plan our Sunday afternoons around the games. But it continues to be increasingly more difficult to watch the debacle that has become the NFL. Yes, the league is huge and powerful, and quite arrogant, but if they don’t return to the purity, fairness, and equality of the game (yes, they can still pay prima donnas huge salary’s), many a fan is going to start to question their time and loyalty commitment to these players, teams, and the league itself.
When that day comes, and on the path being taken right now, and in the not-too-distant future, the truly good players are going to step away, like Barry Sanders, Andrew Luck, Calvin Johnson, Jim Brown, and realize that the fun of the game is no longer, and it’s time to move on, have a career, and raise a family. Those who have been smart, will start doing this more so than those who just love playing the game. And now that they can pay college players as well, I do think the end is closing in rapidly.
As I said, we love the game, and are still mostly exited for this upcoming season. But if these things don’t start to change course, it won’t be long before WE ARE ALL SAYING: “what the hell is going on out there???