Good year for the Seahawks. Bad year for the NFL.
The reversal upon appeal Thursday of Seahawks CB Richard Sherman’s positive drug test is another setback for the NFL in the conduct of its business affairs, which is separate from the deaths in the murder-suicide of Kansas City linebacker Jovan Belcher and the intoxication manslaughter charge of a teammate and friend Jerry Brown against the Cowboys Jason Brent.
The tragedies are random, coincidental and more heartbreaking. The business mess-ups are bewildering, more connected and aggravating. Sherman’s drug test reversal, and more importantly, the case’s disclosure before conclusion, following the “Bountygate” bungle with the New Orleans Saints and the replacement-referee debacle, add up to something resembling North Korea’s rocket program instead of the formidable, steel-cold efficiency of America’s most popular sports enterprise.
Make no mistake — attendance and TV ratings show the game is more popular than ever. Football fans, much like citizens with their U.S. government, will continue to believe far past the expiration date on credibility.
The NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, have taken some serious shots in 2012. It’s hard to envision them collectively as threats to the empire — that is the province of the ever-increasing litigation brought by ex-players over alleged decades-long neglect of health and safety issues — but I never imagined the NFL looking like it was being run from the rusty flatbed of a 1940 Dodge pickup truck.
In Seattle, Sherman’s successful appeal was understandably greeted with joy by Seahawks’ players coaches and fans because it keeps a premier player playing. But since the problem, according to Sherman, was a failure of specimen custody, it doesn’t necessarily resolve the issue of whether Sherman used a banned stimulant, as the NFL was reported to have claimed he and teammate Brandon Browner did.
Outcome aside, the bigger problem was that the story, pardon the pun, leaked. By collectively bargained agreement with the union, the NFL is prohibited from disclosing suspensions until after appeals are heard and upheld or denied. For good reason — all parties want to avoid the mess-up that happened in Seattle. Or at least they should. Yet someone in the know told the NFL’s broadcast partner, ESPN.com, about the tandem’s positive tests and imminent punishment before appeals were completed.
The story hung over the team for a month. Obviously, the Seahawks defense managed it well on the field, allowing 30 points in the three games of Browner’s absence. But Sherman’s reputation took a hit, as did the Seahawks’, with three players having been busted this year, one incorrectly.
Who knows what happened? Since no party in the NFL drug-testing saga is obligated to be publicly accountable, it’s open season on the truth. Sherman and all players and agents can say what they want without fear of public contradiction, and the league is required to remain mum.
The only insight we receive is by reading tweets Christmas morning, when this present was found from Sherman under the cyber tree:
“Hoping we play in a just League @nfl. Not a league that allows a tester to mix urine samples. A tester with a history of errors. Has had to have 6 other tests thrown out and he has only been testing 6 months.”
Really? If that’s true, who else has been tested by this guy? What has the league done about it? What kind of training are the testers given? Why isn’t an independent agency given custody whose procedures are open to review?
As long as the NFL continues to charge the public for admission to its games, any protocol that denies the public playing time for its players needs to be transparent. Otherwise, the conspiracy theorists among us may surmise that, say, someone in the 49ers organization may have come by secret information that could be used to disrupt an opponent.
No sports league wants public discussion to go to the heart of its integrity, does it?
Yet that is exactly what happened not only with Sherman’s faulty test, but with “Bountygate,” as well as the replacement refs. The circumstances are different, but the impacts were the same: Decisions made by team coaches/executives/owners beyond the reach of the rules influenced outcomes.
You know who that really irks? Operators of the legal and illegal gambling industry, upon which much of the NFL’s popularity depends. These guys are counting on the NFL to run a tidy ship, and when it doesn’t, a lot of money shifts hands unexpectedly for no good football reason (See: Seahawks 14, Packers 12, Sept. 24).
Not saying that Goodell wound up with a horse’s head in his bed the next morning, but the labor dispute that produced the owner-approved, replacement-refs idea, was abruptly settled when the owners realized that taking the public AND the bookies for dopes was hubris uncommon and unwise even for them.
Regarding the punishments for the bounty system among Saints players, coaches and executives that drew severe suspensions from Goodell, he was forced to bring back his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, to arbitrate the players’ appeals. Somewhat surprisingly, Tagliabue ruled that suspensions were unwarranted because players were operating under club dictates that could be seen as a form of management coercion.
For anyone who has had a father called in to fix something valuable that wasn’t broken when he left you alone with it, well, the mortification for Goodell was gravy-thick. Bad scene for the NFL.
Maybe these missteps are of small concern to the Seahawks fan flush with playoff adrenaline. But since the Seahawks were central players in the drug-testing fiasco and the resolution of the referees’ labor dispute, it seems worthwhile to raise questions of the ship’s captain as to whether he takes icebergs seriously, or merely prefers to have the band play louder.