Commentary: The NFL's Image Problem

Why the league needs to evolve and move forward.

Posted: 07/25/2014 01:02 PM EDT
Commentary: The NFL's Image Problem

I turned on ESPN Sports Center this morning and the first story I saw was Brittney Griner leading the Phoenix Mercury to its 14th straight victory. The announcer gave a play-by-play recap of her performance as her team chases a 13-year-old record for the longest win streak in the WNBA. There was no mention of her sexual orientation.

Nor was there much concern about the sexual orientation of Jason Collins when the Brooklyn Nets won their first NBA playoff series in seven years a few months ago.

For these two teams, one player's sexual orientation was hardly a distraction from their winning ways. So why was former NFL coach Tony Dungy so worked up last week about openly gay player Michael Sam being drafted by the St. Louis Rams?

"I wouldn’t have taken him," Dungy told a reporter. "Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it." Yes, Dungy, the same man who supported Michael Vick's return to the NFL after his dog fighting conviction, says his biggest concern about Sam is that "it’s not going to be totally smooth" and unspecified "things will happen."

Given his long history of anti-gay statements, I would have respected Dungy more for his honesty if he had admitted he doesn't like Michael Sam just because he's gay. But Dungy's "things are going to be tough" excuse has got to be the worst explanation I've ever heard from a Black coach for not hiring a Black athlete. If Brooklyn Dodgers manager Branch Rickey had lived by the same philosophy as Dungy, the world might never have seen Jackie Robinson break the color line in baseball.

Yes, things are going to be tough for Sam, but that's part of the game. As the NFL's most famous coach, Vince Lombardi, once said, "It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up." That's what football is all about.

Unfortunately, as NFL training camp season gets started this month, the news from the football world seems to be less about perseverance than personalities.

Start with the NFL's two-game suspension of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for allegedly punching his then-fiancée Janay Palmer at a casino in Atlantic City. Rice's slap-on-the-wrist punishment sends a troubling signal that the league doesn't take domestic violence seriously, especially if you've seen the disturbing video of Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of the elevator, or if you know the power behind a punch from a man with such huge biceps.

A two-game penalty is an outrage as a punishment for someone NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell says has engaged in conduct "unquestionably inconsistent with league polices and the standard of behavior required of everyone who is part of the NFL."

As sports reporter Jane McManus notes, "Goodell has issued longer suspensions for pot smoking, taking Adderall, DUI, illegal tattoos, dog fighting and eating a protein bar thought to be on the NFL's approved list." I certainly hope the NFL believes domestic abuse is more important than an unauthorized tattoo, but the commissioner's decision suggests otherwise.

The controversy about Rice comes at the same time in which suspended Jacksonville Jaguars player Justin Blackmon was arrested for marijuana possession this week. And it comes just as my favorite team, the New York Giants, stepped into their own controversy by hiring former wide receiver David Tyree as director of player development, leaving critics questioning how someone with a history of anti-gay statements could create an open work environment for other athletes who might be gay.

Put all these events against the backdrop of another controversy involving 4,500 retired NFL players who are currently suing the league for downplaying the physical dangers of concussions on the field, and you see the scope of the problem. It's gotten so bad for the NFL that even the nation's football fan-in-chief, President Obama, admits if he had a son, he would not allow him to play pro football.

Football is not in danger of extinction. Millions of Americans will still tune into the season opener in September when the defending Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks host the Green Bay Packers. But even as the fans show up, the game, the coaches, the players, and the league must evolve with the times. Just as the headgear has evolved from the soft leather helmets of the 1920s to the concussion-reducing polycarbonate helmets of today, the heads of the NFL can't be stuck in the 20th century either.

Football is a uniquely American game of organized violence, and nobody does organized violence better than we do. But the game also reflects who we are as a people and how we move forward. As Coach Lombardi once said, "People who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society."

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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