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After horrible week off field, NFL marches on more popular than ever

Last Thursday night London Fletcher sat in Baltimore’s M&T Bank press box. It had him puzzled. The vibe was friendly, of course: All game long, people kept stopping by to smile and shake his hand. Still, as the Ravens overwhelmed the hated Pittsburgh Steelers series by series, he kept fidgeting, turning in his seat, glancing around, as if awaiting something he didn’t know he’d miss.

The former Washington linebacker retired last year with one of the toughest resumes in NFL history: Despite enduring nearly a dozen concussions, Fletcher, 39, played 256 consecutive games. He knows like few others the sport’s speed and force, the furious toll it takes; he’s only too glad to be done with that. But now, as a newly-minted analyst for CBS Sports, he found himself in the glass-enclosed suite -- crowd noise muffled, the sideline and action unspooling hundreds of feet away -- for the first time. You could almost hear him thinking: You all try and assess a game from HERE?

“It’s so far away,” he said. “You can’t feel the energy. Think there’s a booth with a window open nearby?”

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He wasn’t alone in feeling unsettled. Sports hummed along in its usual back-to-school traffic jam last week, pennant races heating, college and pro football games shuttling across TV like boxcars, leaves turning up north. But you couldn’t escape the sense that there had been a wholesale shift in perspective, as if everybody, nationwide, had been forced to move from their old seat and reconcile themselves to a wholly different view. Minnesota great Adrian Peterson, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, Ray Rice, the Ravens, 49ers and Vikings? None of them look remotely the same from here.

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Make it new. Such has been the imperative of modern times, the tactic assumed for nearly a century by genius and conman alike. Artists who need you to buy their work, charities who need you to help them now, horror directors who need to scare you more: They know you’ve seen it all. They know they have to shock the system, nervous or social, and find new ways to describe abstractions like war, poverty, spousal abuse. Because eyes glaze ever faster. The distracted mind needs to move on.

Not this time. Early last Monday, TMZ Sports released the Feb. 15, 2014 video of Ravens running back Ray Rice knocking out his soon-to-be wife, Janay Palmer, in an elevator of an Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino. In one sense, the tape came as no shock. The original Atlantic City court complaint, dated Feb. 15 and a matter of public record, alleged that Rice committed “assault by attempting to cause bodily injury to J. Palmer, specifically by striking (her) with (his) hand, rendering her unconscious”. That same month, TMZ Sports released another brief -- and soon-viral -- video that showed Rice pulling her limp body out of the Revel Casino elevator.

Yet last week’s Rice video still made the story -- and the issue of domestic violence in America -- so new, so viscerally fresh, that its effects figure to ripple through the NFL and sports for years, and could well serve as a crystalizing moment in the perception of an epidemic long seen as a matter too personal, too fuzzy, for outsiders to sort out. The National Domestic Violence Hotline reported an 84 percent spike in calls in the ensuing days. Goodell’s subsequent decision to rescind Rice’s two-game suspension and ban him “indefinitely -- along with recent abuse incidents involving San Francisco 49ers tackle Ray McDonald, who was allowed to play Sunday, and Carolina Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, who wasn't -- prompted an epidemic of criticism about the NFL’s wildly uneven record on the issue.

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“The NFL has lost its way,” said Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women last Wednesday, a lead voice in a chorus calling for Goodell’s resignation. “It doesn’t have a Ray Rice problem; it has a violence against women problem. The NFL sets the example for college, high school, middle school and even elementary school football programs. And the example it is setting right now is simply unacceptable.”

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As if to test the video’s power -- and the story’s legs -- immediately, the national sports scene ginned up a week of bad news seemingly without precedent or peer. That same Monday, a 27-year-old woman filed a $1 million lawsuit in Dallas County against Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, accusing him of sexual assault in 2009, and Yahoo Sports reported that Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry had made racially offensive remarks on a June conference call.

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Jones is the most visible owner in sports, and just five months ago recorded racial slurs by then-Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling sparked outrage, a near-overnight sale of the team, and months of legal action. Yet, comparatively, neither new narrative gained nearly the traction of the elevator footage. Neither prompted a White House statement, released after hours last Monday, that President  Obama considered Rice’s act, “contemptible and unacceptable .... Stopping domestic violence is something that's bigger than football -- and all of us have a responsibility to put a stop to it.”

And the onslaught of awful kept coming. By late Friday, audio of Ferry’s comments had been made public and he’d been forced to take a leave of absence. Paralympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius had been convicted in South Africa of culpable homicide in the shooting death of his girlfriend. Slugger Chris Davis -- of the first-place Baltimore Orioles -- had been suspended 25 games by Major League Baseball after testing positive for a banned amphetamine. And Peterson, the 2012 MVP and a man on track, maybe, to becoming the greatest NFL running back ever, had been indicted in Houston on a felony charge of injury to a child; his lawyer admitted that Peterson wounded his four-year old son last May while disciplining him with a wooden switch. A warrant was issued for Peterson’s arrest. The Vikings deactivated him for Sunday’s home opener -- and reinstated him Monday afternoon.

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Each was inarguably a huge story. Each caused a stir in their local markets, of course, and involved issues and personalities that would have -- in any other week -- made them touchstones for days, maybe weeks, of national conversation. The Peterson case even featured police photographs of his alleged child abuse, and an audiotape with Ferry saying that then-free agent forward Luol Deng had “some African in him” made the digital rounds.

Yet despite the presence of that seemingly “gotcha” material, neither could match nearly the cultural heft of the Ray Rice video. By the time of Thursday night’s eerily-timed, Ravens-Steelers game in Baltimore, it had been public for four days; already, it was the worst week in NFL history. And despite the fact that the core crime -- Rice striking Palmer into unconsciousness – had been understood for months, the reason for the frenzied spin of controversy seemed clear.

“Other NFL players, other NBA players, have been through this type situation,” said Rickey Benson, a 30-year old Baltimore native standing in a parking lot, garbed in a black Ray Rice jersey, outside M&T Bank Stadium Thursday evening. “But it’s the visual. When people see it, they get more involved. They feel it more. We’d seen the (first) video of him before, picking his girlfriend up. What he did was totally wrong. But the only reason it’s as big as it is? Because now we’d seen it.”


When he saw the video, Fletcher was appalled. That scene of Rice driving a left hook into Palmer’s face, watching her head strike a railing as she fell, didn’t jibe a bit with the modest kid he’d met a few times, firstly. Worse, when Fletcher was a toddler, his father struck his mother and she shot him with his own gun; a bullet lodged inches from London Sr.’s heart, and the couple split. Fletcher fought plenty when young. Learning to leave such aggression on the field is something he worked on hard.

“We play a tough, physical, violent game,” he says. “In life, sometimes the toughest thing to do is walk away. That’s how you show your true manhood.”

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Early last week, Fletcher tweeted out some sharp criticism of the commissioner’s handling of the affair, saying that the owners needed to hold Goodell “accountable” for his handling of the case. On Wednesday, he typed in the words, “If Roger Goodell won’t resign put him on leave of absence pending outside investigation. NFL fans, players, and sponsors deserve that.” Sunday, he said he stood by those words still.

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His new employer couldn’t afford to be so emphatic. Thursday night’s game was CBS Sports’ first audition in what is, essentially, a $275 million, eight-game tryout for a long-term deal to broadcast the NFL’s Thursday night games, and the network’s bosses made clear in the run-up that they intended to impress. CBS Sports head Sean McManus called his new Thursday night slate, “the most important and biggest corporate initiative we’ve had…in decades”, and said that the network wanted to “prove to the NFL that they made the right choice.”

The network did overhaul its pre-game programming in light of the Rice video -- adding a news-side interview with Goodell in which he termed Rice’s initial version of events, “ambiguous”, and disposing of a lead-in featuring pop-singer, and noted abuse victim, Rihanna. But McManus also told’s Richard Deitsch beforehand that on-air staff would not opine on whether Goodell should resign, and by Thursday Fletcher’s thoughts on the issue had been made off-limits. “CBS told me they didn’t want me to get into all that,” he said.

You almost couldn’t blame them. Why blast so important a client -- and a commissioner who may well survive -- when an entire network’s future hangs in the balance? That’s no exaggeration: Nearly 21 million viewers tuned in Thursday night, the highest ratings for CBS in that slot in seven years. “There’s nothing like the NFL,” CBS president Les Moonves told The New York Times last February upon announcing this year’s one-season deal. “You want as much as you can get.”

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That football is the perfect TV show, a game better watched, in fact, at home than in a stadium, is a near-universal sentiment these days, and HD clarity and a handy fridge is only half the reason. The distancing that Fletcher felt last Thursday is also part of its appeal. A football game seen on TV, all those standard mid-range camera shots muffled by glass, softens the action just enough so that you can dip a chip, swallow a drink, and not feel by joint-destroying tackles, skull-shaking collisions, that seen up close would leave you queasy. You can watch for four hours, and walk away believing that this is wholesome family viewing. You can convince yourself that such damage -- Didja see that hit! -- is some kind of fun.

For a fan such a remove is easy to maintain, especially if one’s exposure to the game is limited to a few hours on Sundays. The problem is, once a form of recreation or distraction, our games -- almost any game -- has become central to our daily discourse. As 21st Century Fox president Chase Carey said last August, un-Tivo-able sports isn’t just, “the most important content on TV -- period. In an increasingly fragmented world, sports is the strand that binds us together.”

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Advertisers, rappers, actors, and politicians, especially, evermore scramble to associate themselves with athletes and teams; it’s no coincidence that sports has become Obama’s reflex signifier of regular-guyness. Between his golf, pickup basketball, yearly NCAA picks and bro banter with the stream of championship teams that visit the White House yearly, you half expect the First Baller to show up in ESPN’s next house ad.

Problem is -- as CBS and insatiable fans and advertisers and owners are still learning -- if you want to provide whole channels devoted to sports and talk about it 24 hours a day and expand programming in the hope that NFL games will be available most every day of the week, the games can only fill part of the conversation. Players bring family, wives, arguments. Players bring crime, racism, drugs, weakness, as well as on-field heroics; players bring second thoughts about whom we make heroes.

Yes, that was a grinning Ray Rice standing front and center behind the president when the Ravens visited the White House in 2013. Yes, that was the White House last week, trying to put that image far behind. “The President is the father of two daughters,” began last week’s statement. “And like any American, he believes that…hitting a woman is not something a real man does, and that's true whether or not an act of violence happens in the public eye, or, far too often, behind closed doors.”

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The Ray Rice video changed the game. Like the recent displays of ex-players’ brain scans that show repeated head injury, CTE, gnawing away at their sanity (“I try to do things that keep my mind sharp -- and pray,” Fletcher says of his future. “Pray that I don’t have any situations down the road.”), it collapses any comforting distance from football to zero. It demonstrates, like thousands of highlights never can, the kinetic might deployed by a running back seeking yardage, one weighing 212 pounds and able to lift 400.

Ever wonder how that must feel? There, before a different kind of camera, was an elite NFL player pitted not against other behemoths on a distant field, but against an untrained civilian, a woman standing in an oh-so-typical elevator. The doors closed. And in a blur, another violence – the kind that wins on 4th-and-1 -- was made new again, too.


They were catnip for reporters, the fans -- especially the women -- who showed up last Thursday in Baltimore for the game wearing Ray Rice jerseys. You saw them every few hundred yards in the milling crowd, stopped by a mic and a camera; stopped by someone with a notepad; stopped, best of all for photographers, beneath the forever-screaming statue of that other morally ambiguous figure in Ravens history, Ray Lewis. “It’s not for me to judge him,” said one woman of Rice. “I still love him,” said one man.

Of course, they got theirs, good and bad. “Walking down the streets, people were throwing middle fingers up at me,” said Rickey Benson. “And then I’ve gotten thumbs-ups.” But the oddest reception may have been prompted by 23-year old Racquel Bailey, who found herself confronted at one point by a group of fans threatening, because she wore the abuser’s No. 27, to punch her in the face.

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“Ray Rice, always!” Bailey responded. Sure, she’d seen the video. She wonders what was said and done by both parties before his punch flew.

“I’m still going to like him, no matter what,” Bailey said. “There’s two sides to every story; and this is his career. They should stay out of his personal life.”

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It was easy to dismiss her -- all of them -- as crackpots, loyalists, attention-seekers. But then they dissolved into the massive flow of Ravens jerseys trundling into the stadium, another sellout NFL crowd of 71,000 unaffected by weather, traffic, or the steady drip of negativity about player, team, league, sport. Each fan was handed a little American flag on the way in. It was Sept. 11, after all, the 13th anniversary of the terrorist attacks, with the nation embarking on one more attempt to make sure it won’t happen again.

That was the president’s aim, anyway. Last January, Obama had dismissed the terror group ISIS and other Al-Qaeda affiliates with a pithy sports metaphor. “If a Jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms,” he told The New Yorker, “that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” But then the pornographic beheadings of two American reporters, taped and distributed for all to see, made “terrorism” new again; like the Rice video, the existence of such shocking footage reconfigured public opinion. ISIS had made varsity. Suddenly, some 61 percent of newly-polled Americans favored a military response.

Wednesday night, Obama announced on live TV plans for a new war: The gathering of a coalition against ISIS (also known as ISIL), the deployment of 475 American soldiers to the warzone. It was the one story, all week, that had the power to silence conversation about Rice, the new inquiry headed by independent investigator Robert Mueller, the commissioner’s future. Footage of camouflaged troops, marching, unrolled on TVs bolted to fan campers in the M&T Bank parking lot the next afternoon, amid tailgate smoke and song.

The mood was hardly festive. Before Thursday’s anthem some first responders unfurled a giant old-fashioned star-spangled banner on the field, and U-S-A were spelled out by people lined up in the grass; you couldn’t help recalling how it felt in 2001. But just things were getting too solemn, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs capped the player intros by gyrating on-field with his head encased in an absurd silver gladiator helmet. Next thing you know, an NFL house ad flashed across CBS asking, “Why do we love football?”

Then play began, and just 49 seconds in came the answer: Ravens linebacker Courtney Upshaw spotted Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberg squirming outside the pocket, took five steps to get to ramming speed, and planted his helmet like a spear in the QB’s chest. Both of Big Ben’s feet left the ground, and this great collective grunt -- the kind of primal Whoom! blurted at a firework finale, a knockout punch – erupted from every corner of the stands.

Right then: 9/11 and ISIS, Rice and that video, every bad moment of a very bad week was forgotten. And in the hot seconds after you could be forgiven for thinking, despite all contrary evidence, that there may be nothing in this world or the range of human depravity that has a chance of killing this game. Not ever.