Guest column: Tone-deaf NFL perfectly in step with league's history

Clark Judge

(Each weekend this offseason a guest columnist weighs in with thoughts on the NFL -- past, present or future. Today we feature Hall-of-Fame voter Ira Miller, a member of the Hall's board of selectors the past 28 years and former 49ers' beat writer and columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle).

The NFL is the richest and most successful sports organization in the history of mankind. It is also the most disgusting and insensitive.

While millions of people are being thrown out of work and thousands around the world are dying of a horrific and seemingly unstoppable virus, the NFL blithely goes about its business of signing players to multi-million dollar contracts every day.

The only significant concessions the league has made to this disaster are to cancel its annual spring owners’ meeting in Florida and to close the draft to the public. Wow. Whoopee!

Anyone wanna bet that the telecast of the draft still includes commercials to buy t-shirts and hats?

Unfortunately, this is what we have come to expect from the NFL, which historically has put dollar signs as its first and foremost priority, fueled by a marvelous public-relations operation.

No one can wave the flag like the NFL, which frequently opens games with military flyovers, creates stars-and-stripes flags that cover most of a 100-yard field, and loves to highlight its concern about the health and welfare of its players and its generosity to the public.

And then it goes and shoves an extra game onto the schedule in negotiations with the players’ union because, you know, the public demands it, and players are not going to get any more seriously hurt by playing an extra game, after all.

It’s sad that this is so in keeping with the league’s history.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s a great game, a national obsession and popular beyond belief. But it is filthy with dollar signs. Just, for example, ask the fans of Oakland and San Diego, the latest groups left behind by a cash grab even in the absence of unsold seats for years.

And, of course, the current free-agent bonanza simply follows a long, rich history of a tone-deaf operation.

Pete Rozelle, the NFL’s late and great commissioner, was only in his early years of running the league when he made the decision to play games on the weekend while the assassinated President Kennedy was lying in state.

Rozelle later called that the biggest regret and mistake of his career, but unfortunately it set the template for how the NFL always has operated.

Fast-forward t0 2001 and the World Trade Center bombings in New York. Within a brief time, the country came to a halt. The bombings were on a Tuesday. On Wednesday, there was talk of moving a game from Giants Stadium to Green Bay. Not until Thursday did the NFL scrub the weekend’s schedule.

The NFL couldn’t let a little thing like that disrupt its souvenir sales, however. At the Super Bowl following the 2001 season, I made a point of checking one of the league’s sanctioned pop-up shops. While the official Super Bowl pin was a miniature Lombardi Trophy wrapped in the American flag, the stand I surveyed sold products made in more than 30 different countries.

Want to guess how many of those products were made in the U.S.? If you guessed none, you win the prize.

And anybody who has been paying attention is well aware of the league’s concussion scandal, of a legacy of deny, deny, deny under former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Only after two decades, punctuated by repeated autopsies of former players showing brain damage from concussions, and by former players like Junior Seau and Dave Duerson and Jovan Belcher committing suicide, did the NFL agree to a near-billion dollar settlement for concussion damage.

So now, with the country in lockdown, the NFL is pretty much going about business as usual. It’s less than six months to the scheduled start of the 2020 season, and it’s reasonable to wonder if there will be a 2020 season, if fans still will pack stadiums — of if they will be allowed to — or what the future holds for any of us.

Oh, and don’t give me any of that B.S. about the league has to get ready for the season, assuming there is one. In 2011, the NFL managed to shut down until late July because of a labor dispute, but that didn’t stop it from opening the season on schedule.

Now, NFL headlines still scream about the latest big-dollar signing. Just on one day this week, the New York Times had stories about cab drivers who can’t get a single fare in a day, about American Airlines parking hundreds of planes because there are no passengers — and about where quarterback Cam Newton would play next year.

You tell me what matters more. It’s absolutely disgusting.

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