National View: NFL tarnishes its coveted ‘Shield’

The buzz surrounding the NFL these days is not the hissing of deflating footballs, but air escaping from the league's hyper-inflated sense of entitlement.

The buzz surrounding the NFL these days is not the hissing of deflating footballs, but air escaping from the league’s hyper-inflated sense of entitlement.
With the launch of the 2015 season, it’s hard to imagine a worse public-relations preseason for the National Football League.
The recent court ruling that threw out NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s four-game suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is just the latest in a litany of legal dope-slaps given the league. In the football equivalent of false starts, offsides and illegal formations, the league has repeatedly had its disciplinary actions overruled when challenged by the players’ union.
U.S. District Judge Richard Berman didn’t even have to weigh the merits of Goodell’s assertion that Brady played a role in the alleged “Deflategate” because the league repeatedly fumbled due process and fairness from the incident’s opening snap. For those of us scratching our heads why Goodell was so doggedly determined to punish Brady, this week’s report by seems to answer that question. The whole Deflategate drama seems driven by a desire by the league to get back at the Patriots for years of flouting league rules, not just the first half of the AFC Championship Game last January.
Let’s see … the NFL allows teams to supply their own footballs for game use? Why then, should they be surprised if teams ”doctor” the balls to suit themselves? Can you imagine Major League Baseball allowing pitchers to bring their own “customized” baseballs to the mound?
Goodell’s outrage is the equivalent of  Capt. Louis Renault (Claude Rains) in “Casablanca” saying, “I’m shocked - shocked - to find that gambling is going on here!”
In this Internet age where information (and video) is instant, ubiquitous and unflatteringly stark, the NFL is still in mid-20th-century mode, operating as if it can control both the story and the ending. The league can pretend not to have seen the raw video of Ray Rice’s brutal elevator-assault on his then-fiancee - and suspend him initially for just two games, half the penalty imposed on players for smoking marijuana?
Of course, Goodell did an about-face when public outrage hit the fan over the league’s leniency in domestic-abuse cases. Somehow the same offense that merited a two-game suspension instantly became a year’s ban from the sport? Taking the NFL to court is really a can’t-lose case for the most part, thanks to the NFL’s cluelessness.
Arbitration is generally a fine way to settle disputes out of court - but not if arbitration is used, as the NFL does, as a blunt-force tool for doing what it wants anyway. “Arbitrators” do not allow evidence to be withheld, or for due process to be blindsided. Any judge would have reached the same conclusion Berman did: The NFL’s brand of arbitration is “fundamentally unfair.”
So what can we expect next from the NFL? Can it repeatedly lose in court and still be a winner in the court of public opinion? Here’s what to watch:
* Watch how the league responds to the growing tsunami of evidence that professional football is permanently disabling its players. Concussions - and the league’s culpability in their long-term effects - are now under intense scrutiny. You can bet the next collective-bargaining negotiations will seek to swing the needle sharply toward players’ health and futures, rightly so.
Will the league get out in front and lead on this issue, or will it backpedal like a cornerback in blown coverage?
* Watch how the league deals with the steady drumbeat for changing a racist-slur team name, the Washington “Redskins.” In 2015, it’s an embarrassing affront to all of civilized society.
Will the NFL find a way to compel team owner Dan Snyder to do the right thing, or keep enabling him to use his franchise to humiliate Native Americans? If the NFL continues to look the other way, it surely will find itself - you guessed it - in court, where I wouldn’t bet on the home team.
* Watch how the league responds to the media revolution that is streaming, tweeting, Facetiming and otherwise reinventing how content (i.e., NFL games) is distributed and consumed.
* Will the league (a) continue to build walls around its product, like the NFL Network, a paid-access only broadcaster of many NFL games? Or (b) will the NFL use its vast wealth, influence and its voracious built-in market to put as many eyeballs possible on live NFL action? What better way to broaden your fan base and polish that medieval-looking Shield?
Oh, memo to the commish: You can make much more money by taking option (b). You could Google it, Goodell.

Thomas C. Hall is a reporter-at-large. His journalism career has included positions with Gannett, Knight Ridder and McClatchy-Tribune.
He can be reached at . He wrote this for

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