By Mark Heisler
A funny thing happened on our way to becoming a country the NFL could be proud of. …
Happily, in these troubled times, Americans still have an ongoing engine of progress, now in the process of further revitalizing downtown Los Angeles with a new football stadium.
Issues remain to be worked out in the year or two it will take to get past the Current Unpleasantness (i.e. labor situation) ... with no team there ... and the NFL not about to manufacture one.
Even as the NFL gave the necessary nod and wink to proceed, league VP Eric Grubman noted, “We’re not in an expansion mood so that means you’d have to attract a franchise from another market.”
In other words, it’s a national carpet-bagging initiative, enabling teams seeking public money in Jacksonville, the Twin Cities and San Diego to extort their best deal before someone pulls up stakes and becomes the Los Angeles Chargers/Vikings/Jaguars.
Not surprisingly, the news occasioned rejoicing in Los Angeles (and the offices of the Chargers, Jaguars and Vikings) and no protest, whatsoever.
If our government can’t enact a health plan like those of the modern industrialized nations without charges being made about establishing “death panels,” the NFL operates on a higher plane.
Let’s put it this way: If the NFL was in danger of flying too close to the sun, like Icarus whose wax wings melted, Commissioner Roger Goodell would have the orb repositioned beforehand.
Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig just appointed an official historian. Goodell embraces a larger mission ... defining the entire American Experience at the NFL’s more-popular version of the Fourth of July, or at least higher-rated, the Super Bowl.
You had to be inhuman, or at least un-American, not to be moved by “The Journey,” the intro this year (XLV, or 45), narrated by Michael Douglas—looking wonderful after his months-long battle with cancer, so the mere sound of his voice raised a lump in your throat.
A montage followed ... immigrants against a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty ... a kid in the Dust Bowl ... suffragettes on the march ... U.S. soldiers hitting Normandy beach ... tiny JFK Jr. saluting his fallen father ... a space shuttle launch ... Rosa Parks ... Ali in the ring ... Reagan ... Obama ... Ray Charles’ dazzling smile ... a German with a jackhammer atop the Berlin Wall ... Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon ... Martin Luther King’s emotion-filled voice, booming “I have a dream” ... New York firemen raising Old Glory amid the dust and ruins of 9/11.
Then, segueing to shots of Cowboy Stadium, the Steelers’ Hines Ward and the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers, Douglas intoned:
“Tonight, here we are, united, to see their journey, two storied franchises. ...”
Of course, if you’re an archaeologist digging up the DVD in the year 3,677, you’re going:
“LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT, IT WAS JUST A FOOTBALL GAME?”
Happily, although traditional checks and balances on hubris don’t work as they once did, there are still some, which the NFL just ran afoul of, in a tiny redoubt known as the U.S. District Court of Minnesota.
Since the John Mackey case in 1976, when a University of Wisconsin law professor pointed students and union board members Ken Bowman of the Packers and Pat Richter of the Redskins to Edward Glennon, a Twin Cities lawyer, players’ suits against the NFL have been tried in Minneapolis.
With the players prevailing in almost all, The New York Times’ Richard Sandomir called it their “legal nirvana.”
For most of that time, their salvation, and the NFL’s scourge, was Judge David Doty, a former Marine, nominated by Sen. David Durenberger (R-Minn.) and appointed by President Ronald Reagan, Him-er, himself.
This season after NFL owners demanded the players take a cut in their 59 percent of revenue and play two more games a season with their usual swagger, the NFL Players Assn. turned the dynamic around as fast as it could say the word decertify.
If this prompted a new urgency on Goodell’s part in making a deal, talks failed.
Both sides then hunkered down, awaiting the outcome of an April 6 hearing with the players seeking to enjoin the NFL from locking them out in the antitrust suit filed by Tom Brady, Peyton Manning and Drew Brees.
Showing how bad things were going for the NFL, there was great rejoicing at the news this case wouldn’t go before Judge Doty, but, instead, after a few days of ducking and recusing, Judge Susan Nelson.
Nelson had been recommended for the U.S. District Court by Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and appointed by Barack Obama, whom more Minnesotans than just Rep. Michele Bachmann suspected of being the first non-citizen elected president.
(Bachmann, Jesse Ventura, Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone, Al Franken ... that’s some wild state up there.)
Even if judges’ backgrounds are a notoriously bad predictor, the NFL is still looking at making its corporatist argument in a setting where all the precedents have gone against it, before someone who looks Democrat-friendly, to say the least.
On the bright side for the NFL, what can go wrong?
Heads, it’s rich. Tails, it’s rich.
While pushing the envelope on profit and testing the law of the land, Goodell reigns supreme in his fiefdom, where his manifest concern for the players’ safety just led to moving kickoffs up five yards to the 35, which is expected to increase touchbacks by 25 percent and cut down the number of those dangerous returns.
Aside from putting a crimp in the career of Chicago’s Devin Hester, the greatest return man ever, opponents included the players, coaches and fans. They didn’t stand a chance.
In the rising tide of officiousness across sports, the NFL now has its own show, announcing the Fine and/or Suspension of the Week for hits in which defenders led with their helmet.
Meanwhile, as defensive coordinators work on new techniques, runners are still lowering their helmets to “finish off” runs, as they’ve been taught since childhood.
Of course, if kickoff returns are so dangerous, why have any at all?
And if health and safety are the new watchwords, what’s the rationale for adding two regular season games?
I mean, aside from—I hate to say it—the money?
We may not have bullet trains or energy independence but, barring a major assault on its underpinnings by Judge Che Guevara and his Merry Men and Women, we’ll always have the NFL.
AP / David J. Phillip