Poor Stanley Wilson-- he was born 20 years too early.
Wilson was a tough, talented fullback for the Cincinnati Bengals during the late 1980s. He was less than 24 hours away from playing in the biggest game of his life, Super Bowl XXIII, when he got caught by one of his own coaches in the midst of a little cocaine binge. Wilson was benched by his head coach and subsequently banned from the NFL (three-strikes and you're out, this was Stanley's third strike). The Bengals needed him to win the game and coach Sam Wyche, decided that Wilson disqualified himself when he broke his word to keep clean. The Bengals went on to lose the game by the closest of margins. Coach Wyche never second-guessed his decision publicly. That was the NFL I grew up with- and it no longer exists.
Well, I'm banning the NFL until further notice. Why? I actively dislike so many of the players that watching them week in and week out has become a joyless experience. Just a glance at the top 3 headlines on ESPN.com's football section says it all: Dog-killer Michael Vick signs a 2-year, $6.8 million deal with the Philadelphia Eagles, human-killer Donte Stallworth, who committed a little vehicular manslaughter while drunk, is not allowed to play football in 2009 but can come back in 2010 if he likes, and wide receiver Brandon Marshall is set to go to trial for beating the shit out of his girlfriend because she received a text from a male friend. I expect Marshall to be given a $2 million bonus by the Broncos for not killing her. And as for Stallworth, even the court system loves the NFL because they only saw fit to give him 30 days jail time for drunkenly killing a man with his car. The jury must have been packed with Browns fans.
So, while Stanley Wilson was banned for life for a drug habit that arguably didn't hurt anyone but himself, today's players can abuse, maim and kill their way to a temporary suspension at worst. Stop and think about this for a second: why are these players, who you would no sooner befriend let alone admire in any other instance, being treated so well? As the poet Puff Daddy once wrote: it's all about the Benjamins.
The NFL has become 90% marketing and 10% other in its composition over the years. And with such a lucrative marketing position to maintain, the league is shameless in protecting its own. Banning players is bad marketing. Banning players makes people pay attention. So, the league has chosen to avoid such unpleasantness by keeping things light- suspending players is a less dire situation. Careers aren't ruined by a suspension- they're merely put on hold until the dust settles. Suspending players is a shot at redemption, and in our culture nothing makes a heart tingle more than a comeback story, right? And suspending players has a dulling effect on stories- there's no drama to a suspension, only a mild degree of tension. The only drama that comes out of suspensions nowadays is, from the fan perspective, being able to predict how many games a player will be suspended from for a given offense. Well, let's see, he was driving drunk but he only hit a tree, so... I predict 3 games! I think Vegas will take that bet if you ask.
Look, I'm not a moral compass for anyone, believe me. And I don't expect the NFL to be a moral beacon for the human race. But there has got to be a time when people look around and ask "What are we doing?" Things have gone out of control. And the NFL works very hard at making you think everything's cool. Well, I think the league may have been too successful in their efforts- last Winter, Plaxico Burress (a player I once-admired) carried a loaded gun into a public place (on purpose) and shot himself in the leg (by accident). And then another teammate, someone I also once-admired, tried to help cover up the whole thing by hiding the gun and obstructing justice. I listened to the sports radio guys and callers and a lot of people defended the teammate for "looking out for his own." Are you fucking kidding me? A majority of sports fans and commentators actually bought into that statement. If these were Congressmen we were talking about or Wall St. bankers, I doubt they would have been afforded the same amount of moral flexibility by the callers. So, why the double-standard? The NFL has made its fans dependent on its product. If fans reject the players, do they cease being fans? Ah, yes- welcome to my world.
If you still enjoy the NFL, more power to you. You're not on the "wrong side" of anything for finding pleasure in the game. I too will always love the game. But as I've gotten older, I've found myself thinking more about how I spend my time. And spending hours watching people I dislike makes me feel like an chump. The game I loved as a kid doesn't exist today. Change is inevitable and it's time I find other pursuits- it's time to put away childish things.