NFL codes of conduct in the entertainment age

The NFL finally cracked down on players' off-the-field behavior. But the bigger issue involves football's role in US culture.

The National Football League moved boldly this week to police the reckless social behavior of some of its athletes. America applauded. America might also examine one of the enablers of that behavior.

To do that, it will need a mirror.

In its evolving tastes and demands in entertainment, this is not the same American audience that watched pro football in relative good temper and even with a few sprigs of actual fun 30 and 40 years ago. It is not the same society.

Until days ago, the NFL was straying dangerously from what had been a kind of in-house discipline that seemed to be working before the game's dazzling growth into a genuine phenomenon of the national entertainment industry.

American television today is a ringleader of the changing, no-limits atmospherics in entertainment today. That has become the de facto standard for a sizable slice of America's TV audience. With its rising glamour and celebrity stars, the enormous visibility it has acquired – and its violence – pro football is now king of the ratings. The violence not only occurs on Sunday afternoons, but is consciously merchandised in network promotions for the games. TV's open-ended and exuberant orchestration of what was once simply a good and exciting game has turned it into a round-the-calendar carnival.

The huge majority of the men who play it are normal and civil people, traits that cut across all levels of pay, playing positions, and ethnic background. But growing numbers of them have been caught up in the celebrity headiness and the boardroom salaries. For some of them, alcohol, guns, and drugs have been stirred into the anything-goes atmosphere, and evidently from there to a perceived permission to act the way they please. The result has been a chain of gutter behavior and arrests that culminated three days ago in NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's announcement of a new league crackdown policy. He began by suspending Adam "Pacman" Jones of the Tennessee Titans for one year without pay, and Chris Henry of the Cincinnati Bengals, a team whose rap sheet of arrests includes nine of its players, for the first eight games next year.

I wrote about the sport in the 1960s and 1970s, which was the medieval age compared with today's big-bucks cashorama. The players then uniformly were underpaid. Their union was weak. The game was important to them not only because they needed the money but because of the camaraderie that cannot exist at the same level in today's game because of the mobility of the players. This resulted from the free-agency option that ultimately liberated the players and boosted their salaries. It became an ironic justice. Many of the owners squeezed their players ruthlessly in the earlier years. Free agency later created glamour stars, salaries soared, the game became a perfect fit for television, and the league and the new breed of owners made millions, partly by forcing the taxpayers to build their stadiums. But many of them lost control of the players. Some didn't. There's a reason the New England Patriots keep winning.

Why wasn't there more of this scandalous behavior 30 and 40 years ago? Then, a coach would gather his players in a locker room before the season. Sometimes with the owner in the room nodding assent, he would tell them, "These are the things you're not going to be allowed to do and still play football for this team." The list of unforgivable behavior was drawing-room bland (curfew violations, hangovers on game day) alongside the thuggery and criminal self-indulgence we see today.

Back then, players who ignored the advice found themselves on the waiver wire by the end of the week. "We took care of it," Bud Grant says cryptically.

Mr. Grant coached the Minnesota Vikings to four Super Bowls. "I think the NFL is now doing what the clubs' ownership should have done," he says. "When I coached, most of those things were handled internally. Sometimes things were kept quiet. I realize that the game today is bigger and there's more money it. One of the things that changed most is what you see in the stadium, the crowds. They come all painted up and sort of take over. There's an atmosphere of anything goes. The media coverage has changed. Anything that happens becomes big news. Coaches and players don't have the same relationships with individuals in the media that we had."

What the coach seemed to be saying was not that the looser fabric in American society today should be blamed for hooliganism by the players, but that the behavior is a reflection of today's society.

"I can't agree with this idea that suspensions should be imposed on players before they're convicted on a criminal charge," Grant says. "They're entitled to the same protections as anybody else." When coaches "took care of it," however, they might not have observed those niceties.

Is Grant, a Hall of Fame coach who preached the rules, embarrassed by the recent contagion of arrests and charges. "I'm embarrassed for the rest of the players who live sensible lives," he says, "family guys who are being lumped with the others."

There's no doubt of the tidal change in the times and relationships of pro football, including between the media and teams. They used to be more personal, for better or worse. In the first years when I wrote, Norm Van Brocklin, a tempestuous guy who'd been a great quarterback, was the Viking coach. We had a rapport but there were days when we couldn't stand each other. He actually challenged me to a fistfight in the lobby of the old Sheraton-Cadillac hotel in Detroit the night before a game. We went to his room. When we left the room, the TV wasn't in one piece. Both of us were unscathed. The event was never reported. Maybe it should have been.

Jim Klobuchar, a longtime columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, has written several books about pro football.

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